LAS VEGAS – Zhang Tiequan returned to Beijing after making his UFC debut in Australia last year and was in for a shock when he sat down at his computer.
Weibo is a social networking site in China, similar to Twitter. When Zhang logged into his account after returning home, he had 100,000 friend requests awaiting him.
In a country of 1.3 billion people, 100,000 might not seem like a significant number. But Zhang, who is working with the UFC in an effort to develop mixed martial arts in his country, expects that one day MMA will surpass basketball as the most popular sport in China.
And that's also why the UFC is making such a concerted effort to develop Chinese talent. Zhang, along with Yao Honggang, Li Jinliang Li, A Mu Ri Ji Ri Ga La and Cui Liucai, are in Las Vegas for the month, training with some of the city's top fighters and trainers.
The plan, according to UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, is to properly train the Chinese fighters so they can train others in an attempt to tap into the country's love of martial arts.
"We've talked a lot about our international expansion and China is one of the focal points for the company," Fertitta said. "We know it's going to be a long-term play there. It's got a tremendous amount of potential, primarily for two reasons. One, obviously, is because of the size of the market. It's a huge market. And two, there is a long-standing martial arts background that the country has from a cultural standpoint.
"Consumers like fighting and we feel very strongly that once the UFC becomes more exposed in China that it will become a top sport there."
The UFC has found from experience that a market will develop much quicker if there is local talent to display when the first event is held in a particular country.
The UFC's first trip to the United Kingdom in 2002 spawned a growth spurt in MMA and the UFC benefitted by landing a number of talented British fighters, including "The Ultimate Fighter" winners Michael Bisping and Ross Pearson.
Fertitta has seen the pattern repeat around the world and believes it's particularly important in China.
"We also know one of the keys to being successful in a lot of these countries is having local talent," he said. "We're very popular in Canada, and it certainly doesn't hurt that [welterweight champion] Georges St. Pierre is from Canada. Look at the success we've had in Brazil and a lot of that is because there's so much talent in Brazil. In America sometimes, we kind of take things for granted and we're not as nationalistic as a lot of other countries. Places like Brazil, places like Japan and, obviously, places like China, it's huge. As you've seen, when a Chinese athlete medals in the Olympics, or wins a gold medal, it's a very big deal.
"When you see someone like Yao Ming have success on an international level, the whole country stops and watches when he plays. The idea when we went over and assessed the market … we realized there were a lot of great athletes there, but they weren't up to speed on the different styles of fighting."
The UFC sent Sean Shelby, one of its matchmakers, to China. He spent two weeks touring the country and evaluating fighters in various gyms.
Shelby reported that the Chinese fighters were quality strikers, but were lacking in wrestling and jiu-jitsu skills. There were many men whom Shelby watched work out who were athletic enough to be successful fighters in the UFC, but they were primitive in their knowledge of MMA and their training methods.
Fertitta wanted to change that because of the potential in China. Zuffa, the UFC's parent company, already has a six-person office in Beijing, headed by Mark Fischer. UFC programming is shown in 10 provinces in China and already reaches 200 million people. Zuffa has also partnered with several prominent Chinese Internet portals that reach 500 million people.
Fischer said the results of that groundwork are just beginning to be seen.
"Over the past year, we have made significant progress toward building our long-term goal of building our fan base in China, mainly by building up media presence across the mainland," said Fischer, the executive vice president and managing director of UFC Asia. "Online, our events are covered on all the top portals such as Sina, Sohu, and QQ, and we have recently set up accounts for both UFC and Zhang Tiequan on Weibo.com, which is the Chinese equivalent of Twitter and is hugely popular there now.
"On TV, our events have been on Guangdong, Chongqing, and Shanghai TV for most of the past year and will be carried either live or on delay by more than 10 regional TV channels across China by early 2012. We have also built important infrastructure here to set the stage for long-term growth in China, such as the Beijing office and development relationships with leading China MMA groups such as the China Top Team."
Zhang is the founder of the China Top Team and he has worked closely with Fischer, Fertitta, Shelby and trainer Mark DellaGrotte to help improve the sport.
Fertitta said it made sense to bring the fighters to Las Vegas given the large number of gyms as well as elite fighters and coaches based there.
"Vegas is kind of the Mecca of mixed martial arts in a lot of ways," Fertitta said. "We just said, 'Hey, let's get them exposure with, literally, the best trainers in the world.' … They literally will go from gym to gym every day to train and learn different aspects of MMA."
Among the trainers will be UFC fighter Fredson Paixao, noted jiu-jitsu coach Robert Drysdale, wrestling and grappling expert Ricky Lundell, striking coach Jimmy Gifford and DellaGrotte. The Chinese fighters will spar at Wanderlei Silva's gym.
Shelby said they may expand the program to include other trainers, but they're going to take it on a day-to-day basis.
"Really, what this is is an effort to find our version of Yao Ming," Fertitta said. "There's more than a billion people in China and I guarantee you, somebody there can fight. Our goal is to find that guy.
"The U.K. is a great example of what we're trying to do. Before we got there, there were a lot of tough guys. The Brits have a lot of tough, brawler-type guys, but they really weren't competitive in the UFC. After we brought [UFC 38] there, in three or four years, we found guys like Bisping and John Hathaway and Ross Pearson and guys like that who were coming up. Once we were there and they were getting exposure to trainers from the U.S. and around the world, the level of their competitiveness went through the roof. That's what the idea here is."
The population of the U.K. is 65 million, which is about five percent of the population of China.
Fertitta is excited by the possibilities and expects a show to be in Macau in the fourth quarter of this year. He plans to move slowly in regard to mainland China and said it may be as long as four years before a UFC card goes there.
The possibilities, he said, are significant. The UFC has a name recognition of about 15 percent, according to research done by the UFC Asia office. As the Chinese fighters develop and the television exposure continues, Fertitta expects the 15 percent figure to rise substantially.
"This is a small little deal with a few fighters here trying to learn, but its impact on our overall strategy in China can't be understated," he said. "Once we develop that market and there are world-class gyms with world-class instructors working there, the type of talent that will come out of that will be very significant. That's going to lead to a lot of big things."
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- Lorenzo Fertitta