Jose Aldo is a dynamic young champion. I had breakfast with him once courtesy of my friends at the WEC and not only was he polite, but his sense of humor shone through despite working with a translator. I'm excited to see how far he can go in this sport and how Zuffa will attempt to bridge cultural and language gaps between Aldo and his fans.
But Jose Aldo's title defense against Manny Gamburyan at WEC 51 Thursday may not be the most important fight on the card. Lurking on the undercard of the event is Chinese fighter Zhang Tie Quan. Quan isn't a championship level fighter - not yet. But he carries on his back something more important than a world title. He carries the hopes and dreams of the Chinese people. Michael David Smith explains:
Every American company is intrigued by the possibilities of expanding into China, and Zuffa (parent company of the WEC and UFC) is no different. And while it's not realistic to think Zhang could do for MMA what Yao Ming did for basketball, Zhang knows that if he succeeds on the American stage, he could have a huge impact on the growth of the sport in the world's most populous nation.
"It's very possible to have a UFC event in China," Zhang said through his translator, Aaron Randolph. "Chinese people like this kind of fighting. I think it could happen within two years. ... I think they wanted me to start in the WEC because they want to see how a Chinese athlete will compete in mixed martial arts abroad."
Chinese consumers are hesitant to embrace American culture. The Chinese are distinctly their own people and not easily influenced by American glitz. Even when they do embrace an American product, they do it on their own terms. The hottest American import in the automobile market? It's the Buick. That's just China being China.
Like many countries, nationalism is a strong force there. Take basketball as an example. Basketball exploded in China only when Yao Ming became an international sensation. Unfortunately for Zuffa, there are no Chinese stars on the horizon and interest in the area seems minimal. Will a Chinese audience embrace a sport with no history in China and no Chinese competitors at a top level? That's a question the UFC has to ask themselves-and give an honest answer.
Is Zhang MMA's Yao Ming? It's hard to say. He's built an impressive record in Art of War, the leading local promotion. The level of competition, however, has hardly been at an international level. He's been given an opponent prime for plucking in TUF washout Pablo Garza. The WEC is giving him a chance to return to China bathed in glory. Whether he, and other Chinese stars to follow, can will make the difference in Zuffa's success or failure breaking into the Chinese market. No one with Zuffa will be blinking during this bout, the most important of the night - even if you never see it on TV.