My name is Robert LL and I have lived in China for four years now. I am a blue belt under the head of Art of War FC, Andy Pi, and have worked several Art of War events. Currently I train as a blue belt under Ruy Menezes at China Top Team alongside Chinese fighters URCC MW Champ Zhang Tie Quan and Li Jing Liang. I speak Chinese and have been watching MMA since UFC I.
But enough about me.
Jonathan Snowden's article did a good job of summarizing the history of Chinese MMA, the Chinese market and business in China. But nonetheless it did seem negative. Yes, entering China is harder than it looks and a good product and expertise alone won't cut it; however, Zuffa's proposed two-year plan of gradually promoting MMA in China suggests they are aware of this.
Snowden is right: by not appealing to Chinese nationalism or putting Chinese fighters on its cards, the UFC would be stacking the odds against itself. But for every reason the fastest-growing sport in the world wouldn't succeed in the world's fastest-growing economy there is a reason why it would. Namely: the Sheikh, Chinese nationalism and San Da.
The Sheikh and UAE
Snowden's first question of "Why would the same strategies [that Sheik ban Zayed employed] work better with a promotion that is even more foreign than Art of War, which at least was fronted by two Chinese Americans?" seems to miss the big picture Lorenzo Fertitta alluded to.
Answer: Zuffa is a better business partner: Zuffa is more seasoned, offers more resources and is a more organized and established entity than Art of War: The Sheikh is involved in the funding of MMA; branding is left to his partners. In Art of War we saw the Sheikh act as the main financial backer of an MMA promotion; in the UFC he holds 10% of the company.
That is why the Sheikh partnered with Zuffa. But why did Zuffa partner with the Sheikh?
The UAE and China have long been business and political partners and according to the Abu Dhabi-China Economic Forum held earlier this week, their relationship is expected to strengthen. In Sheik bin Zayed, Zuffa has a powerful political ally to help navigate the foreign waters of China's business and political environments. They are much better off entering China with the UAE than without it. That is unquestionable.
So, now the UFC has the help they need to clear the political hurdles of setting up shop in China. But ultimately success in China will depend on Zuffa's, not the Sheikh's, expertise: branding.
And how do you brand MMA in China: nationalism.
Snowden summarized it well: Chinese nationalism heavily influences Chinese culture. Martial arts in China is a thickly bureaucratic business and an essential part of Chinese culture. To succeed, the UFC would have to promote Chinese Martial Arts in some way. Marketing MMA as a new fighting form and then having that fighting form defeat Chinese fighting forms is nothing short of insulting in the eyes of Chinese officials and, quite frankly, would never happen.
Case in point: Sometimes San Da fighters take part in MMA matches against heavily outmatched foreign MMA opponents. This is done to reinforce national opinion of Chinese Martial Arts' superiority.
Zuffa will have to avoid marketing MMA as a foreign entity. In the end, like any big company that enters China, Zuffa has to convince the Chinese government that MMA somehow contributes to the Chinese greater good. I suggest integrating MMA with CMA whenever possible as a way to promote Chinese Martial Arts and China to the world, thereby meeting the Party objective of enhancing China's global reputation.
If this is accomplished, just think of the possibilities: extremely nationalistic Chinese would flock to see the possibility of Chinese fighters defeating foreign combatants, especially American and Japanese.
The possibility of victorious Chinese fighters unleashing the nationalistic pride of their countrymen to sell out national sports stadiums is made all the more probable by Chinese fighters' background sport of choice: San Da.
The only competitive form of Wu Shu (general Chinese term meaning 'martial arts') is as close to MMA as any combat sport gets. It starts standing, is heavy on no-gi upper-body throws and clinchwork, and even allows for leg-takedowns. All that's missing is submissions.
Andy Pi and Art of War boldly trained San Da fighters in BJJ and proved what MMA fans have known for years: the ground game is necessary. Some of the biggest names in San Da came through the doors of Pi's Beijing Jiu-Jitsu Academy and none of them lost a single fight in AOW because of it. Yet those same big names opted to put their MMA careers on hold and pursue San Da instead, because China's first choice in combat martial arts is more respected and hence more lucrative.
If Zuffa could make those fighters some real money--which in the state-sponsored-fighter world of San Da is pretty rare--you could have some serious reputations putting themselves on the line against foreign competitors. And thus the masses are appealed to. All 1.3 billion of them.