Last week a mixed martial artist took on a Tai Chi master in a crowded gym in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. But for the modern rash guard and the preponderance of smart phones that ringed the jigsawed mat room, you might have mistaken the contest for a Gracie Challenge or Vale Tudo bout; much like what signaled the dawning of mixed martial arts and eventually the UFC.
The competitors in this duel, which began as an online quarrel, were Xu Xiaodong and Wei Lei. Gilaine Ng of The Straits Times described Xu, who is director of the Beijing MMA Association, as a ‘free-combat sportsman who taught himself MMA.’ Wei Lei was labeled a ‘Tai Chi master’ and founder of ‘Thunder-style’ Tai Chi by ejinsight (an offshoot of the Hong Kong Economical Journal).
As the fight began, Xu adopted a familiar MMA striking posture, whereas Wei raised both arms in a form akin to a praying mantis with feet so close together that they almost touched. After a second of surveying Wei’s pose, Xu went forward throwing bare-knuckle punches at the Tai Chi master’s dome. As Wei back-peddled, Xu landed a thudding left to his jaw, dropping him instantly. With Wei dazed and on the ground, Xu stood over him and landed heavy strikes to the sides of the master’s head until someone intervened and begged for mercy.
After brutally dispatching Wei, Xu told the onlookers that the fight wasn’t competitive and that Tai Chi was a ‘sham.’ According to ejinisght this prompted a number of Tai Chi masters to circle Xu and challenge him to a rematch. Reportedly, Xu ended up calling police after the Tai Chi proponents continued to argue with him for around half an hour. Later Xu turned to Chinese social media platform Weibo to double-down on his criticism of Tai Chi, stating that traditional martial arts styles were ‘a lie’ and that they had no use in actual combat or self defense.
The Straits Times states that Xu also posted an open challenge to martial artists to prove him wrong. On Weibo, Xu stated that he would take on any and all traditional martial artists in a no rules contest (including kicks to the groin and eye pokes). Xu also said he would pay 1.2 million yuan ($174,000) to anyone who beats him.
In his social media storm Xu, also challenged two-time Olympic champion boxer Zou Shiming. Zou’s agents told the Straits Times that the 35-year-old flyweight would not be responding to the challenge, given that Zou and Xu are “not on the same level.” On Weibo, Xu also challenged one of the bodyguards of Jack Ma, the billionaire owner of e-commerce site Alibaba. Ma responded to Xu’s challenge on Weibo stating - according to ejinsight - that, “Martial arts should be seen as something fun and that debate on various styles is pointless.”
Also according to ejinsight, Xu’s comments on traditional martial arts has enraged Chinese ‘wulin’ (a collective term for the Chinese martial arts community). The wulin is reported to be angered by Xu’s ‘arrogance’ and his debasing of the revered practice of Tai Chi.
Wei also made comments after fight, stating that the only reason he lost to Xu was because he was showing mercy and refraining from using his ‘internal strength.’ Wei reportedly said he feared Xu would be killed, had he used his full array of skills.
The Chinese Wushu Association, which promotes many martial arts in China and beyond, has condemned the fight between Xu and Wei, claiming it went against the principles of martial arts. Despite their condemnation, a number of traditional martial artists are eager to accept Xu’s challenge.
Straits Times reports that He Xi Rui, head of the Wudang Tai Chi sect, was one of the first to respond to Xu’s challenge. Using Weibo Xu wrote, “You are welcome to visit the Wudang Mountains to witness real martial arts.”
Lu Xing, another Tai Chi master - this time from the ‘Pushing Hands’ school in Sichuan Province - also accepted the challenge. Lu told Chengdu Business News that he’ll likely beat Xu thanks to his ‘iron fist’ which took more than twenty years to develop.
Yi Long, who has been marketed as ‘China’s strongest Shaolin monk’ also took to Weibo to accept Xu’s challenge. A fight with Xu would be familiar territory for Yi, who has previously tested his Kung Fu style boxing against western and Thai-style fighters.
Despite being billed as a Shaolin monk, a spokesperson from the Shaolin Temple stated in 2010 that Yi was not a monk from their order.
South China Morning Post reports that Li Shangxian, another Shaolin-style boxing practitioner, and Wang Zhanhai, a Tai Chi master, have also accepted Xu’s challenge. SCMP also reported that Chen Sheng, an entrepreneur who founded the drinks company Tiandi No. 1, was also getting in on the action by offering 10 million yuan ($1.4 million) to anyone who can defeat Xu.
With interest in Xu’s challenge to traditional martial artists gaining mainstream attention in China, it seems just a matter of time before more fights that pit MMA versus Tai Chi (and maybe kung fu) will make it to the internet. This, along with the most talked about fight on the planet being between a UFC champion and an undefeated boxer, could mean the era of style-versus-style match-making (aka ‘freakshow fights’) might not be dead after all.