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2021-04-19 10:14:31

In the center of a brightly lit wrestling ring, a middle-aged American teacher dressed in a sleeveless button-down shirt is losing patience with his Chinese student.

“Burger, burrr-gerrr!” repeats the English language instructor, throwing a picture of a hamburger to the floor in frustration. Then, he leaps forward and smashes his unsuspecting student with an elbow slam.

“Cowardly attack here by Steve the ESL Teacher,” the commentator quips. “Letting issues from his personal life creep into his business life again.”

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Steve the ESL Teacher chokes and strikes his student — a topless fighter in dark leggings known as Black Mamba — but the young Chinese recovers and throws him out of the ring. After trading more blows, Black Mamba traps the American in a painful-looking submission hold, winning the fight to whoops from the gathered spectators.

Steve the ESL Teacher tests another fighter’s English during an episode of Middle Kingdom Wrestling’s show “Blast-off!”, recorded in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, 2020. Courtesy of MKW

Steve the ESL Teacher tests another fighter’s English during an episode of Middle Kingdom Wrestling’s show “Blast-off!”, recorded in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, 2020. Courtesy of MKW

The bout kicked off a recent episode of “Blast-off!” — an online show produced by the Chinese wrestling promotion Middle Kingdom Wrestling (MKW).

MKW is one of a handful of groups trying to hook China on “pro wrestling” — a combination of sport and soap opera featuring scripted fights between spandex-clad athletes — by putting a local spin on the Western art form.

Pro wrestling is popular around the world and has established rich subcultures in countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico, and Japan. The sport’s most famous franchise, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), has grown into a bona fide cultural phenomenon, generating annual revenues of nearly $1 billion and producing stars such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and John Cena.

If we made wrestling part of Chinese culture … that would be overwhelmingly satisfying.

In China, however, pro wrestling remains largely unknown. Though WWE has been promoting itself in the country for a while, recruiting Chinese fighters and hosting live events in Shanghai and Shenzhen, it remains niche. On Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, WWE has just over 3 million fans.

But that hasn’t discouraged China-based wrestling evangelists like Adrian Gomez, MKW’s American founder. He’s convinced it’s only a matter of time until the sport finds a broader audience among Chinese fans and develops its own unique scene.

“I want to make a huge impact on the wrestling industry,” Gomez tells Sixth Tone. “If we made wrestling part of Chinese culture … through our blood, sweat, and tears, that would be overwhelmingly satisfying.”

Based in the northeastern city of Harbin, the 33-year-old has poured his energy — and savings — into building up MKW over the past six years.

The group now promotes pro wrestling through an array of channels, teaching wrestling at its training center, posting fight footage online, and creating its scripted show. To make extra cash, they also stage fights at shopping malls, bars, and new real estate developments, acting as paid entertainment for often-bemused passersby.

Running on a shoestring budget, MKW relies on a motley crew of Chinese and expat amateur wrestlers to put on shows — most of them “weekend warriors” who work as teachers and marketing professionals during the week. Though the fight sequences aren’t quite as polished as those in WWE Raw, the troupe stands out by tailoring its content to local audiences.

MKW fighter Plata Mascaras performs a throw on rival Ash Silva during shooting for an episode of “Blast-off!”, in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, April 2, 2021. Courtesy of MKW

MKW fighter Plata Mascaras performs a throw on rival Ash Silva during shooting for an episode of “Blast-off!”, in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, April 2, 2021. Courtesy of MKW

The villain, Steve the ESL (English as a Second Language) Teacher, cements his bad-guy status by bringing textbooks for the IELTS — an English exam loathed by Chinese students — into the ring. He battles heroes such as Bamboo Crusher, a Chinese fighter with painted panda eye marks.

Other shows have featured cameos by the Monkey King — a character from the classic Chinese novel “Journey to the West” — and a shady businessman who pays his bodyguard in traditional red envelopes stuffed with cash. The promotion even named its second title “The Belt & Road Championship,” in a nod to China’s global infrastructure initiative.

These performances have proven popular among surprising groups, such as China’s cosplaying community, according to Gomez. On one memorable occasion, MKW performed a show to an audience dressed in anime costumes and traditional Chinese hanfu robes, he recalls.

