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.
“We want Art of War to be like the Pride FC of China,” says Andy Pi, who is seated at my table along with his brother, Konrad. “Minus the business mistakes,” he adds quickly. Andy tells me that Art of War has borrowed heavily from the old Japanese promotion, Pride FC, including its emphasis on rock concert- like stage productions and huge entrances, as well as many of the Japanese organization’s rules.
“Kicking and kneeing a downed opponent is legal. The rounds are like Pride’s: ten-minute first rounds with five minute additional rounds,” he explains, noting further similarities. Andy says that, if a fight goes the distance, it will be judged a technical draw. “Some people may not like this rule, but it encourages fighters to finish the fight and makes for more action.”
When I ask Konrad about Art of War’s growth strategy, he answers that the fates of other MMA promotions that have tried to grow too big too quickly have not been lost on him and Andy. “We’re not the UFC, and we’re not trying to be the UFC…yet,” says Konrad, referring to MMA’s version of Microsoft, the Pentagon, and the Federal Reserve all rolled into one. MMA in China is at a stage similar to its early days in the US, so Konrad says that he and Andy will look to develop Chinese stars gradually. And the brothers know that they’ll also have to educate the Chinese fans—who are heavily steeped in the classical hard martial arts like Kung Fu—about MMA, specifically about ground fighting. I am reminded of Scott Coker’s successful strategy with StrikeForce. He built up a huge local following in California with medium-sized shows aimed at a tightly defined market: northern California. The Pi brothers are looking to replicate something like that, except on a national scale. Moving fluidly between the cultures of east and west, and with substantial family connections to the business and government elites (the ever-important guanxi, without which it is next to impossible to get anything done in China), the Brothers Pi are well-positioned to capitalize on the great potential of the massive Chinese market. Both were brought up in the US and move fluidly between the two worlds. Watching them work, I get the impression of a sort of business version of Yin and Yang. Balls-to-the wall Andy is often in a tee-shirt and jeans, his cell phone permanently plastered to the side of his head; whereas smooth, genteel Konrad is always decked out in a perfectly fitted tailor-made suit. They make an excellent team, both of them sharp and insightful business people.
A little later, as I am heading back after dinner, I stop by Rickson’s table to say hello. After we chat for a bit, I mention to him what Konrad told me about the Chinese being shocked by some of the aspects of ground fighting. “Well,” smiles the MMA legend whose father invented Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, “they’ll learn.”
Seeing the Sites
Since we have a few days of free time before the events begin, I decide to take the opportunity to see some of the sights around Beijing with a few of the other guests. Ricardo Liborio; his business partner, a bigwig Texas attorney named Bill Davis; and I head over to the Beijing National Stadium. Inspired by the architects’ study of Chinese ceramics, this building’s unique crisscross design earned it the nickname “Bird’s Nest”; and it became famous as the venue for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics. We go down onto the field of this huge stadium and, while we’re looking up at the stands, Liborio comments, “Can you imagine what it must have felt like to be here in the Olympics?” “I cannot,” I say, and then remark, “but Liborio, (don’t ask me why, but everybody always calls him by his last name) you’ve had some athletic success on the world class level. You must know what it’s like.” I am referring to his world championship Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu career.
“Yeah,” he says wistfully as he looks up on the 80,000-plus seats. “But nothing like this.” I know from having visited the American Top Team camp in Florida that Liborio is a big proponent of visualization. He often tells his fighters to imagine themselves after they have won their matches, to listen to the roar of the crowds and whatnot. As he looks up at the stands, I wonder if Liborio, who was just named USA Grappling’s head coach, is imagining future BJJ Players and submission grapplers receiving thunderous Olympic ovations.
That same day, I go with a group to the famous Hong Qiao Pearl Market, a mammoth multistory market where you can go and haggle for just about anything you can think of. From clothes to art to high-tech gadgets and toys, you can find an endless variety of Chinese merchandise. There’s even a fish market in the basement. One caveat, though: except for possibly the fish, it’s all fake. You’ve heard about the famous Chinese knockoffs, well Pearl Market is knockoff heaven.Luckily for us, we are there with a guy named Mike Swain. He works on radio, and was in Beijing last year for the Olympics, so he knows the drill about how to get the best deals from the hyper-aggressive Chinese vendors. The trick, he tells me, is to turn and make like you’re going to walk off. Because there are always several stalls selling the exact same item, they’ll do just about anything to keep you from going to another stall for a better deal.
