With the help of global acceptance and fighters from every corner of the Earth, mixed martial arts has exploded over the last decade. Amazingly, none of it's been done with any help from the nation with the world's largest population. A big step in changing that happens Thursday night as a Chinese-born fighter will compete for the first time in North America. Zhang Tiequan is the trailblazer at WEC 51 in Colorado against Pablo Garza.
China, a nation of 1.3 billion, with deep grappling and martial arts traditions, was anti-fighting for years. Things have changed. The sport is being embraced. The UFC has opened some doors on the web and television. Now it wants to mine the massive population for its next wave of fighters.
Zuffa, the parent company of both the UFC and WEC, sent matchmaker Sean Shelby to China on a three-week fact-finding mission to see if there were fighters ready for the jump to the biggest promotions in the world.
"The thing that amazed me was the spirit of the Chinese people and the Chinese athlete," Shelby [told Associated Press]. "There's absolutely no quit in them, and that's something you just can't teach an athlete. You either have it or you don't. It's the intangible."
Shelby found plenty of fighters who were well-versed in wrestling and had stand-up skills similar to kickboxers. Now the next step is to get jiu-jitsu widely accepted across the country.
[Shelby said:] "When they have the jiu-jitsu to go with the sanda, there's no telling how far they can go."
But he also believes that the wrestling background is more than enough to allow to the 25-year-old Tiequan (16-0) to be competitive.
"If you're going to be a successful MMA fighter, you have to be a good Greco-Roman wrestler," Shelby said. "They decide where the fight goes. ... If you have that kind of resume, you're set up to do very well, no matter where you come from. Chinese or not, he's got potential."
WEC president Reed Harris sees massive potential in China.
"As a country, they want their athletes to come to America, and vice versa," WEC general manager Reed Harris said. "Once this sport really grows and develops, I believe they'll be able to compete as well as any country. In the next 10 or 20 years, this is certainly going to become a big deal."
Harris is hopeful Tiequan can compete at this level.
"I'm a realist, and coming into the WEC or the UFC is certainly a huge step in a guy's career," Harris said. "We'll see how he does. Sean's report from China is he's very well-rounded, a really good striker, good on the ground. He's got the record, but we have to see what his level of competition was. I'm excited to see what happens."
Fight fans can be very nationalistic and so is the media in many nations. The first Chinese MMA fighter who becomes a star in the U.S. could jump-start something huge in China. Look to Yao Ming and the NBA as a great example. It's the same approach the UFC took in heavily promoting British fighters to ensure media coverage and tug at the emotions of British fight fans.
Update: The WEC didn't set up Tiequan with a tomato can to ensure an easy win. The promotion called Garza, as a late replacement.
MMA Junkie points out that Garza (9-0) was on the first episode of Season 12 of "The Ultimate Fighter" and lost to show favorite Michael Johnson. He's unbeaten and who knows, if he hadn't drawn Johnson in the first round, we may still be watching him compete on TUF 12.