But turning wrestling into a profitable business has been a struggle, Gomez admits. Though he has managed to live purely on the income from MKW since 2019, there have been times when he considered throwing in the towel.

“Financially, it’s always been tough,” he says. “We’re always scrapping and scratching to keep alive each year.”

The MKW fighter Coldray strikes his opponent, DC Chen, during an episode of “Blast-off!”, in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, April 2, 2021. Courtesy of MKW

The MKW fighter Coldray strikes his opponent, DC Chen, during an episode of “Blast-off!”, in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, April 2, 2021. Courtesy of MKW

A longtime wrestling fan, Gomez started MKW in 2015 while he was still working as a foreign teacher, giving English classes on weekdays and using all his free time to plan and run wresting events. Initially, he funded the entire operation — from venue hire fees, to travel and fighter expenses — through his 12,000 yuan ($1,800) monthly teacher’s salary.

Unsurprisingly, the project soon led to stress, debt, and “arguments at home” with his newly wedded wife, Gomez says. After one disastrous early show in Thailand, when the death of the Thai king obliterated ticket sales, Gomez was left with a 150,000 yuan hole in his pocket.

“It was a huge financial burden … and it didn’t look like there was a way out, but miraculously we found more support (from an investor),” Gomez says.

Liu “The Slam” Xuanzheng, founder of China Wrestling Entertainment, China’s first pro wrestling group, lifts up his opponent during a show at a mall in Dongguan, Guangdong province, 2016. Courtesy of Liu Xuanzheng

Liu “The Slam” Xuanzheng, founder of China Wrestling Entertainment, China’s first pro wrestling group, lifts up his opponent during a show at a mall in Dongguan, Guangdong province, 2016. Courtesy of Liu Xuanzheng

Running wrestling events in China, meanwhile, remains challenging: Not only have few locals ever heard of pro wrestling, making it hard to sell tickets, the authorities often mistake the performances for genuine violence, Gomez says.

When MKW organized its first gig in Harbin in 2017, Gomez had sold close to 100 tickets and submitted all the required documentation to the venue. But just three hours before the fighters were due to enter the ring, local police arrived and shut down the show, saying the fights amounted to “anarchy,” says Gomez.

The group was forced to refund all the spectators and issue an apology. The wrestlers who had traveled to Harbin for the show went sightseeing instead.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been another “gut punch,” Gomez says, leading to a slew of canceled events and making it harder to fly in fighters, due to ever-changing quarantine rules.

Yet the American remains upbeat about MKW’s prospects. He still believes pro wrestling is a good fit for China, due to its rich culture and history of martial arts. And although there is still a small number of hardcore Chinese wrestling fans, they’re eager to see a homegrown promotion succeed, he says.

“If you’re a wrestling fan, you want to see wrestling in your home country, you want to see it live,” says Gomez.

A collage showing OWE fighters posing in various group outfits in studio photo shoots and onstage in Shanghai, 2017-2020. From @ OWE东方职业摔角 on Weibo

A collage showing OWE fighters posing in various group outfits in studio photo shoots and onstage in Shanghai, 2017-2020. From @ OWE东方职业摔角 on Weibo

Other Chinese wrestling promotions, meanwhile, have tried to break into the mainstream using a more radical approach.

In 2017, a brash group of Shanghai-based entrepreneurs set up an outfit named Oriental Wrestling Entertainment (OWE). Rather than tweaking Western wrestling to suit the Chinese market, they promised to create a brand-new entertainment product — a fusion of wrestling, Japanese-style idol culture, and Chinese martial arts, or “kung fu s---,” as Michael Nee, the group’s outspoken vice president, has described it.

After raising $10 million from investors, OWE hand-picked a troupe of 50 handsome young fighters from martial arts schools around the Shaolin Temple and retrained them as pro wrestlers under the arduous tutelage of Nobuhiko Oshima — the Japanese wrestler better known as Cima.

We spent money like crazy. It was like, ‘hey, let’s do it!’

They then set about packaging the all-male wrestling team in the style of a large boy band. Each member was given a striking character name — examples include The Hunbelievable Benji, The Elegant One Zhoudong, and The Freaking One Bad Boy — and encouraged to post regularly to social media. An entire team of media professionals was hired to craft content and promotional materials, which often featured the fighters posing in matching pink suits, or cowboy hats and open shirts.