This is good advice, as I find when I try out the technique. I pick out a watch from one of the stalls. If it were real, it would cost about $5,000, but it runs 800 Yuan (about $120). I offer 100 Yuan. After about five minutes of intense and sometimes heated debate between me and the Chinese lady vendor, I decide to use the secret weapon Mike taught me. I throw up my hands and turn to walk away in fake exasperation. My opponent caves and agrees to 150 Yuan, or about $22. Who knows if the watch is even worth what I paid for it, but I still leave feeling a rush of victory.
You can’t go to China and not see the Great Wall, so on another day a group of us get on a bus to the largest man-made structure in history. Three of the famous Gracies are on the bus: Royce, Renzo, and Royler. Bas Rutten and his old announcing crew partner Stephen Quadros sit right behind me; the whole way there, they keep each other in stitches like kids on a school bus. The more I hang around with them, the more I understand that the chemistry that made them perhaps the best announcing crew ever is totally legit. These guys are good friends, and it was great to get to hang out with them. After the 45-minute drive through the countryside outside Beijing, we get to one of the many entrance points along the famous wall, and we all go up to see the stunning views. The wall snakes its way over hills as far as the eye can see in both directions. It’s a breathtaking sight, but unfortunately, we get there right as the park is closing, so we have time for little more than a photo op. We decide to take the quick way down. The part of the wall we’re on has a toboggan system that you can ride to get down. Bas, Quadros, and I all jump into our toboggans. They go first, and I see them speed off down the mountain. When I get in, I realize that this isn’t a Disneyland ride; if you don’t operate your toboggan correctly, you can wreck the unstable device. In fact, when I come around a corner, I have to slam on my brakes because Bas and Quadros have somehow crashed their toboggans into each other, and are in the process of getting back on the track. Soon they speed off again, with Chinese attendants chasing after them down the hill waving their arms frantically and shouting for them to slow down. It’s to no avail, and I hear Bas and Quadros hooting and hollering their way down to the bottom.
I have a more somber visit to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Because I grew up during the Reagan years, I have an innate skepticism about anything having to do with Communism, and I remember well the brutal crackdown on the Chinese students demonstrating for freedom, which took place here twenty years ago. So, I take the huge statues commemorating the Communist masses’ march to glory with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, I am impressed by the huge scale of the square and of the buildings surrounding it. In fact, I learn that Tiananmen Square is the largest public square in the world. As I look up at the massive Gate of Heavenly Peace, with its giant iconic portrait of Mao Tse Tung, I find it ironic that the one other example I‘ve seen of such colossal architecture, meant to awe a person and make him feel insignificant, is St. Peter’s Basilica, at the Vatican, in Rome.
The Big Night
Art of War has taken a page out of the Pride playbook in terms of its emphasis on the production values of an event. At the beginning of the show, all the athletes are announced, and they come out to a big ovation. And, as with Pride, the winners of each contest receive little trophies and huge mock checks after the fights. Art of War has also gotten some of the top referees in the world to work the matches; for instance, Yuji Shimada from Pride and Big John McCarthy are working matches tonight. When it comes time to announce the fights, it’s none other than Michael “Let’s get ready to Ruuumblllle!” Buffer himself doing the honors. The promotion has scored a promising list of corporate sponsors; and the arena, which I am told seats about 7,000, is nearly full.
I am in press row, and behind me, extending several rows back, are all the BJJ players that have come with the Sheik from the UAE. The Sheik and his brother have been in love with BJJ, submission grappling, and now MMA ever since the crown prince’s younger brother Tanoon brought the sport back to the country with the famous Abu Dhabi Submission Grappling Championships. The Sheik is not here, but somewhere behind me sits the son of the crown prince and the princess. The entire UAE contingent has on white polo shirts with the insignia of UAE Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu on them. Grappling is extremely popular in the UAE and is now making inroads in other parts of the Islamic world as well. I met one gentleman, Niko Han, who told me he owns fifteen BJJ schools with over 300 students in Indonesia.
