Boasting deep cultural roots as the birthplace of kung fu, China is now bracing for the modern action of mixed martial arts, or MMA, despite a lack of understanding of the combat sport.
The attraction of kung fu, or traditional Chinese martial arts, has long intrigued a worldwide audience highlighted in action films by Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, but mixed martial arts as a full-combat sport featuring various styles of striking and grappling skills so far remains far from joining the athletic mainstream in China, where sports fans appreciate more specific events such as boxing, taekwondo or wrestling.
However, the Singapore-based MMA organization ONE Championship is committed to popularize the physically-demanding sport in China and a two-year partnership with Beijing-based promoter Wujie Sports Development Co Ltd, was announced in Beijing.
"Martial arts is truly Asian and the future of business is here in China," said Victor Cui, CEO of ONE Championship.
"This is where it (martial arts) all started. You will not do MMA unless you understand the history, the roots and the soul of where it comes from, and it's here. Because of the Asian spirit of martial arts, we put the soul back into the competition by bringing more action to China".
Under the partnership, ONE and Wujie will work together to stage 26 MMA events in China aired online and TV over the next two years, starting from the ONE Wujie: Dynasty of Champions evening at Beijing's National Olympics Sports Center on Nov 21.
The event will feature a featherweight unification bout between Russian challenger Marat Gafurov and reigning title holder Narantungalag Jadambaa of Mongolia as well as a co-main fight between Brazilian flyweight champion Adriano Moraes and challenger Kairat Akhmetov of Kazakhstan.
Featuring an impressive kickboxing skill set, Jadambaa has been eyeing his return to the ONE Cage since he claimed the title with victory over Koji Oishi of Japan last year. He now faces a legitimate threat from the formidable Gafurov.
"My ancestors are all warriors, so combat is in my blood. I will prove to the world that I am the undisputed ONE featherweight world champion. Gafurov is a tough opponent but I am tougher," he said.
Alongside the two main bouts, the event will also highlight some of the best Chinese talents signed by ONE Championship fighting at a lead-up tournament. Zhang Jiacai will square off against Qiao Longfei while Yang Sen challenges Alateng Burigede from Inner Mongolia.
Qiao from Henan province couldn't hold back his excitement to be making his professional debut.
"ONE Championship has so many world class fighters and I am fighting in ONE to challenge myself. China will soon have a world champion in MMA and I want it to be me," he said.
It will be the second ONE Championship event in China since December's inaugural promotion, which featured 10 Chinese fighters in multiple categories at the same venue.
Cui said nurturing local talent together with its Chinese partner is crucial for the imported show to stand high in its biggest overseas market in China.
"On top of that (the unification fight between two foreign fighters), we will be building local fighters so that we can showcase the development of the sport even more and put the guys into the limelight. Chinese fighters will become household names worldwide," said Cui.
Although no financial terms were disclosed at the signing ceremony on Monday, Chinese media reported that Wujie will invest 80 million yuan ($12.6 million) to support the joint venture over the next two years.
Teng Yi, CEO of Wujie, said he expects the partnership with ONE could help enhance exchanges of martial arts between China and the world.
"As the ancestry of modern mixed martial arts, Chinese kung fu enjoys popularity around the world and now it's time for the time-honored martial art form to evolve by communicating with the world," he said.