Without context, getting punched and kicked in the head for a living is a pretty stupid idea. Yet, the sport of MMA is full of very smart individuals not just in the cage but outside of it.
In the latter half of the 2010s, athletes from China truly began making their presence felt. History was made as titles were captured and top contenders blossomed across multiple divisions.
While the rise to prominence in MMA for China is still a relatively new occurrence, the country has been loaded with combat sports specialists for longer than most — we’re just now starting to see it pay off in spades and that likely won’t change as time carries forth.
The secret recipe to China’s burgeoning success in the sport could be attributed to simply listening to your elders. What were we always told growing up? Stay in school, kids!
In China, that can pay off uniquely as schools with athletic programs are supported by the government. Meaning that families aren’t required to pay entry, training, food, and various other accommodation fees and even end up paying back the competitors if they win at the highest level in their provinces. Thus making turning to combat sports an easy door to open for many parents and their little ones.
For Kunming, Yunnan Province’s ShiMing, her descent into the melting pot that is MMA started with Taekwondo.
“When I was 13 years old, I already practiced Taekwondo and striking,” ShiMing told MyMMANews. “I joined a lot of striking matches and Taekwondo matches in middle and high school winning a lot of province championships. Because I only practiced on weekends, some holidays, winter holiday, and other times, I was studying at school.
“I practiced Taekwondo for many, many years until I went to university. Before my university, because I had already done a lot of striking competitions, there was one MMA event coming in 2015. At that time, most Chinese had never heard about MMA. But because of my striking background, I just joined and I never even knew what MMA is. But I joined and I won because of my striking skills. Then it was the start of my MMA career.”
Born in November 1994, China’s ShiMing finds herself as one of her nation’s hottest young prospects. Boasting a strong 12-3 record, the atomweight hopeful is motivated by her fellow countrywomen to take her career to new heights.
Obtaining her black belt in taekwondo after two to three years, ShiMing was led to start training Sanda. As the most popular striking style in China, Sanda is an art form that’s a part of many of skilled competitors’ repertoires.
Despite continuing with her Taekwondo competitions, ShiMing also found herself taking on challenges in the realm of competitive Sanda as well. However, as many quickly find out with the more they learn in the world of hand to hand combat, grappling in some variation is a necessity.
“After starting my MMA career is my university time, I had just gotten to university,” She reflected. “My university is far away, somewhere nearby the wrestling training center. It was the first time I’d seen wrestling. People are like grappling with each other, they’re feeling like it’s very suitable for MMA. Because the first time I went into MMA competition with furious striking. A lot of the time was just hugging each other, just contact very close so I’m thinking maybe it’s helpful. Then I followed them to train.”
What was being witnessed wasn’t just any wrestling, but catch wrestling — a form of grappling that dates back to the 1870s. No, that is not a typo.
Considered to be the most important happening for her career, ShiMing stumbled across her current coach, Bagher Amanolahi — one of the only catch wrestling coaches in all of China.
Hailing from Iran, Amanolahi, like most children, started wrestling very young. As early as age five, it was freestyle and Greco-roman before progressing to professional catch around 15. Under his tutelage for four years now, ShiMing learned step-by-step the techniques necessary to incorporate a strong submission style into her overall game.
Oh, and it also significantly helped her balance. No one likes to be a pushover.
“It was very lucky,” ShiMing said of discovering catch wrestling. “Since Bagher is Iranian, he came here just for a hobby and to wrestle with those province team members. So I was very lucky to meet him. I told him I’m fighting MMA and he said, ‘Oh, really? You can come to train with us.’ It was the first time I knew what is MMA. Like about submissions, takedowns, and a lot of other stuff. And this coach also improved my striking technique. MMA striking style is different than my striking style before.”
Inside the MMA spectrum, ShiMing’s knowledge was only just expanding. But thanks to her time being spent at university, so were her everyday life smarts.
If there isn’t a bad pairing between physical activities and schoolwork, it would be the combination of fighting accompanied by Chinese medicine and acupuncture. Essentially it’s been cross-learning how to fix oneself in all areas of life.
Due to the fact that her study choice is such a great field to get into, ShiMing’s love for MMA is fueled by passion. Otherwise, she probably wouldn’t have risked the disgruntling it would have caused her mother to leave one for the other.
“I joined a normal school,” ShiMing detailed in contrast to school for athletics. “I studied from elementary school, middle school, high school, and here university for Chinese medicine. I study Chinese medicine and acupuncture. So I just kept studying and this study is a little bit better than most students’. So I didn’t give it up. I keep studying and I only do fighting stuff part-time so it’s a little bit hard. But I like fighting so I don’t feel it’s [too] hard. I just keep studying at day time and sometimes weekend or at night, I just go to train. Then I’m doing this all the time so it’s not too much for my mom.
“‘I’m not going to study anymore, I’m just going to fight,’ I didn’t do it like this. And I didn’t tell her when I went to my first MMA match. Later, I joined one MMA match then she saw me on TV. It was a few years into me being at university. That time she saw my match on TV, she said, ‘This is not Taekwondo! What is that? That glove is so small! Where is your helmet?’ Then she knew what is MMA and she felt it was a little bit dangerous. But I’d already done a lot of MMA matches and won a lot of championships so I told her, ‘Don’t worry, I will protect myself,’ so it’s okay for her.”
And protect herself she has.
Outside of her last loss in 2018, two of ShiMing’s three losses have been decisions against strawweights. Ultimately, 115-pounds isn’t her optimal weight class as she cuts no weight at all to fight there. Yet the 5-foot-3 Taekwondo blackbelt still made the best of her time there in 2020.
