One of the biggest fights of the year in mixed martial arts takes place on Thursday night when Jose Aldo fights Manny Gamburyan for the featherweight champion of the world. But the fight that could be the most significant bout of the year will happen a few hours earlier on the same World Extreme Cagefighting card, and it will be largely overlooked and maybe not even shown on the television broadcast.
That fight features China's Zhang Tie Quan stepping into the cage to take on an American named Pablo Garza, and it represents a major opportunity for American MMA to break into the Chinese market.
Every American company is intrigued by the possibilities of expanding into China, and Zuffa (parent company of the WEC and UFC) is no different. And while it's not realistic to think Zhang could do for MMA what Yao Ming did for basketball, Zhang knows that if he succeeds on the American stage, he could have a huge impact on the growth of the sport in the world's most populous nation.
"It's very possible to have a UFC event in China," Zhang said through his translator, Aaron Randolph. "Chinese people like this kind of fighting. I think it could happen within two years. ... I think they wanted me to start in the WEC because they want to see how a Chinese athlete will compete in mixed martial arts abroad."
Zhang noted that martial arts have been a part of Chinese culture for thousands of years, and he senses growing interest in MMA among Chinese sports fans. But he also says that MMA could face some of the same problems in China that it did in America in the early days of the UFC.
"The biggest opposition will probably be from the central sports bureau fearing injury or safety," Zhang said. "It's the same situation you had in the 1990s with MMA in the U.S."
Randolph, who works as a consultant for the UFC and WEC in China, said streams of UFC events shown on sohu.com draw about 50,000 to 80,000 viewers in China. Fans in China tend to view sports in nationalistic terms, and MMA is no different. The Beijing-based Art of War MMA promotion often matches Chinese fighters with foreign opponents, and news articles about American MMA often try to relate it to Chinese forms of martial arts. An article about Jon Fitch beating Ben Saunders at UFC 111 had a headline that translated to "Bruce Lee student beaten by American wrestler" because Saunders studied Lee's martial art of Jeet Kune Do.
Zhang said he first saw a UFC fight in 2005 and immediately grew excited at the prospect of trying it. Zhang was already a professional sanshou fighter and had previously studied traditional Mongolian wrestling, and he decided to make the leap into a sport that combined all the martial arts techniques he had previously known, and more. Zhang cites Wanderlei Silva as a role model.
"He fights with ferocity," Zhang said of Silva. "I like that."
One of the refreshing things about Zhang is that he seems more focused on winning this week's fight than he does on becoming some kind of goodwill ambassador for the sport. Zhang knows that the way for him to help his chosen sport grow in his homeland is to succeed in the cage, and that's where his focus lies -- even after his opponent changed just three days before his fight.
"I look at all my opponents as the same," Zhang said. "I need to be ready for anyone."
So far in his MMA career, Zhang has built up a record of 11-0, and he has finished all 11 of his opponents in short order. But he acknowledges that neither his new bosses at the WEC nor anyone else in the United States has any real way of judging how good he is, based on the competition he has faced in China.
"They have no idea what the skill level will be, plus they're not sure about things like how I'll look in a cage instead of a ring and how I'll be with conditioning and my weight and that kind of thing," Zhang said.
Zhang says he'll feel some butterflies when the cage door closes on Thursday night, but nothing he can't handle.
"I'm going to have a little nerves because it's my first time in a cage and the first time in America, but I've had a lot of MMA fights, and probably close to 100 sanshou fights and so I'm very experienced," Zhang said. "A fight is a fight. I'm glad to be the first person to come over and do this but I don't want to put that much on myself, like I'm so important. I just want to do well and win this fight."