|Wu Haotian hits the pads at China Top Team. (Photo: CRIENGLISH.com/Cui Chaoqun)
By Stuart Wiggin
Contributors: Liu Yuanhui, Cui Chaoqun
BEIJING, Sept. 18 (Xinhuanet) -- The sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) is touted as the fastest growing sport in the world. In China, the sport is in its infant stages with gyms popping up across the country full of budding athletes attempting to make their fortune with their fists. One such athlete is Wu Haotian, considered something of a veteran in the Chinese MMA scene having fought 16 times since 2007. Hailing from Inner Mongolia, Haotian came to Beijing in 2003 with very little cash and no grasp of Mandarin.
Fast forward to present day and Haotian is firmly established within the world of Chinese MMA; currently preparing for his first fight of the year. Varying his training routine on a daily basis, Wu Haotian and the rest of his team are at a running track in the center of the city as they carry out an early morning fitness session. As the group mixes up intense shuttle runs with full laps of the track, it is clear to see the difference in muscular fitness between those fighters approaching competition and those who are between fights. The high intensity of the workout combined with the heat helps Wu shed weight as he approaches the 70 kg weight limit for his upcoming matchup.
But today isn't particularly special for Wu, despite the fact that he has a fight coming up. "From Monday to Friday, I lead a very simple life. Apart from training, there is nothing to do," Wu explains as the morning session comes to an end. The group of young men and several women, all of whom are members of the China Top Team gym, one of China's best MMA teams, pile into two minivans to head back to the team's base; a small building in a hutong alley near Sihui subway station. Leading the convoy is well-known fighter Zhang Tiequan, who became the first Chinese fighter to sign for the world's biggest MMA promotion, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Zhang's top of the range vehicle provides his teammates with a clear sign of what awaits them if they can be successful in the ring.
For a man who has in the past chosen to remain stranded in the rain after training rather than pay the cost of a bus fare to get home, Wu seems particularly upbeat. His family almost never watches him compete and he rarely talks to his older siblings. "They daren't watch me compete; they're too worried," explained Wu. "If I'm hit, they'll cry," he explains with a laugh. After all, getting hit is something that happens to him on a daily basis in training.
After a ten minute drive eastwards, the team departs near the Tonghui River and starts to walk through a tile market and onwards into the narrow hutongs which lie beyond the fourth ring road. The nearby metropolis of Beijing's sprawling skyscrapers couldn't feel farther away as Wu arrives at a two storey building situated along a narrow dirt track road. Bird cages hang from the second floor and washing hangs outside the main entrance. The gym rents the ground floor of the building and the fighters live in the assorted rooms. Wu's dimly lit space is around 4 meters squared. The wall is adorned with a huge poster of a beautiful Chinese girl and propped up against the wall, next to his protein shake mix, is his primary means of transport; a mountain bike.
While the team relaxes after a hard training session, the camaraderie that exists between the group is clear to see. Though the fighters have little in terms of possessions and belongings, there is clearly a strong bond of friendship that exists between them brought about no doubt by the fact that each one struggles financially and physically in order to pursue their chosen career. Haotian is no stranger to tough times as he was more than willing to explain. One of eight children, Wu comes from a poor family in Inner Mongolia. He dropped out of school at an early age and herded sheep for two years. At the suggestion of one of his brothers who saw an advertisement offering free martial arts classes, Haotian traveled to Beijing. Upon his arrival he found a job as a security guard which provided him with a salary of 300 yuan per month, a little less than 50 US dollars.
A year later, having learnt very little, Wu returned to Inner Mongolia only to find himself back in Beijing at the end of the year to train under a martial arts master in Pinggu, a suburb of Beijing. Once again, Wu found work as a security guard. During this stint Wu began to feel increasingly isolated as a result of his situation. In a massive departure from the masculine nature of his sport and the image exuded by many foreign athletes, Haotian is at ease explaining his past hardships and personal feelings; admitting that he would cry when the pressure got to him in those early days.
Strange new surroundings, a difficult financial situation and the added pressure of new teammates disparaging him meant that Wu's first few years in Beijing were extremely challenging. "I didn't cry in the day time, I would only cry at night. After 2005, I rarely cried. Sometimes I didn't know how to cry; it was like I had no tears left. Even if I was sad, there weren't any tears left." But Wu believes that the difficulties he faced in those first few years helped to improve him as a person and as a fighter. He persisted in his martial arts studies and in 2006 Wu decided to begin training MMA. He saved around 5000 yuan to study and live, rented a basement room for 300 yuan and mostly ate very little in order to save money.
Looking back on that time, Wu remarks, "Training was hard; we started training from 9 am at the Olympic Sports Center. I would often get up at 7. To save money I wouldn't eat in the morning. Taking the bus saved me money too; it cost 1 yuan to get there. I didn't have a bike at that time. I wouldn't go back in the afternoon. And sometimes I would run home just to save money." Thankfully, Wu's natural ability led to him reeling off 11 wins in 12 fights between May 2007 and March 2012; including a year hiatus during the Olympic year of 2008 when organized competitions came to a halt.
His first and only loss during that period came at the hands of a fighter who was virtually unknown and has not fought since. Wu looks back on that defeat with a huge amount of regret and admits that his careless attitude was to blame. His career rebounded but he has lost three of his last four fights and the stakes have been incredibly high. A recent fight under the RUFF banner held a possible winner's purse of 1 million RMB, around 160,000 US dollars. Wu lost the fight and walked away with a little over 10,000 yuan. During that time however, Wu found a new fighting family when he joined China Top Team in 2012. The gym takes care of fighters' lodgings and food and helps to organize fights for the cost of 1000 yuan a month.
Having turned down fairly well-paid job offers to work as a bodyguard, money is a constant bugbear for Wu and his lack of funds prevent him from doing fulfilling what he believes is his duty. "I miss my parents and I want to send them some money. But sometimes I don't even have a penny to my name. How can I send them money? I really feel want to help my mom and dad, take care of them; but the willingness in my heart isn't enough. I can't help them; I can't do anything for them here. But if I go home to take care of them, I have nothing for myself." On top of his filial turmoil, Wu also plans to get married to his girlfriend in the coming 6 months; another costly expense.
Wu admits that the life of a fighter is hard and the nature of the business in China is fickle. After his defeats, advertisement and endorsement opportunities dried up but he remains incredibly positive in and outside the gym. "I like MMA so I like this kind of life. If you don't love the sport, you wouldn't be able to live this life. Hardship can also provide you with joy as you get to experience the kind of life normal know nothing about." With plans to continue fighting for the next 6 to 7 years, Wu has no intention of seeking out an easier life away from the excitement and adrenaline that his sport provides him.