MMA: Combat sport making inroads into China but still searching for a Conor McGregor equivalent

Chinese mixed martial artist Miao Jie (right) in a training session in Shanghai on Nov 7, 2017.
Chinese mixed martial artist Miao Jie (right) in a training session in Shanghai on Nov 7, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

SHANGHAI (AFP) - Her toothy smile and "Supermum" nickname may not seem very intimidating, but that changes when Chinese mixed martial artist Miao Jie steps into the cage.

The 30-year-old Shanghai native and single mother is now 2-0 in Asia's One Championship professional mixed martial arts ( MMA) promotion, setting back-to-back women's records by ferociously blitzing both her opponents to win in just 49 and 45 seconds respectively.

A title bout remains a distant dream but Miao - who fights to support her three-year-old son that she calls "Peanut" - is among a growing number of Chinese fighters, fuelling predictions of an MMA explosion in the birthplace of martial arts.

A former judoka in China's state sports system, Miao switched to MMA, the formidable multi-discipline amalgam of grappling and striking typified by Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) stars such as Ireland's Conor McGregor.

But outside the ring, she's a dedicated parent to son Li Muyuan, arranging her five daily hours of gruelling training around his sleep and meal schedules.

"It's like how some people listen to motivational music. My motivation is my son. Without my son, I feel like I can't do anything," she said.

Accurate estimates of Chinese MMA adherents remain elusive, but gyms and provincial-level competitions are proliferating, and with a pool of state-nurtured athletes like Miao, China is considered the sport's next frontier.

The sport will take a major step into the country on Saturday (Nov 25) when One's rival UFC - the world's richest and biggest MMA promotion - holds its first "Fight Night" event in mainland China.

It will include fights featuring foreign and Chinese combatants such as Li "The Leech" Jingliang, a bruiser with a 13-4 record.

The sport got a free public relations boost in China this year when a Chinese MMA fighter challenged a traditional martial artist, taking him apart in seconds.

A viral video of the whitewashing sparked national soul-searching over the efficacy of classic martial arts in a real fight, but also underscored the belief that a mix of both old and new styles could fuel a massive Chinese market.

"You're going to start seeing some of that 'China, the birthplace of martial arts' manifested in the Octagon soon because it's rising here," said UFC Asia-Pacific vice-president Kevin Chang.

"A lot of that is still untapped. We still have a long way to grow."

Singapore-based One already has dozens of Chinese MMA fighters under contract, recruited from gyms across the country, and plans four China events next year.

It could stage up to 25 cards a year in China soon, said One chief executive Victor Cui, who relocated to Shanghai a year ago.

"Here, whether you are five years old, whether you are a 105-year-old grandmother - you know martial arts, you know Bruce Lee, you know Jackie chan, you know Jet Li. So our ability to reach and connect with a fanbase is a lot easier," Cui said. "So definitely, our focus is China right now."

Challenges remain, including safety concerns which were highlighted when 21-year-old Chinese One prospect Yang Jianbing died in 2015 from heart failure blamed on the rigours of dropping weight for a fight.

And doping cast a shadow over Saturday's UFC card when MMA legend Anderson Silva was scrubbed from the main event over a positive drug test.

Chang said that underlined the UFC's "strong" anti-doping stance. Other concerns include whether MMA's violence and frequent trash-talk will repel Chinese viewers accustomed to humble stars.

Chang says a Chinese champion would be a game changer.

"If over the next 10 years we get a Chinese fighter with the charisma and skill of McGregor, that changes everything overnight. And that could be in three years, it could be much sooner," he said.

"Supermum" hopes it will be her.

"Hyperactive" and uninterested in school, Miao was steered into the state judo system, making Shanghai's provincial-level team.

Miao switched in 2010 to Brazilian jiu-jitsu, MMA's dominant style, before jumping this year into MMA. It did not go well at first.

A "blow-out" loss in an April provincial-level competition, her first bout, left her with a fractured vertebrae. She was bedridden for four months, which only fuelled her motivation to fight for "Peanut".

"Everything became clear to me then. I wanted to take on my greatest challenge and fight in MMA," said Miao, who debuted for One in Shanghai in September and fought again last month in Yangon.

Spurred on by "Jia You!" ("Go for it!") voice recordings from "Peanut", she pounced on her Australian opponent in Yangon, forcing her to tap out with a painful armhold.

Miao dreams of showing Chinese fighters they can succeed.

"My next goal is a championship belt. I was really encouraged by my two contests and feel that I am improving each time," she said.