As Zhang develops, so does MMA in China

LAS VEGAS -- Chinese featherweight Tie Quan Zhang’s grin stretches from ear to ear as he wraps his hands for this early training session.

It’s a weekday morning in Las Vegas, 6,000 miles away from Zhang’s home in Beijing. He steps into the ring with American boxing coach Jimmy Gifford, who doesn’t speak a word of Chinese. Zhang is equally inept at English.

A translator stands outside the cage on call, but it’s amazing how little he’s used. This is what UFC president Dana White has been ranting about for years: Fighting is universal. It is, you might say, its own language.

“I kind of make some sounds and give him the motions of what’s going on,” Gifford told ESPN.com. “Sometimes, there was miscommunication, but after so many sessions there’s an understanding between us.

“He’s been getting workouts to learn English words. He calls me ‘boxing guru.’ And he knows the phrase ‘Make him pay.’”

Zhang, who faces Issei Tamura at UFC 144 in Tokyo on Saturday, has traveled to the U.S. before for a training camp -- but never at the request of the UFC.

With the promotion continuing its push into foreign markets in 2012, the UFC organized a sort of one-sided fighter-exchange program for Chinese athletes this year, bringing over Zhang and two other prospects -- neither of whom are in the UFC -- to Las Vegas to train with American coaches.

The UFC is not trying to artificially create a Chinese star -- if it were, matchmakers wouldn’t have originally scheduled Zhang against the tough Leonard Garcia on this weekend’s card -- but it’s common sense that if one emerges, well, it wouldn’t be a bad thing.

In 2010, the UFC established an office in Beijing and appointed Mark Fischer as managing director. In that short amount of time, Fischer says the brand has found its way into 270 million households via television and reaches another 500 million on the Internet.

Phase 1, if you want to call it that, is generally seen as complete. Phase 2 is in progress and would certainly benefit from the presence of a Chinese star.

“It’s very important to build local heroes in each market,” Fischer said. “China is a market where we have such tremendous potential. Once we have local heroes who are successful in the UFC, it will make a world of difference. Hence these programs.”

Whereas an area like Brazil was rife with fighters for the UFC to tap into, the Chinese market is going to require time to produce top-shelf talent.

The biggest hurdle standing in the way currently is what the UFC program looks to address. As of right now, there is not the level of instructors or facilities in China teaching MMA as there is in other markets.

For instance, Zhang says, as a brown belt, he is the highest-ranked Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner in the country’s 1.3 billion population.

He trains out of a gym he helped found, China Top Team. The facility has no ring to spar in and only a handful of qualified coaches. The athletes take turns running on one treadmill. When it’s time to lift weights, they use memberships to the athletic club next door.

“I feel like [the Chinese national] level of wrestling is good, but BJJ is almost nonexistent,” said Zhang, through a translator. “There are maybe 10 jiu-jitsu coaches in all of China. I don’t think there are any Muay Thai instructors, but we have some Mongolian boxing.”

Enter the UFC’s program. During the month Zhang spent in Las Vegas, Gifford said that although it was treated as a normal training camp to prepare for this week’s fight, there was also a bit of “teaching to teach” incorporated.

In a rare move, he allowed what he was teaching to be videotaped so the fighters at China Top Team who didn’t make the trip could watch. He’s also open to a two-week seminar in China -- something Fischer says is a real possibility as a mainstay in the future.

“They need work. They need coaching,” Gifford said. “I’m not opposed to doing a two-week stint in China. We can help coach coaches. That’s what they need.”

Once the sport grows in China -- currently, the UFC brand is recognized by an estimated 15 percent of the population -- there is reason to believe it could turn out some of the future’s biggest stars.

Obviously, martial arts has existed in the area for years. Sanda is the closest thing to MMA, which allows takedowns but no grappling and is fought with bigger gloves than the four-ounce version the UFC uses.

The nation’s best athletes are typically gobbled up by other sports at a relatively young age; however, Zhang says interest in his gym has increased dramatically since the UFC started building a presence there.

Even though the Chinese government is effective at signing talented youth to contracts, Zhang believes that from what we has seen, the time when some of the top athletes choose to compete solely in MMA is not far off.

“The biggest difficulty has already been overcome,” Zhang said. “Right now, everybody in China and the government is already starting to accept the sport. There will be enough Chinese fighters to host a UFC event in three to five years.”