As for the night’s fights, the talent level was uneven, with Chinese stars facing off against credible but manageable foreign competition. I take special note of the crowd’s reactions to the ground fighting. They seem to really enjoy and appreciate it. The crowd cheers whenever a Chinese fighter executes a throw or sweep or comes close to a submission. Some parts of ground fighting will still take a little getting used to, though. Roars of laughter and loud guffaws roll through the Chinese fans when two heavyweights on the under card get stuck in the North-South position which, though a common enough occurrence in grappling and MMA, looks uncomfortably similar to a famous sexual position.
There is a strong element of nationalism among Chinese sports fans, and Art of War exploits it by pitting Chinese fighters against foreign opponents. The crowd especially gets into the matches pitting Chinese favorites against the age-old nemesis: the Japanese. In one of the night’s best fights, a popular Mongolian named Dai Shuang Hai fights his Japanese opponent to a draw, but he thoroughly dominates the Japanese fighter and so the crowd is pleased. Dai Shuang Hai has the best entrance of the night—coming into the ring to the deep base tones of ceremonial chants by Buddhist monks. The crowd goes crazy as he slowly marches down to the ring decked out in colorful Mongolian ethnic attire. I comment to myself how the principles of showmanship cross all cultural bounds.
In another of the night’s top fights, the good-looking young Chinese kid the Pi brothers told me about, Wu Ha Tian, blows through his overmatched Japanese opponent, knocking him out spectacularly and causing elation among the Chinese. Wu Ha Tian is one of those Sanda practitioners the Pi brothers mentioned to me, and they have high hopes for him as their organization’s first potential homegrown superstar. Judging by what little I see of him, he certainly has the look and the athleticism to fit the bill.
In the main event, a fighter named Rolles Gracie faces off against a Russian named Baga Agaev. Rolles is the son of the late Rolls Gracie, who was said by many to have been the single most gifted BJJ practitioner before he died in a tragic hang-gliding accident. Rolles Gracie has big shoes to fill if he is going to live up to the reputation of his father. As the lights dim in preparation for Rolles’s Russian opponent’s entrance, music by Lil Jon starts to blare, and I say to the man next to me, who is a business writer researching a book on globalization, “If you want a metaphor for globalization in MMA, here it is: a Russian making his entrance to music by a rapper from Atlanta in order to fight a Brazilian at a show in Beijing.” He nods in agreement.
Once the fight begins, Rolles immediately takes his opponent down and slowly works his way to a dominant position. The crowd is really into it. The UAE contingent especially goes wild for Rolles, and chants of “Jiu-Jit-Su, Jiu-Jit-Su” spring up regularly from them. It could be Rio de Janeiro circa 1991, with Carlson Gracie’s boys fighting their cross-town enemies, the Luta Livre gang, for all of the “I fly the flag of Jiu- Jitsu” machismo floating around. I half expect to see Wallid Ismail run out and take a victory lap around the arena.
Immediately after the final fight, the stadium crew starts breaking down the arena and ushering everybody outside. There’s a buzz in the crowd as fans talk excitedly about the fights. The event seems to have been a big success. Now that I’ve experienced it, I can see why the Pi brothers and their partners in Abu Dhabi went to all the expense of bringing everybody over here. On the ground, there is a palpable feeling that something really big is steadily gathering momentum.
As I wait for the ride back to the hotel, I watch the Sheik’s UAE BJJ contingent mingle with the new Chinese fans that are discovering MMA. I remember something that Rickson said to me earlier in the week about the loss of his father, Helio Gracie, the man who invented Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. When I said to Rickson that I had been sorry to hear about the passing of his father, he answered,
“Why be sorry? What a life my father had! Think about his long life and legacy. I am not sad at all. I even feel like he’s with me more now because, instead of being at his house in the mountains, now he’s with me everywhere.” It was a beautiful sentiment coming from a son about his father, and I wonder if Grandmaster Helio could ever have imagined anything like what occurred in Beijing tonight when he started the first Gracie Academy in Rio way back in the 1920’s.