Not too long ago, if someone mentioned mixed martial arts in China, it would have been received with an eerie silence. Today the story is vastly different.
MMA in China is growing at a rapid rate, with multiple promotions hosting events nationwide.
By 2025, China’s MMA market is estimated to reach a staggering US$724 billion, but with it comes many challenges. With China’s eye on MMA more than ever before, Chinese fighters are also in high demand.
While household from Li Jingliang to Ning Guangyou are starting to carve their own niches, China battles with neighboring countries from the Philippines, Japan and South Korea by having top-notch prospects like Li Kai Wen, Ma Jia Wen and Ma Hao Bin in its frontline.
Due to the vast opportunities that fall on the laps of Chinese combatants, the list of homegrown talent is growing. Amidst the continuous rise of the Chinese MMA industry, many are given the break to compete on an international stage like ONE Championship.
ONE Championship made its foray to China in 2014 and has gone on to hold six events in total with five taking place on the mainland.
Standout athletes like Bu Huo You Ga, a proud native of a minority hill tribe in West China, are now starting to make a name for themselves both domestically and across the region.
A natural martial artist
Bu has been living the life of a martial artist at an early age with training, learning and teaching martial arts a big part of his daily routine. At 13 years of age, his flair for grappling was discovered, which sent him to a sports academy for wrestling in Chongqing City.
Bu was able to translate his outstanding aptitude in wrestling into success as he won four championships in the local ranks. His winning roll continued overseas when he captured a title in the Greco-Roman category at the age of 20.
He says he owes a lot to martial arts and for the life it has given him.
“I’ve been a full-time athlete since I was 13 years old. Training is engrained into my routine now. I believe that through martial arts, I have the life I want,” he says.
With the success on the wrestling mat, it seemed that he was destined to become an Olympian. However, an unfortunate event came his way when he injured his back that shelved him for two years.
Calling it a career crossed the mind of Bu after spending a few years sitting on the sidelines, but he had a change of heart when he watched a live MMA bout on television.
“I fell in love with MMA the first time I saw it on TV. I got involved as soon as I got the chance.”
Bu says that the sport’s multi-faceted element was the major factor on his decision to make the jump from wrestling to MMA.
“I still wrestle, but I love how complex the sport of MMA is. The sport is also very comprehensive because of its rules. That’s why my countrymen are accepting the concept with open arms,” he shared.
Reawakening his desire to compete again, Bu traded his wrestling singlet for four-ounce MMA gloves. However, his transition to MMA was not a walk in the park as he had to put his highly-touted grappling arsenal aside to learn various striking disciplines such as Kung Fu and Wushu Sanda.
“I think MMA athletes need to cover all the bases. I am a wrestler crossing over to MMA, so I’ve been filling the holes in my game cross-training different disciplines including some traditional Chinese martial arts,” Bu says.
With the help of matchmaker Vaughn Anderson, Bu was given a chance to strut his wares in ONE Championship.
“I’m honored to compete on the same platform with ONE Championship’s world-class athletes. I am proud to represent China on the world stage,” Bu stated. “I get strength from thinking about my compatriots. I strive to show the world the potential of a Chinese warrior inside an MMA cage.”
Bu participated in the four-man bantamweight tournament at ONE: DYNASTY OF CHAMPIONS (Changsha) in January 2016, effortlessly submitting compatriot Cai Chang Bo with a bulldog choke in the first round to advance in the finals.
In the championship-deciding contest of the tourney, Bu fell short to bring home the coveted competition trophy by yielding to Ma Hao Bin via 68-second submission.
Despite tasting a setback in his first ride as a prizefighter, it did not derail the hopes of Bu to elevate himself into greater heights in MMA.
“I already expected it that it would not be a smooth path. But I know these obstacles would lead me to success,” he disclosed.
Seeking to place himself back on the winning track, Bu took part of a four-man bantamweight tournament at ONE: Dynasty of Champions (Anhui) in July 2016.
Bu easily dispatched the first assignment in front of him, forcing Wan Jian Ping to wave the white flag with a guillotine choke in the first round. He then finished the tourney with flying colors by defeating Li Hao Jie by way of unanimous decision
“I can’t describe the moment that I won the tournament. It was a surreal feeling. I was so happy because all my hard work finally paid off,” Bu recalled.
Iron sharpens iron
For a highly-decorated wrestler who directed his career path to MMA, Bu had to go through the eye of a needle to realise that great fighters are forged with tremendous amount of hard work and determination.
With his triumph in ONE Championship’s one-night tournament seven months ago, the dream is sky’s the limit for Bu as he envisions himself as a world champion in the constantly-evolving sport like MMA.
“The biggest goal in my life is to win the ONE flyweight world championship belt and become the best flyweight in the world. I’ve already become the top Chinese athlete in wrestling. Right now, I’m aiming to be at the top of world in MMA,” he says.
“Even if I become the world champion, I will still be competing. I love the rush that I feel whenever I compete.”
Although he aspires greatly for himself, Bu desires to give back to the Chinese MMA circuit, which was instrumental in catapulting him to the pinnacle of success.
“I want to train abroad and see what training in other countries is like. In that manner, I can give back and develop more MMA fighters in China. You have to share your success because it will also be part of your legacy,” he says.