It started harmlessly enough. Brandon Resnick, a teenager from Shanghai who fell in love with jiu-jitsu at the age of eight, had one of those type of ideas kids have. Why wasn't there major mixed martial arts in China, he asked, naively ignoring a governmental stranglehold on organized competition. Someone should start a national promotion, he suggested.
And just like that, the seeds were planted. Five years later the government-sanctioned Ranik Ultimate Fighting Federation (RUFF) kicked off it's third full-scale event this past weekend, where a near-capacity crowd spilled into the Congqing Indoor Stadium to see their top national talent compete in a renaissance of ancient Chinese culture.
"The crowd went nuts," says Brandon's beaming dad, Joel Resnick, RUFF's co-founder and President. "They were screaming, they really, really got into it. It was what we'd been waiting for. We knew this was going to happen. And it really did."
For two former textiles workers from MMA-crazed Toronto, it was a rare moment of vindication to Joel and his partner Saul Rajsky, after a struggle that at times seemed insurmountable. The process was neither easy nor swift. But dealing with the government never is.
Prior to RUFF, tight regulation from the communist regime meant staging mixed martial arts events was a tall task in China. Sure, some amateur shows would pop up here and there, but only under the pretense of cultural or promotional exhibition -- a relatively easy request to get a permit for.
"We said, you know what, if we're going to do it, we need to do it as a sporting event," Resnick explains. "It has to be a sporting event and we have to be able to give out national championship belts."
Because a professional fighting permit was such a rare commodity, it took Resnick and Rajsky nearly half-a-decade to wade through the channels, scratching and clawing to be heard, often to no avail. "We went through all the different levels of the government. All the bureaucracy. We went through everybody, and people couldn't believe that we really wanted to do this.
"Everybody else (wanted to quit), but I was okay with it," Joel says with grin. "I think that's why the government finally gave us the permit. They saw we weren't going away. ... We were like a nagging pain in the neck."
Eventually Resnick's team hiked their way to the right people -- China's governing combat sports board, WUSHU -- and celebration soon followed. The Chinese government awarded Resnick the only professional fighting permit in the country, and just like that, RUFF was a national guinea pig, testing the viability of MMA in modern China.
With that golden ticket came the government's expansive well of resources, and a gameplan was quickly sketched out. First and foremost, this would be a promotion by China, for China. A roster of seven divisions, flyweight to light heavyweight, would be assembled from the finest national talent available. Foreigners would be allowed to compete, provided they live in China and are employed under a work permit. "You need to have some roots here," Joel says. "You need to be connected here somehow if you're going to be the country's national champion."
Their foundation firmly in place, Resnick's team then set out to implement the heart of their vision. The Super Fight. An unprecedented annual mega-event featuring seven title fights, where each winner is crowned national champion and given a life-changing grand prize of 1,000,000 RMB (roughly $170,000). "It's going to be like the Super Bowl," Joel proclaims.
"People couldn't believe it at the beginning. The comments we were getting back, ‘why? Why are you doing that? You could give out 50,000 RNB and people will be happy.' Yes, but you know what? We wanted to put our money where our mouth was and show that we are behind this sport. We're behind these athletes."
RUFF's vision is simple. Each year will largely work as a season, similar to most sports. Over the course of five to six events, promotion officials will determine the challengers who ultimately compete on the Chinese national stage. "It's not going to be just about who can knock who out and who can choke who out," Joel elaborates. "We're looking for a real country champion.
"Obviously your record is going to be one thing, but it won't be the only thing we're looking at for the competitors in the final. We're going to be looking at your community involvement, how you carry yourself, how you handle yourself, your qualities that you have, fighting ability, how many years you've been doing it, and probably when it comes down to the end, we're going to let the country help vote."
Along the way, Chinese fans will learn about the top contenders through an upcoming RUFF reality show. The series -- spearheaded by Emmy award-winning production wizards Neil and Michael Mandt, who list Super Bowls, Olympics broadcasts, and ESPN's Jim Rome is Burning among their credits -- will stray from the run-of-the-mill TUF format, instead focusing on storytelling, similar to mini-documentaries. "These kids have major, major stories behind them," Joel exclaims.
"One guy could never figure out why his mother was never around. She was working three jobs to pay for his training. She would leave at 6 o'clock in the morning and come back at midnight, and he didn't find this out until later in life, that's how they had to pay for his wrestling training because they wanted him to be a national wrestler.
"We want people to learn who these kids are and really follow them on this journey, because that night we're making seven millionaires here.
There's going to seven kids who really, in their wildest dreams, never had this chance."
So far Resnick's own dream has been well-received by both the Chinese population and the governing body that oversees the operation. And while building a roster out of such an isolated talent pool is a daunting order, the allure of a potential audience of over 1.3 billion people has über-sponsors like Nike and Ducati scampering to throw their hats into the cage. "The money really legitimizes the sport here," Joel laughs.
"We are getting a lot more of the national fighters coming out. They just weren't interested before -- there was never the proper motivation to come out. A wrestler would stick to his wrestling. ... Now there's the motivation for the wrestlers, the boxers to come out.
"It'll be a couple years, but in a couple years China's going to be a major, major force in MMA," he promises, grinning once more.
There's a very real chance Resnick could be right, but on the off chance he isn't, another venture like this won't be coming back around for a second try. "Before RUFF 2, somebody came up to me and said, ‘I don't want to put extra pressure on you, but martial arts in China is riding on your shoulders right now. If you don't succeed, there won't be MMA in China for 20 years.' So we have a huge responsibility here. We realize that, and we take it so seriously."
Ultimately, that is RUFF's burden. As China's lone window to embrace the newest, purest form of an ancient martial arts tradition, if Resnick fails, an entire generation will reap the fallout. But if RUFF does in fact thrive, the sporting culture of the world's most-populous country will be forever changed.
"There's a TV show here called China's Got Talent," Resnick confidently finishes. "That show has no stars. It really showed us, that's what we're doing here. We're finding the new stars. We're finding the future stars of China.
"We need to grow it internally. We need to find the Yao Ming of MMA. And that's what we're working on doing."