“We spent money like crazy,” recalls Nee, swiping away imaginary money with his hands. “It was like, ‘hey, let’s do it!’”

OWE kept its troupe on a relentless schedule for the first two years. They filmed a TV show, made guest appearances on several others, and put on events in Shanghai and overseas, including several wildly successful gigs in Japan.

In these shows, the fighters would perform a spectacular mix of synchronized dances, kung fu routines using swords and spears, and acrobatic wrestling fights. Early performances even featured guest appearances from SNH48 — the popular Chinese girl band.

But by mid 2019, reality had caught up with OWE, Nee says. Neither the TV show nor the live events were profitable. Their fan base was scattered across the country and skewed toward lower-income groups. And they were burning through money at an alarming rate.

“There was no market. There was nothing,” says Nee. “Nobody knows about (pro wrestling), and nobody cares.”

OWE’s vice president, Michael Nee, rests backstage during a gig at Punch Cage, in Shanghai, March 19, 2021. Courtesy of Luiz Vagostelo

OWE’s vice president, Michael Nee, rests backstage during a gig at Punch Cage, in Shanghai, March 19, 2021. Courtesy of Luiz Vagostelo

With just 15 million yuan left in the bank, the group was forced to take drastic measures. They shut down most of their operations and moved to Cambodia, setting up a fight bar in the tourist city of Siem Reap. The shows proved lucrative, but the pandemic torpedoed the venture and forced OWE to return to Shanghai.

Since then, the troupe has performed a range of commercial gigs. On Thursday and Sunday nights, OWE now has a regular slot at a Shanghai nightclub called Punch Cage, and they recently started staging fights at a suburban night market.

For the athletes, who are among the best-trained wrestlers in China, it’s a frustrating experience, Nee admits. The downtown nightclub only has an MMA-style cage for performances, meaning the fighters can’t perform their most impressive moves. Often, they end up beating each other up outside the ring, surrounded by tables of clubbers.

“You think we want to be here? We don’t want to be here,” says Nee. “We’re just looking for a way to survive.”

For every Chinese wrestling promotion, these paid events are currently an unavoidable necessity. The gigs can take place in a huge variety of venues, from variety shows, to beer festivals and water parks.

But Gomez, the MKW founder, says he’s careful to avoid gigs he feels would harm the image of pro wrestling in China. For this reason, he won’t accept a show if the venue is unable to provide a proper wrestling ring.

“We don’t want to give off a cheap feeling of wrestling,” says Gomez. “Wrestling is still in the investment period in China, but we’re building a culture.”

OWE fighters wrestle outside the cage among tables of clubbers at the fight bar Punch Cage in Shanghai, March 19, 2021. Courtesy of Luiz Vagostelo

OWE fighters wrestle outside the cage among tables of clubbers at the fight bar Punch Cage in Shanghai, March 19, 2021. Courtesy of Luiz Vagostelo

This concern is understandable. Over the years, many local promotions have faced criticism from China’s small community of committed wrestling fans, who tend to perceive domestic ventures as cheap imitations of WWE launched to cash in on the American product’s success.

“They just think that Chinese wrestlers hang around in bars and do weird shows in them,” says Chen Nan, an accountant and longtime Chinese wrestling fan. “They consider it a disgrace to pro wrestling … and that they’re not as muscular or skilled as WWE stars.”

Sometimes, angry fans will troll local wrestlers online in the harshest possible terms, according to Chen. “In the comments sections, they’ll swear at them,” he says. “Very hurtful and ugly things … some keyboard warriors will say really over-the-top stuff.”

Gomez says MKW hasn’t been the butt of such negativity. Though he recognizes his shows aren’t yet in the same league as WWE, he says fans appreciate their authenticity and have been extremely supportive.

“This is what keeps me going — I know this is going to pay off,” he says. “The fans are going to have a product they can be proud of.”

