Chi­nese champ would bring mass sup­port, says Li

New Straits Times - - Sport -

The crown­ing of a Chi­nese mixed mar­tial arts cham­pion could usher in mass sup­port for cage-fight­ing in the world’s most pop­u­lous na­tion, said China’s lead­ing MMA prospect Li Jingliang.

Li, who is one of three Chi­nese fight­ers signed to the world’s largest MMA or­gan­i­sa­tion, the Ul­ti­mate Fight­ing Cham­pi­onship, said his suc­cess and chang­ing per­cep­tions of the sport in China were al­ready forg­ing new fans.

The US-based UFC vowed ear­lier this year that its sights were firmly fixed on the lu­cra­tive Chi­nese mar­ket as it works to­wards hold­ing its first event in the coun­try.

“My win­ning (against Amer­ica’s Bobby Nash in Jan­uary) and a chang­ing at­ti­tude has helped raised the pro­file of the sport for peo­ple in China who didn’t know MMA be­fore,” Li, who’s rid­ing a two-fight win streak, told re­porters dur­ing a con­fer­ence call from Bei­jing.

“If China has an MMA cham­pion... the whole coun­try will get be­hind the sport.”

He added that a UFC event in China would also help boost MMA’s pop­u­lar­ity in what is a vast po­ten­tial mar­ket.

“It’ll be a his­toric event... if such an event can come to China, and if I do com­pete in it, the ti­tle will be mine,” Li said.

The wel­ter­weight is set re­turn to the cage at a UFC fight night in Sin­ga­pore next month, as the or­gan­i­sa­tion looks to el­bow its way back into Asia af­ter a 19-month hia­tus.

The UFC has pre­vi­ously hosted two shows in the Chi­nese ter­ri­tory of Ma­cau, and pro­duced a sea­son of its sig­na­ture reality TV se­ries “The Ul­ti­mate Fighter” that aired in the main­land in 2014, fea­tur­ing Chi­nese con­tenders bat­tling for a UFC con­tract.

But the ef­forts have yet to pro­pel the sport into the Chi­nese main­stream.

Dur­ing a press con­fer­ence in Sin­ga­pore in Fe­bru­ary, the UFC’s top brass said the suc­cess of lo­cal ath­letes would be piv­otal to in­creas­ing the sport’s pop­u­lar­ity across Asia.

“We’re aware of the need for an Asian cham­pion as we’ve never had one,” said Joe Carr, UFC Head of In­ter­na­tional and Con­tent. “That’s re­ally the last piece of the puz­zle for us.”

Li’s com­ments come weeks af­ter a video of MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong de­mol­ish­ing tai chi mas­ter Wei Lei in sec­onds went vi­ral on­line.

The beat­down sparked a heated de­bate over the rel­e­vance of tra­di­tional mar­tial arts, with one Chi­nese ty­coon of­fer­ing 10 mil­lion yuan (RM6.5 mil­lion) to any­one will­ing to avenge the loss.

Asked about the video, Li, who orig­i­nally trained in wrestling and Sanda, a Chi­nese form of kick­box­ing, ar­gued that tra­di­tional Chi­nese mar­tial arts were still valu­able.

“Chi­nese mar­tial arts do have a place in MMA and I’m sure that some­day we will see el­e­ments of wushu in­cor­po­rated into MMA fights,” he said.

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