Tomorrow evening’s WEC event may be headlined by one of the best pound for pound fighters in the world, but culturally speaking, a more significant MMA fight is occurring on the undercard.
Chinese Lightweight fighter Tiequan (or Tie Quan) Zhang makes his WEC and North American debut on the card headlined by Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo defending his title against former Ultimate Fighter contestant Manny Gamburyan.
The undefeated Zhang (11-0) will take on the also undefeated Pablo Garza. His original opponent, Jason Reinhardt, was removed from the bout by the Colorado State Boxing Commission due to fears over his prescription contacts (MMAJunkie has more details on the debacle).
Zuffa’s expansion into China started at the end of last month, when Dana White tapped former NBA executive Mark Fischer to head up the UFC‘s main Asia office in Beijing. Current plans incude a Chinese edition of “The Ultimate Fighter” and re-airing live UFC events on Chinese television.
There’s no question for the potential for the UFC to make money in China, as the country seems ready to embrace MMA and Zuffa is ready to break though. The question lies in whether Chinese fighters are ready for international competition.
Zhang will be the litmus test. His credentials are undeniable: at 16 he was a champion grappler in his native Mongolia, trains at a very high level in Sanshou, and was the first ever native Chinese Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner to attain a purple belt. All of his wins in professional fights came via first-round stoppages, with a variety of submissions (eight in total according to Sherdog) and a handful of knockouts. The videos available on the internet show a fighter with a lot of range who can grapple but also possesses quick, unforgiving, and brutally stiff punches.
The problem, naturally, is that it’s easy to look like a world-beater against fighters who aren’t world class. All of Zhang’s fights have taken place in China against competition that, with only two exceptions, haven’t fought anyone outside of the mainland. Eight of his ten opponents have losing records. Five of them are winless in their MMA careers, and three of them count the loss to Zhang as their one and only fight . His last two opponents have winning records, but both are unknown fighters and one of them he submitted twice in back to back bouts.
Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that Zhang has only fought twice in as many years.
This is not to say that Zhang can’t be successful. He’s clearly gifted and has all the necessary components of an elite fighter. The question is if he can bring those together and compete at a higher level.
Should he be successful, it could signal a change in the industry. Not just for potential success in China, but also for Southeast Asian fighters as a whole to break the dominance of the Americans and Brazilians. If Zhang proves impressive tomorrow night and can compete at an international level, it could potentially make him an icon for the sport in China. It will prove that there is a proven fighting system in place in the country and that it can be taught to the right kind of fighter, which will in turn encourage more athletes to put on the gloves.
In terms of talent, Zhang is a big fish in a tiny pond. At WEC 51, we’ll find out if he can swim with the sharks.
In the video below, Zhang taps out opponent Daniel Digby in “Legend Fighting Championship 2” in Hong Kong via rear naked choke in thirty seconds.
In another fight (which starts at the 4:20 mark) he finishes his opponent Shashi Sathe in less than 30 seconds with strikes. It exemplifies my earlier point about lack of competition, however, as Sathe seems almost completely neverous and unskilled. Once hit, he immediately covers up and curls up into a ball.