Left: OWE’s popular fighter Benji poses for a photo; right: Benji fights with Zhao Junjie at Punch Cage, in Shanghai, March 19, 2021. Courtesy of Luiz Vagostelo

Left: OWE’s popular fighter Benji poses for a photo; right: Benji fights with Zhao Junjie at Punch Cage, in Shanghai, March 19, 2021. Courtesy of Luiz Vagostelo

The fashion-forward fighters of OWE, however, haven’t been so fortunate. Abroad, the group has been well-received as an exotic new product, but in China they’ve attracted vitriol from fans who see their boy band aesthetic as inauthentic and an affront to wrestling.

“This small group of fans thought there’s very little happening in China,” says Nee. “Then suddenly, there’s a big group of 50 wrestlers, looking good, dancing. (They thought,) ‘what the f---, man? You’re just an idol company, this isn’t a wrestling company.’”

The problem of fan hate has been so severe, one of China’s top pro wrestling social media influencers — who goes by the handle Wrestling Brother — once called on fans to calm down. In a video message in late 2018, he urged fans to give domestic wrestlers a chance and go to see a live show, rather than judging them purely by their video content.

Chinese wrestlers are willing to spend vast sums of money on this activity ... Maybe they really are stupid.

“It wasn’t until I really experienced this industry that I discovered the group of people who organize wrestling matches don’t at all — as I used to believe — do it to make money by copying WWE,” he said in the video. “Instead, they’re a group of old boys that love wrestling.”

Wrestling Brother went on to remind his viewers that most Chinese promotions run at a loss, but continue to put on shows for the love of the sport and in the hope it’ll one day catch on.

“They’re willing to spend vast sums of money on this activity, which isn’t well-regarded in China,” he said. “Maybe they really are stupid.”

Stupid or not, Nee says OWE is determined to fight on, because they believe they have a unique product. The night market gig will provide a steady source of income for the next year, and Nee plans to stream the fights via the website Fight.tv, to let the world know they’re still available for international shows

“How far can we go? I don’t know. But we were at the bottom, and now we’ve found a way to survive,” says Nee. “Can we get back to the top? We don’t know, but we insist on carrying on. There’s always an opportunity.”

Zhao Junjie, an OWE fighter who used to perform onstage dressed as the warrior god Guan Yu, says he’s certain pro wrestling has a future in China, because the market is simply so big.

“It’d be like someone in the past saying that China doesn’t suit having cellphones,” he says. “How is that possible?”

Left: Zhao Junjie holds the Oriental Wrestling Entertainment championship belt, while wearing makeup identifying him as the Chinese war god Guan Yu; right: Zhao strikes another OWE fighter during a show in Japan, 2019. Courtesy of Zhao Junjie

Left: Zhao Junjie holds the Oriental Wrestling Entertainment championship belt, while wearing makeup identifying him as the Chinese war god Guan Yu; right: Zhao strikes another OWE fighter during a show in Japan, 2019. Courtesy of Zhao Junjie

Zhao Junjie is filmed pretending to beat up a group of “little fresh meat” boy band members played by other OWE fighters for a TikTok video, in downtown Shanghai, March 5, 2021. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

Zhao Junjie is filmed pretending to beat up a group of “little fresh meat” boy band members played by other OWE fighters for a TikTok video, in downtown Shanghai, March 5, 2021. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

Zhao has become a fanatical devotee of wrestling since joining OWE. He was especially inspired by the veteran American fighters he trained with in the early days, who continued to wrestle even though it hadn’t brought them wealth or fame, he says.

“They refused to give up wrestling, even if it meant they had to go without food, change jobs, or earn a very feeble or not-great salary,” he recalls. “I thought to myself, what on Earth is it that makes these people maintain such passion?”

But Zhao himself has bigger dreams. He believes pro wrestling will only truly take off in China when a Chinese fighter scales the ranks of WWE and becomes a national hero — as Zhang Weili’s victories in the Ultimate Fighting Championship have helped spread awareness of mixed martial arts in China.

He hopes that person will be him.

“My ultimate life goal is to promote this sport of wrestling in China,” says Zhao. “When people mention this sport, the first person they’ll think of is me, just like how in boxing, people think of Tyson or Ali.”

Editor: Dominic Morgan.

(Header image: A wrestler backflips off the ring during a show for Middle Kingdom Wrestling, in Ningxiang, Hunan province, 2016. Courtesy of MKW)