MMA: Sell-out Shanghai card thrills Chinese fans and underlines UFC's global appeal

MMA fighter Wang Guan of China fights with a trainer during an open workout session prior to UFC Fight Night in Shanghai.
MMA fighter Wang Guan of China fights with a trainer during an open workout session prior to UFC Fight Night in Shanghai. PHOTO: AFP

SHANGHAI (REUTERS) - Fighters and fans in Asia are relishing the prospect of the Ultimate Fighting Championship's (UFC) first visit to mainland China, with a 12-fight card showcasing a lot of local talent set for a sell-out in Shanghai on Saturday (Nov 25).

The UFC continues its global expansion with a card featuring an unprecedented eight Chinese fighters, as well as the debut of Indian featherweight Bharat Kandare, and for Chinese fans, it's a chance to show the world what they have to offer.

"I want to see whether China can replicate the atmosphere we see over in the US," 38-year-old business manager and mixed martial arts (MMA) fan Kim Li told Reuters. "It's really full-on over in the US, and I want to see if they can replicate that in China too."

Li is one of thousands of fans with a ticket for the event, which takes place at the Mercedes-Benz Arena. "For around 10 years, I've been watching it (the UFC) on TV and I've never had a chance to go to the US where most of the fights take place," he explained.

"It's really exciting for them to come over to give us a chance to take a look for the first time."

Based in Las Vegas, Nevada, the UFC has transformed itself from an outlier running a brutal, bloody sport to a global brand on the back of star fighters such as Irish lightweight champion Conor McGregor and former women's bantamweight title-holder Ronda Rousey.

The promotion has held a number of events outside its traditional strongholds of North America and Brazil this year, visiting cities from Swedish capital Stockholm to Saitama in Japan and giving local prospects prominence on the card where possible.

The 16-hour time difference between Shanghai and Las Vegas means that the card will start at 4am US time (8pm, Singapore time), a concession to the Asian TV audience that the UFC is looking to attract.

The main event will see British former middleweight champion Michael Bisping step back into the Octagon just three weeks after losing his belt to Canada's Georges St-Pierre.

Bisping, whose brawling style has made him a global favourite, will face American Kevin Gastelum in a five-round, non-title fight.

Asked what he found most appealing about the sport, Kim echoed the answer of fight fans all over the world.

"It' s gladiatorial, (like) back in the Roman days when they had big fights in coliseums. You get that atmosphere in the US, it' s very primal," he said.