Last week it was announced that MMA pioneer Bas Rutten will be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in July. This is a well deserved honor for Bas who is a good friend of mine and one of the most charismatic athletes I’ve ever met. With his combination of athleticism and charisma plus the fact that he was one of the first fighters to truly deserve the title mixed martial artist Bas was 20 years ahead of his time in the sport. A few years ago I went with Bas and many other MMA legends on a mission to jump start MMA in mainland China. This article, which recounts the experience, first appeared in Fight! magazine in 2009.
Journey to the East
The Crowne Plaza Hotel in the Wuzhou district of Beijing is a place where you can clearly see the forces that are shaping the new world economic order. Well-dressed European and American businesspeople, eager for a chance at China’s massive domestic market (which is larger than those of the US, European Union and Japan combined) jockey for deals in the hotel’s restaurant and lounge. Arab oil representatives with their large exotic entourages linger in the halls; they’re here to satisfy China’s ever-growing hunger for petroleum. The new generation of Chinese capitalists is fully in force as well. Young and well educated, they are comfortable with the traditions of both east and west. All of them are riding the crest of the economic tsunami that is reshaping the world and shifting its focus inexorably eastward.
I am here in the cradle of the New Capitalism because of an improbable letter I got at my office three weeks ago.It began:
“Under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, the mixed martial arts tournament, Art of War Fighting Championships, will be held on 23 May, 2009 at the National Olympic Sports Center Auditorium in Beijing, China…”
It went on to invite me to Beijing as a guest of “His Highness,” all expenses paid. At first I was cautious about the letter. My mind ran to all those Nigerian phone scams I’ve heard about over the years, but the invitation turned out to be legit, so here I am sitting in a palatial private banquet hall at the Crowne Plaza that has been set up for all of the Sheik’s several hundred guests. The dining hall is massive, with about a hundred tables, each seating eight. On each side of the room are two superabundant buffets, manned by the hotel’s staff and overflowing with a bewildering array of fine Mediterranean and Asian cuisine. Twice a day, at lunch and dinner, there’s a who’s who of MMA movers and shakers in this huge space.
Although the Sheik invited just about everybody in the business to come to his little Chinese soirée, I notice that the Brazilians are especially well represented. They scored a big coup by having four of the famous Gracie clan attend the event. Today I see Renzo Gracie working the room, smiling broadly and greeting everyone he sees. He’s slapping their backs and shaking hands like a politician. The most famous living Gracie, Rickson, holds court at a table of awestruck fighters who are all fascinated by whatever he is telling them. One of them, heavyweight contender Fabricio Werdum, sits wide-eyed and slack-jawed, like a kid listening to a ghost story around a camp fi re. Royce and Royler, always content to linger in the background of their more gregarious siblings, are around here somewhere. Another famous Brazilian, American Top Team’s chief, Ricardo Liborio, is sitting at a table off in a corner conferring with some important-looking people. One of the friendliest men in MMA, Liborio is also one of the best respected. A consummate behind-the-scenes dealmaker, he sits at the center of an ever-growing circle of influence and power within the sport. I don’t recognize who he’s talking to; but, whoever they are, I’m sure they’re players. I wave to Demian Maia, who has just arrived. There are also lots of other nationalities represented. Dane Joachim Hansen is here, along with many others from all over. In addition to the dozen or so big name fighters, the Sheik has invited several prominent members of the media and top business people from the MMA world. His Highness has spared no expense in showing that Art of War has arrived as a world-class promotion.