The hard life of a professional fighter in China

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Mixed martial arts is the world’s fastest growing sport, making inroads worldwide from Johannesburg to Beijing. However, a profile of fighter Wu Haotian by Stuart Wiggin reveals the sport in China is far from glamorous.

Wu Haotian is considered something of a veteran in the Chinese MMA scene having fought 16 times since 2007. Hailing from Inner Mongolia, Haotian came to Beijing in 2003 with very little cash and no grasp of Mandarin.

Fast forward to present day and Haotian is firmly established within the world of Chinese MMA; currently preparing for his first fight of the year. Varying his training routine on a daily basis, Wu Haotian and the rest of his team are at a running track in the center of the city as they carry out an early morning fitness session.

But today isn’t particularly special for Wu, despite the fact that he has a fight coming up. “From Monday to Friday, I lead a very simple life. Apart from training, there is nothing to do,” Wu explains as the morning session comes to an end. The group of young men and several women, all of whom are members of the China Top Team gym, one of China’s best MMA teams, pile into two minivans to head back to the team’s base; a small building in a hutong alley near Sihui subway station. Leading the convoy is well-known fighter Zhang Tiequan, who became the first Chinese fighter to sign for the world’s biggest MMA promotion, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Zhang’s top of the range vehicle provides his teammates with a clear sign of what awaits them if they can be successful in the ring.

For a man who has in the past chosen to remain stranded in the rain after training rather than pay the cost of a bus fare to get home, Wu seems particularly upbeat.

After a ten minute drive eastwards, the team departs near the Tonghui River and starts to walk through a tile market and onwards into the narrow hutongs which lie beyond the fourth ring road. The nearby metropolis of Beijing’s sprawling skyscrapers couldn’t feel farther away as Wu arrives at a two storey building situated along a narrow dirt track road. Bird cages hang from the second floor and washing hangs outside the main entrance. The gym rents the ground floor of the building and the fighters live in the assorted rooms. Wu’s dimly lit space is around 4 meters squared. The wall is adorned with a huge poster of a beautiful Chinese girl and propped up against the wall, next to his protein shake mix, is his primary means of transport; a mountain bike.

Though the fighters have little in terms of possessions and belongings, there is clearly a strong bond of friendship that exists between them brought about no doubt by the fact that each one struggles financially and physically in order to pursue their chosen career. Haotian is no stranger to tough times as he was more than willing to explain. One of eight children, Wu comes from a poor family in Inner Mongolia. He dropped out of school at an early age and herded sheep for two years. At the suggestion of one of his brothers who saw an advertisement offering free martial arts classes, Haotian traveled to Beijing. Upon his arrival he found a job as a security guard which provided him with a salary of 300 yuan per month, a little less than 50 US dollars.

Wu’s first few years in Beijing were extremely challenging. “I didn’t cry in the day time, I would only cry at night. After 2005, I rarely cried. Sometimes I didn’t know how to cry; it was like I had no tears left. Even if I was sad, there weren’t any tears left.” But Wu believes that the difficulties he faced in those first few years helped to improve him as a person and as a fighter. He persisted in his martial arts studies and in 2006 Wu decided to begin training MMA. He saved around 5000 yuan to study and live, rented a basement room for 300 yuan and mostly ate very little in order to save money.

Looking back on that time, Wu remarks, “Training was hard; we started training from 9 am at the Olympic Sports Center. I would often get up at 7. To save money I wouldn’t eat in the morning. Taking the bus saved me money too; it cost 1 yuan to get there. I didn’t have a bike at that time. I wouldn’t go back in the afternoon. And sometimes I would run home just to save money.” Thankfully, Wu’s natural ability led to him reeling off 11 wins in 12 fights between May 2007 and March 2012; including a year hiatus during the Olympic year of 2008 when organized competitions came to a halt.

A recent fight under the RUFF banner held a possible winner’s purse of around 160,000 US dollars. Wu lost the fight and walked away with a little over $1,600. During that time however, Wu found a new fighting family when he joined China Top Team in 2012. The gym takes care of fighters’ lodgings and food and helps to organize fights for the cost of $160 a month.

Having turned down fairly well-paid job offers to work as a bodyguard, money is a constant bugbear for Wu and his lack of funds prevent him from doing fulfilling what he believes is his duty. “I miss my parents and I want to send them some money. But sometimes I don’t even have a penny to my name. How can I send them money? I really feel want to help my mom and dad, take care of them; but the willingness in my heart isn’t enough. I can’t help them; I can’t do anything for them here. But if I go home to take care of them, I have nothing for myself.” On top of his filial turmoil, Wu also plans to get married to his girlfriend in the coming 6 months; another costly expense.

Wu admits that the life of a fighter is hard and the nature of the business in China is fickle. After his defeats, advertisement and endorsement opportunities dried up but he remains incredibly positive in and outside the gym. “I like MMA so I like this kind of life. If you don’t love the sport, you wouldn’t be able to live this life. Hardship can also provide you with joy as you get to experience the kind of life normal know nothing about.” With plans to continue fighting for the next 6 to 7 years, Wu has no intention of seeking out an easier life away from the excitement and adrenaline that his sport provides him.

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