There were some sweaty palms backstage at Shanghai’s Mercedes-Benz Arena early on Saturday night. Three Chinese fighters had so far graced the stage as the UFC made its debut in mainland China. And three Chinese fighters had loss. Outside, the locals were getting restless.
But then came 19-year-old Song “The Terminator” Yadong, the youngest of the eight Chinese fighters spread across the 12-bout card and the one you might expect to be a most nervous, having taken the fight against India’s Bharat Kandare on a few days notice and, well, still being a teenager and all.
But Song took to the big stage like a veteran, played to his strengths, and with a big right hand and a follow up guillotine suddenly he was 1-0 with the UFC – with just over four minutes gone – and 10-3 lifetime. The four Chinese fighters who followed – strawweight Yan “Fury” Xiaonan (8-1), welterweight Song “The Assassin” Kenan (12-3), featherweight Wang “The Dongbei Tiger” Guan (17-1) and welterweight Li “The Leech” Jingliang (14-4) – warmed to the task, and all won, against decent and experienced UFC fighters. The night went down as among the best the UFC have produced in 2017 and even the trolling naysayers of North America seemed won over.
It took some time in coming but the organisation got the formula right. The UFC played to a raucous full house and appears to run deep with the stable of Chinese fighters it is building. Friday’s Q&A session with fans before the ceremonial weigh-ins was a cracker and in Li they appear to have a bone fide star in the making. He says, and does, all the right things – plus he’s on a 4-0 streak that sees The Leech going from strength to strength.
Friday also saw the recently announced UFC-Air Asia collaboration explained, with UFC Asia Pacific vice-president Kevin Chang joining Air Asia’s China and North Asia boss Kathleen Tan and head of branding Rudy Khaw to map out their plans to nurture young Asian talent through a scholarship programme, as well as to promote the sport – and in particular the Asian side of the sport – with initiatives such as competition that will see two fans treated to a “VIP experience.”
But, of course, the UFC needs Chinese stars.
Chang had explained in the lead up that much of the work going on behind the scenes was being spent in training local fighters up to the level UFC fans expect. Which is why – on a night that confirmed Li’s talents, showcased the power of both Song and Wang, and revealed Yan to be an out and out brawler – you had to allow Chang an air of slight self satisfaction when he was asked, post event, about the Chinese fights, and then Song in particular.
“I think tonight showed the level that talent in China has come in the last few years. We’ll go back and look at what our plans are for 2018,” said Chang. “But we’re looking at some very exciting times in the future. There are so many places to go.
“You’ll definitely be seeing these Chinese fighters on cards around the world. And Song? Song was a late call-up and he really seized the opportunity to show the world what he’s got.”
The young man would appear to have a future, having already tested the waters with six regional promotions, including China’s Kunlun and Ruff and Singapore’s One Championship. While our math has always been ropey, to say the least, by our reckoning the record reveals that Song was fighting among the men when he was just 15 – his first pro MMA bout coming with a no contest (accidental groin kick) in 2013 against Zhao Wuheng (who, it appears, never fought again).
Song – who received one of the performance of the night bonuses -said it best when he appeared backstage after his bout, just as the UFC’s big night out in China was really starting to warm up.
“I am so excited tonight and wish to present the best of me here in China. This is my first UFC fight so I wanted to impress everyone,” he said.