The China Catch Wrestling representative currently rides a six-fight winning streak and saw the last four of those coming 10-pounds heavier than where she generally fights (three decisions and one Americana submission). On top of that, they all came in a unique 2020 that saw fighters around the world struggle to stay active due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Strangely enough, ShiMing found her location on Earth in the midst of a global contagion to be beneficial for her fight career — if the four wins alone weren’t enough evidence.
“I have to thank the virus in this case,” She explained. “I know the virus is not good, it’s given a lot of people trouble. But for me, actually, the virus helped my career. Because in China a lot of fighters get contracted with an organization. The organization, they help their own fighter. So for example, they contract one girl then they just bring in a fighter who is not a good level foreigner to let the Chinese win. So they put the contracted Chinese fighter vs. a bad level foreigner — especially Japanese. Then everybody’s happy, there’s more Chinese to watch. And also because MMA is a new sport, it just came into China, a lot of people don’t know what is MMA. So people watch it just for fun. Just to feel like, ‘Oh, China power! China wins!’ Not because they like MMA. Even right now, the biggest organization is still doing this kind of stuff.
“But because of the virus, China closed the border. Then foreigners cannot come into China. Then we have to fight against ourselves, Chinese against Chinese. Because they need to fight and they can’t fight foreigners. So it was a good chance for me to have been chosen to fight our own fighters who are already contracted. It was a really good chance for me. I just kept winning, winning, winning, winning. So I got four wins in this year.”
15 fights in five years and the most recent of those saw the highest frequency that ShiMing has been able to fight. With China’s Spring Festival, also known as Chinese New Year, coming up in early February, she intends to celebrate with her friends and family before getting back at it. The hopes being to continue fighting for one of China’s oldest MMA organizations, Wu Lin Feng. Or more ideally, returning to ROAD FC in South Korea where the option to drop back down to the 105-pound atomweight class is prevalent.
Of course, in a perfect world, ShiMing, like every aspiring combatant, would enjoy getting an opportunity to showcase her skillset on the largest stage. Thankfully, MMA has evolved to the point where fighters have many more options than in the past.
In Asia specifically, ONE Championship is a prominent force based out of Singapore. Meanwhile, Japan’s RIZIN FF consistently provides a high-quality product and home for the best in the world. Though, with the rise of MMA in China, and the emergence of fighters and champions like Zhang Weili and Yan Xiaonan, the UFC has begun targeting the area more than ever before.
Looking back to 2019, it’s easy to forget that the global leader in MMA opened a rather elegant state of the art Performance Institute in Shanghai.
Since then, several of the country’s finest athletes have taken advantage of what it has to offer. Having visited the P.I. herself, ShiMing underwent multiple performance tests analyzing her body and power among other testings. As was planned for 2020, the UFC had an Asian version of Dana White’s Contender Series in the works. Unfortunately, it has had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The option to participate on the potential contract earning platform was mentioned to ShiMing, therefore planting the seed in her mind — but the 26-year-old remains hesitant.
“Right now, UFC opened a training center in Shanghai,” She noted. “So they’ve already chosen a lot of fighters that they want to test to see if they’re in good condition to put them in the training center to train. So I think UFC is prepared to open the Chinese market. I think it’s a good chance for me to join UFC.
“But maybe it’s not very suitable for me because my weight is too light. Like in 2020, I had to fight bigger opponents. Even though my technique is a little bit better, it’s still difficult to fight with strong muscular girls. I’m just going to keep fighting and do what I like.
“RIZIN, DEEP [Jewels], it makes me so excited,” ShiMing continued. “I really want to go to Japan because they have smaller weight classes and also they are very famous. But unfortunately, my technique right now is not good enough to compare with those Japanese girls. Because the Japenese girls, they have a really good level of Shooto wrestling and catch wrestling style, they have very good technique. So if I go there right now, I probably can’t win (laughs). I’m not ready yet.”
For ShiMing to progress her fighting career to the best of her abilities, she believes that it will have to happen at atomweight. Meaning her ultimate destination for her fighting dream is the land of the rising sun.
In 2021, the catch wrestling sensation is just going with the flow without any definitive goals in mind. But she’d be lying if she said she isn’t hoping to reach the peaks of the atomweight division as soon as possible.
Visualizing eventual gold around her waist, if ShiMing could capture a crown at atomweight, let’s say in RIZIN or ONE, it would make her the first Chinese fighter in the division to do so on a major MMA scale. She’s already had great examples to follow in history-makers such as the aforementioned Zhang and ONE’s Xiong Jing Nan, and the young Chinese medicine student from Kunming knows that she has all the capabilities to get there too.
Being a requirement no matter the task at hand, it just takes time, patience, and a willingness to adapt.
“MMA in China has grown very, very fast,” She explained. “Especially after the UFC training center came into China. A lot of people realized how important it is to train wrestling compared to Sanda. Because before they would just pick up Sanda and go to MMA but right now finally a lot of people realize wrestling is more helpful for MMA. So they’ve grown very, very fast. But still, not everybody understands. People, like the audience, they just want to see Chinese vs. foreigners. It keeps improving but there’s still much more to learn.”
Drake is an MMA writer based out of Brush Prairie, Washington, USA who specializes in feature pieces, the women’s fight scene, lists, news coverage, and rankings. He has been a passionate fan of MMA ever since 2009. Drake has most notably written for BJPenn.com, FanSided, The Body Lock, South China Morning Post, MyMMANews, WhatCulture, Cageside Press, Sherdog, The Scrap, and MMA Today. He has also written for and created video content for RT Sport. As for other sports, Drake is a longtime fan of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and Jacksonville Jaguars.
You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @DrakeRiggs_ . Also check out all of his video content on YouTube at YouTube.com/DrakeRiggs where he uploads fighter interviews, podshows, and various other types of content.