Singapore (AFP) – 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 Tuesday 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 ($US1.45 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 does have a place in MMA and I’m sure that someday we will see elements of wushu incorporated into MMA fights,” he said.