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Did China’s government shut down an MMA fighter’s challenge to Kung fu masters?

After an MMA fighter bested a Tai Chi master, traditional Chinese martial artists wanted revenge. Now the government might have stepped in to end the feud.

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Warrior Monks Of Shaolin Temple
FILE PHOTO - A member of the Shoalin Temple practices kung fu in Dengfeng, Henan Province.
Photo by Cancan Chu/Getty Images

Earlier this month, a fight between an MMA practitioner and a Tai Chi master went viral. The outcome of the fight, and the reaction of its participants, caused major controversy throughout both Chinese martial arts circles and popular culture. Now, it seems, the Chinese government has stepped in to squash the story.

The viral showdown that started this affair occurred between Xu Xiadong, the director of the Beijing MMA Association, and Wei Lei, founder of Thunder-style Tai Chi. The two had argued over popular Chinese social media platform Weibo regarding whether MMA or Tai Chi was superior. Eventually the two decided to settle their argument in a bare knuckle fight at a gym in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.

The fight was over in seconds, with Xu knocking Wei down and out. After the fight Xu slammed Tai Chi and traditional Chinese martial arts in general; calling them ‘shams.’ His tirade against traditional martial arts happened both at the gym and later on Weibo. In his social media rants, Xu championed mixed martial arts and challenged any traditional martial artist to a fight him, so he could continue proving MMA’s supremacy. Numerous martial artists accepted his challenge, including Yi Long - a popular kick boxer who claims to be a Shaolin monk - and former UFC fighter (and Tai Chi advocate) Nik Osipczak (per Andrew Judge).

Xu’s challenge reached mainstream attention in China after Chen Sheng, a tycoon who owns a popular juice brand, offered 10 million yuan ($1.4 million) to anyone who could beat Xu.

In the days that followed the fight, and Xu’s public challenge, reports emerged which claimed China’s ‘wulin’ was angered by what went down in Chengdu. Wulin is the term used in China to describe the collective community of traditional martial arts teachers and practitioners. The displeasure, which was stated publicly by at least the Chinese Wushu Association, was over the unsanctioned fight between Xu and Wei as well as the perceived disrespect showed by Xu after the contest.

Yesterday The Economist reported that Xu had experienced a “barrage of hate” online in reaction to his views of traditional martial arts. That report stated that Xu had appeared in a video on Weibo claiming, “I have lost my career and everything,” implying his job as an MMA coach had been affected by the negative publicity he had experienced.

The Economist also suggested that China’s government may have taken action to pull the plug on future bouts between Xu and traditional martial artists. The report claimed that China’s President Xi Jinping is a ‘fan’ of traditional Chinese culture and sees it as a valuable tool for promoting China abroad. Reportedly, Xu’s Weibo account was deleted days after he made his challenge to traditional martial arts (The Economist claims Xu also had posts on Weibo which were negative towards Mao Zedong, the leader of China’s Cultural Revolution and founder of its Communist Party). The Economist also stated that other articles on Weibo, that described the fight between Xu and Wei, were also pulled from the site.

China’s government is known to censor internet posts within the country. Last year Sam Stecklow of Select/All reported that Weibo itself operated under strict government supervision, with posts routinely deleted if they included sensitive topics. According to The Economist, after his Weibo account was taken down, Xu told the BBC that he was going to begin studying traditional Chinese martial arts, as well as keep quiet on the internet.

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