The panda is known for its charm — but also its bite.
A 30-year-old Chinese woman nicknamed “The Panda” has become the inaugural strawweight women’s world title holder in the ONE Championship, an international competition for mixed martial arts (MMA).
On Sunday in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, Xiong Jingnan claimed her victory over Singapore’s Tiffany Teo with a flurry of thunderous punches from her Brazilian jujitsu training. According to the official press release, Xiong ended the bout in the fourth round in front of the match’s estimated 1.7 billion viewers across 136 countries.
Xiong’s rousing win sparked interest in MMA on Chinese social media. “I want to ask, where can I watch it live?” one netizen wrote on microblog platform Weibo. “Awesome, I want to learn,” another commented.
“Every sport in China is trying to find their own Yao Ming,” Tom Elsden told Sixth Tone, referring to China’s most successful basketball player, who played for the NBA’s Houston Rockets.
Elsden, a senior client manager for a company that handles digital marketing in China for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the top American MMA organization, added that Xiong’s standout performance marks another step forward for MMA’s popularity in China. He told Sixth Tone that UFC has hit 100 million total video views in China.
The country’s most recent Five-Year Plan, unveiled in 2016, stressed the development of athletics, setting an ambitious target for the sports industry to generate more than 3 trillion yuan ($470 billion) by 2020 — an estimated 1 percent of that year’s gross domestic product (GDP). According to state news agency Xinhua, the sector accounted for 1.9 trillion yuan in 2016, with higher growth than overall GDP.
Dai Shuanghai, a Beijing-based MMA agent, told Sixth Tone that the Chinese mainland now sees up to half a dozen MMA competitions each week, usually in second-tier cities, where venue costs are lower. Dai was an MMA fighter himself 10 years ago, but he later retired to focus on managing athletes.
Small competitions typically pay athletes a few thousand yuan as an appearance fee, from which Dai takes a 25- to 30-percent cut. “But some big gigs pay up to 60,000 yuan per participating athlete,” Dai said.
Though MMA is growing, it is still combating unhealthy first impressions. “One thing that MMA has to worry about is moving away from the bloody image of the sport,” Elsden said. “Upholding stringent regulations on performance and weight-cutting, and leading the way for sports in terms of [eliminating] doping will support this push,” he added.
The sport has seen a few stumbling blocks in China. In May 2017, social media reveled in an MMA fighter knocking out a self-professed tai chi master in 10 seconds, but in July the same year, commenters criticized an MMA club that was training 400 young orphans. Authorities investigated the club owner to determine whether the adoptions were legal, but the results have yet to be announced.
Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify Tom Elsden’s role.
Editor: Qian Jinghua.
(Header image: Xiong Jingnan became the ONE Championship’s first strawweight mixed martial arts world champion in Jakarta, Indonesia. Jan. 20, 2018. ONE Championship)