Last April Xu Xiaodong, a 40-year-old Beijing based mixed martial arts fighter and coach, became famous overnight after footage of him fighting Tai Chi master Wei Lei went viral. In the footage, which was shot in a gym in Chengdu, Xu battered Wei, knocking him out in ten seconds.
The fight was a result of an internet beef between Xu and Wei, which had played out over Chinese social media platform Weibo. The two had been arguing about the value of traditional martial arts and whether it was an appropriate system of self defense. The argument eventually turned into a challenge to see if Wei’s Tai Chi could beat Xu’s MMA.
After the fight Xu posted videos to Weibo calling out China’s legions of traditional martial artists. He stated that Kung Fu disciplines like Tai Chi and Wing Chun were ‘a lie’ and that he would expose any traditionalist who was brave enough to fight him. He even offered a prize of 1.2 million yuan ($174,000) to any martial artist who could beat him.
Xu’s challenge went viral just like the video of his fight with Wei. Numerous Chinese celebrity martial artists — some with supposed supernatural powers — accepted the challenge. A Chinese business magnate got in on the action, too, offering an additional 10 million yuan ($1.4 million) to the martial artist who could beat Xu.
Then, everything went away. Xu’s videos disappeared from Weibo. So did many posts from individuals discussing Xu and his crusade against the ‘fakers’ inside traditional martial arts. It is believed that China’s government, which has censured Weibo many times before, was behind this.
It has been theorized that the ruling Communist Party was not thrilled with an MMA fighter hurting the reputation of traditional Chinese martial arts; which are an integral component of Chinese culture, tourism, and diplomacy. Shortly after the posts were removed from Weibo, Xu gave an interview stating he would be quiet from now on and focus on traditional martial arts himself.
However, Xu’s time away from the limelight was short-lived. In June, 2017 he tried to orchestrate a group fight between MMA fighters and Tai Chi practitioners in Shanghai. That was stopped by police.
This March Xu beat up a Wing Chun master in front of a throng of TV cameras. This fight, which was attended by police officials took place in a temple of sorts and appeared more like a variety show segment than a street fight.
Last week TIME released a short video featuring an interview with Xu. For their piece TIME reporter Charlie Campbell went to the Shaolin Temple, on Mount Songshan in Henan Province, to ask the monks their opinions on the brash and outspoken Xu.
Shaolin temple abbot Shi Yong Xin told TIME that Xu is doing something positive for traditional martial arts. The mystic arts associated with the Shaolin temple have become commercialized in recent years, with numerous schools and gyms claiming to contain the secrets of the Shaolin monks. These schools and practitioners churn out DVDs and other products. Some of these schools and their leaders, who are not affiliated with the actual Shaolin temple, claim they can teach people otherworldly techniques; like blocking energy flow and emitting thunderwaves.
Some within the wulin (the collective term for China’s martial arts community) are sickened by this trend in martial arts. “Xu is doing the right thing by fighting fake Kung Fu,” said Shi. Though, the abbot also told TIME that Xu, despite being a ‘good guy’, was only an amateur MMA fighter and that there were probably “a hundred people in Henan province alone” that could beat him up.
Shi is happy for Xu to expose ‘martial artists’ who claim to have supernatural powers and he hopes that this crusade will hurt charlatans’ abilities to profit from those claims. However, unlike Xu, he doesn’t see any point in comparing actual traditional martial arts to mixed-martial-arts. With TIME Shi made the case that Kung Fu is spiritual, rather than just physical and that it has the power to bring about inner peace (not superpowers).
“A lot of people are scammed by fake martial arts, they are brainwashed,” Xu told TIME. “What I want to do is fight the fakery and let them know what is true.”
Xu revealed that his mission has lead to a backlash he was not prepared for. “A lot of people, more than I expected, insulted me. They said that I undermined Chinese traditional martial arts, and attacked Chinese culture.”
“Chinese people want to know the truth about everything,” added Xu. “Kung Fu is a dream for everyone, especially for Chinese men. But there is a lot of fakery in this dream, most of it is fake. I was attacked because I revealed what people believed in was fake. People don’t like to admit that they were fooled.”
The initial backlash forced Xu into isolation, which included months in 2017 were he hid from the public entirely. “I have to think about my family. At that time, I was afraid of going out with my family in public. I felt lonely, but I have to do this in order to protect my family.”
Xu’s actions have coincided with a meteoric rise in the popularity of MMA in China. Bellator MMA veteran Vaughn Anderson, who is now based in China, told TIME that when he moved to Beijing in 2008 there were maybe five MMA shows a year. Today he said there could be 10 in a single weekend.
Anderson is a trainer at EnBo Fight Club in Chengdu, which became infamous last year when it was revealed the club’s enigmatic and mysterious leader En Bo had taken in hundreds of orphans and ‘left behind’ children and trained them in MMA. En Bo’s gym housed, fed, and educated these children, who would then fight at local MMA shows and work for En Bo in roles such as drivers and bodyguards.
Since this became public knowledge many of these children were seized from EnBo and returned to their original communities, where they were enrolled in school.
The popularity of MMA in China is set to increase even more thanks to in-roads being made by the UFC. In November 2017 the UFC put on a Fight Night card in Shanghai headlined by Michael Bisping and Kelvin Gastelum. That event included Song Yadong, who had trained at EnBo in the past. Next week the UFC makes its debut in Beijing, a city of over 21 million people, with UFC Fight Night: Blaydes vs. Ngannou 2.
With MMA in China set for another popularity bump, Xu Xiaodong is showing no signs of stopping his crusade to expose fakery in traditional martial arts. Post UFC Beijing, the next time Xu takes on a traditionalist — whether it’s in a temple or a back alley — a lot more people might be paying attention.