WHEN the cast was announced for the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter:  China, few fans would have paid much attention to the presence on the list of Lipeng Zhang.

The 24-year-old was a veteran of local promotions RUFF, Legend FC and Art of War, but at the time had a distinctly uninspiring sounding record of 6-7-1.

In a sport where there is so much emphasis on fighters remaining undefeated that up-and-comers are positively encouraged to regularly run through mismatched opponents in order to preserve a high ratio of wins to losses, it is easy to write off someone with such average sounding statistics.

The problem for prospects who do make the UFC, as the much touted Jumabieke Tuerxun discovered to his cost recently, is there are no easy fights inside the Octagon and an impressive record is no substitute for the skills which are required to survive and succeed in this fiercely competitive proving ground.

The same could be said to apply to the UFC’s flagship reality television show. The standard on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) might be much more variable, but the only way for mixed martial artists to progress is by winning fights, and that’s exactly what Lipeng did. In the opening round he used his striking to swiftly stop the inexperienced Zhu Qingxiang.

His semi-final matchup lasted a little longer with Canadian Albert Cheng, who had a 2-2 pro record going into TUF: China, succumbing to an armbar in the second round.

That booked Lipeng a spot in The Ultimate Fighter: China finale which took place at the Cotai Arena in Macau earlier this year as part of the UFC Fight Night 37 card.


Lipeng ZHANG


His opponent was Wang Sai, a fully fledged welterweight with a 6-4-1 record who was well known in the region and had been immediately identified as the pretournament favourite.

Lipeng was not expected to succeed, but he upset the odds to claim a hard-fought, albeit controversial, split decision win to become the TUF: China Welterweight Champion and secure a multi-fight contract with the UFC.

Both Wang and Lipeng had progressed to the final courtesy of stoppage wins, but their matchup went the full three rounds and could not have been any closer.

It was a nervous wait while the scorecards were tabulated, but the underdog from Inner Mongolia always believed he had done enough to win.

“It was a close fight and you never know what the judges see. I thought I had the first and second rounds with all the takedowns and ground control,” Lipeng told Rough.

When the split decision was awarded in his favour, the crowd showed its displeasure with a chorus of boos, but for Lipeng it was a moment of triumph and he still finds it difficult to describe the feeling of realising that the sought after UFC contract was his.

“Relief, happiness, accomplishment … there is no exact words that could explain all the emotions going on, but I was happy,” he says.

Perhaps the crowd would have been more sympathetic if they had realised the obstacles he had overcome to even reach the final.

Naturally a lightweight, he had to pile on the pounds to make it onto the show at 170 and says he has no intention of remaining in the welterweight division now that TUF: China has concluded.

“There was only featherweight and welterweight division on the TUF: China show, but I think 155 is a division more suited for me and most of my fights have been in the lightweight division.”

The UFC contract which Lipeng secured with that split decision win is reportedly worth a six-figure sum in US dollar terms. The exact figure he receives will ultimately depend on his performances inside the Octagon, but it’s still a potentially lucrative prize for a Chinese fighter from a rural background.

For the time being, Lipeng says he is not thinking about fast cars or living the high life and intends to use his new-found wealth prudently. “I’m a simple guy from the Chinese countryside, so I’m gonna save it up and spend it wisely on my family in the future.”

Inner Mongolia is an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China, located in the north of the country and bordering Mongolia and Russia. It is an area which produces many of the top Chinese fighters and Lipeng believes a rural upbringing is excellent preparation for pursuing a career as a mixed martial artist.

“Since I grew up on a farm, I was constantly doing physical work at home. At school I actually started training in athletics, but martial arts always had a great appeal to me due to the combination of discipline, learning, physical fitness, mental strength and just everything that comes with it,” he says.

Earlier in his career, Lipeng had been a student of Hailin Ao, who ran up an impressive 8-0 record with the Art of War promotion before concluding his fighting career in 2009. The two were reunited on TUF: China, but this time they found themselves on opposing sides as Lipeng was selected by Tiequan Zhang’s “Team Sky Dragons”.

Although Lipeng came into the competition as a journeyman 155-pounder his coach and mentor always believed in him and the 24-year-old feels he made significant progress in terms of learning the MMA game during the course of the reality show.

“I improved a lot, mostly in learning MMA as a single art and not just striking, takedowns and grappling. The coaching staff was brilliant and they made a more pure MMA fighter,” he says.

For a young man from the Inner Mongolian countryside, being under the glare of the TV cameras 24 hours a day, could have been a traumatic experience, but he says his background made it easier to adapt to spending weeks on the TUF: China set.

“I was very excited, but not nervous and because I come from a simple upbringing I really enjoyed the simple life during the show. Just training, resting and being with my brothers. Life was good.”

Promoters at small shows in China are notoriously unreliable when it comes to recording results, but Lipeng says his professional record is actually 11-7-1 and he has been competing in MMA since he was a teenager.

“Sanda is the most common fighting art here in China, and that was a natural starting point for me. The Sanda art consists of both striking and takedown and it converts really well to MMA. I was only 16 when I had my first professional Sanda fight and at age 17 I started training MMA and BJJ, and I just fell in love with the grappling art,” he said.

China is seen as an important market by the UFC with events regularly held in the Cotai Arena in Macau. Ultimately, the Las Vegas headquartered promotion wants to be on the Mainland and TUF: China was the first step towards establishing a mainstream media presence in the most populous country on the planet.

Having competed on the three best-known Chinese-based promotions, as well as some smaller local shows, Lipeng has been a part of the country’s burgeoning MMA scene for many years and believes TUF: China has helped to increase awareness in the sport and bolster its popularity.

“The interest for MMA and UFC in general I think has increased a lot. It’s an honour for me to be the first TUF China champion,” he said.

In the unlikely event he looks back at TUF: China with any sort of regret it will be because he spurned a golden opportunity to finish Sai in the opening round.

The 24-year-old sunk his hooks in and looked on the verge of securing a rear naked choke, but he allowed his opponent to escape and blames a lack of composure. Lipeng is now a fully fledged UFC fighter who is awaiting news on when and where his next matchup will take place.

His official record stands at 7-7-2 after the win over Wang and he has it all to prove, but no-one expected him to win TUF: China so he already has a track record when it comes to dispelling the doubters.

Asian fighters are starting to feature more regularly on UFC cards in the US, but Lipeng may have to wait until the organisation returns to Macau on 23 August to compete for the first time as a fully fledged Zuffa employee. So far he has only taken a tentative first step towards establishing himself as a permanent fixture on the 155 lbs roster, but after upsetting the odds to win TUF: China he is not short on belief.