Blood, Sweat and Fear

Posted by Peter Baird on 9. Nov 2009

In the space of a little over 15 years, mixed martial arts (MMA) is on the verge of surpassing professional boxing as the worlds premier combat sport. Once thought to be a barbaric activity only watched by beer-bellied trailer park boys, MMA is gaining worldwide regonition not just as a sport, but as an art form.

Thanks to mainstream media coverage, MMA has earned an unprecedented level of exposure in recent years. While the early stars of the sport had to work day jobs to support themselves and were largely unknown outside the subculture of diehard MMA fans, today's competitors live to fight and are the subject of daily water cooler discussions.

Originating in the early 1990s, MMA is a combat sport that combines a variety of different fighting disciplines. While rules vary from promotion to promotion, there are some universal rules that apply.

Fighters can attack using a combination of strikes, grappling techniques and submission attempts. The ways to win are by by knockout, refreree/doctor stoppage, submission or by a judge's decision.

While early MMA bouts tended to match fighters exclusively schooled in one discipline (example: jiu-jitsu vs. kickboxing), today's fighters are complete packages, equally capable of striking and grappling.

Given that China is both the birthplace of kung fu and the home of thousands of years of martial arts tradition, it is no surprise that MMA has finally made it to the Middle Kingdom.

In 2005, the Chinese MMA promotion Art of War (AOW) opened for business. While it has taken some time to attract notice, AOW is steadily attracting a strong following.

They drew nearly 5,000 people to the Olympic Gymnasium this past May. Among the spectators were former King of Pancrase Bas Rutten, former King of the Cage light heavyweight champion Jeremy Horn and three-time UFC tournament winner Royce Gracie.

The event also got an extra boost from the active participation of legendary ring announcer Michael "Let's Get Ready to Rumble" Buffer and veteran UFC referee "Big" John McCarthy.

AOW will return to Beijing on Sat, Nov 28. WLIB had a chance to pay a visit to their headquarters in the Asian Games Village and sit down with AOW CEO Andy Pi, a self-described "MMA Geek" from the States and fighter Vaughn Anderson.

WLIB: Tell us about the origins of Art of War.

Andy Pi: Well, I first got here in 1997 and I was really disappointed to find there was really no MMA scene whatsoever. So I started teaching jiu-jitsu just in order to have training partners. But by 2004, we had built up enough of a community that it was viable to consider launching a promotion. So I sat down with my brother [Konrad Pi], drafted up a business plan, met with investors and the rest is history.

WLIB: Who are some of your flagship fighters?

Pi: This guy (pointing to Vaughn Anderson). Also Dai Shuanghai, Wu Haotian, Wang Sai and Ao Hailin.

WLIB: Vaughn, how did you get involved with this sport?

Vaughn Anderson: I originally just came here from Canada to travel for a year, but I started training in boxing and jiu-jitsu and even went to Thailand to study muay thai. I got the opportunity to fight professionally and I took it. And I won. So, that's what I've been doing ever since.

WLIB: What are some of the best fights in Art of War history?

Pi: Vaughn Anderson vs. Ao Hailin, Dai Shuanghai vs. Atsuhiro Tsuboi...

Anderson: Claes Beverlov vs. Wang Sai...

Pi: Yeah, that was a great fight. Basically, all these fights had one thing in common: the fighters weren't afraid to get off. They were more concerned with giving the fans a good show than they were about winning or losing.

WLIB: Vaughn, what made your fight with Ao special?

Anderson: Wow. Yeah, that was a real war. Ao is super tough. I rocked him early with a right hand that I swear would have knocked out most fighters. I think I took about 15 knees to the head in that fight. There were tons of submission attempts, escapes and takedowns. He took me down a lot, actually. You can see the fight on Youku. In the end he submitted me.

WLIB: Are there any plans to bring international name brand fighters to Art of War?

Pi: Honestly, I will only do that when it makes sense from a business perspective. I mean, sure I could bring Fedor (Emelianenko) here, but nobody in China knows who he is, so it wouldn't sell any more tickets.

WLIB: Okay, but if money wasn't an object and you could bring anybody here, who would it be and who would you match them against?

Pi: If we had an unlimited sum of money, I wouldn't waste it on bringing international fighters over here. Maybe I would match them against each other, but not against Chinese fighters. I mean, you can't match a guy who is 33-1 against a guy who is 3-0. Right now there are only 50 MMA fighters actively training in China. That's in a country of over a billion people. What I would do is open up 100 schools across the country. If every school gets ten students, that's 1,000 fighters. It makes more sense to develop the scene here than to bring in guys from outside.

WLIB: What does the future hold for Art of War?

Pi: Right now we have eight weight divisions. We are thinking of restructuring that a bit and crowning champions. Also, there are going to be some rule changes: Right now, fights are one 10-minute round and one five-minute round. We really like that format, because that first 10-minute round is a real fight. But if the fight goes the distance, it is considered a draw. A lot of the feedback we've been getting has told us that the fans want to see a winner. So we are probably going to add judges: fans would rather see a bad decision than no decision at all.

WLIB: What are the matches that we should watch for at the upcoming event?

Pi: Arthit Hanchana and Wu Haotian is going to be a great fight. Hanchana is a Thai fighter with a background in muay thai, but he also trains in submissions. He just fought Dai Shuanghai and basically dominated him. Wu Haotian trains with Dai, so it's a bit of a grudge match. Also, its kind of a rematch. They met in an amateur tournament about a year and a half ago, and Wu got the decision. We also had a really great main event in Ao Hailin against Claes Beverlov, but its looking now like that isn't going to happen. Beverlov has a fever, so we're currently looking for another opponent for Ao.

An earlier version of this article stated that Andy Pi sat down with his friends to draft a business plan. That was incorrect, and has been edited to read "brother." Also, the event in May drew 5,000 fans, not 20,000 as originally reported.

Art of War 15 goes down on Sat, Nov 28 at the Olympic Sports Center Gymnasium. Event starts at 4pm, and tickets are going for a reasonable 30, 50 and 80 RMB.

Also, the Art of War training center runs classes in jiu-jitsu and muay thai seven days a week. Weekday classes run from 6-10pm and from 4-6pm on the weekends. Unlimited classes are 400 RMB per month. Contact Art of War at 8610-5129-5028 for more information.

Image: Vaughn Anderson and Kim Dong Hyun share a moment at Art of War 14: Ground Zero at Macau's Venetian Hotel on Sept 26, 2009. Courtesy of the promoter.


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