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The Blood Quest: Yan Xiaonan and a nation’s pursuit of history

In 2018, MMA fighters from China began to make impacts within the MMA stratosphere unlike the sport had ever seen.

ONE Championship strawweight “Panda” Xiong JingNan made history one fateful night in January by becoming the country’s first world champion in a major promotion. The very next year, on home soil, Zhang Weili only needed 42 volatile seconds in her first UFC title opportunity to capture gold of her own.

Thanks to unpredictable worldwide events, 2020 won’t allow for the continuation of this historic trend. But there’s no denying that the championship duo’s Sanda sister, Yan Xiaonan, was on pace to jot her name down in the books once again.

That’s not to say that the first Chinese female UFC fighter ever isn’t still on pace to do so.

Yan’s professional mixed martial arts journey officially sprouted to life in the winter of 2009. Growing up, Yan’s involvement with combat sports came at an early age by taking up the traditional Chinese art of Wushu. Her father’s interest was enough to draw her in at a youthful stage and that only grew over time leading to various other art forms getting incorporated into an inevitably lethal arsenal. One of the most notable skills to have in China is Sanda — a Chinese military based hybrid of kickboxing and boxing that also incorporates ways to take opposition to the ground.

Due to the origin of the art, its addition to her toolbox led Yan Xiaonan to have a reasonable idea in mind for what she might do with it as an adult. And that didn’t happen to be prizefighting on the worldwide largest stage.

“Never,” Yan told MyMMANews with a smile in response to if she ever expected to be a pro fighter growing up, “When I was a child and I started training traditional martial arts I never thought one day I will become a professional fighter fighting overseas.

“I wanted to become a police officer because I practiced martial arts. So I thought I could protect others. But I never thought I’d be a professional martial artist making a living off of this, and going abroad for competing and training.”

By the time that “Fury” next steps foot in a cage to compete, it will be exactly two weeks shy of her 11-year anniversary as a pro-MMA fighter. In that span, she’s represented her country to a great effect bolstering 12 victories to only a single defeat. As one of China’s best, the scathing striker is now firmly among China’s big three next to the champions Xiong and Zhang.

Because of how fresh China’s presence among the heights of the MMA tree remains, it’s easy to spot those flourishing most. For Yan Xiaonan, it’s a humbling honor to be recognized as an impactful figure with few others.

“I’m so proud,” she said of being in that mix, “Because we prove that we Chinese, especially Chinese women, we can fight. But I think that I can be better for sure and can achieve a higher ranking.

“Sorry to offend our male athletes… (laughs) Almost all the sports in China, the female athletes, the female teams, perform better than the male athletes and men teams. So if Weili and I could fight for the title it just proves that in combat sports it’s still the same.”

Yan Xiaonan
Yan Xiaonan delivering a sidekick to Karolina Kowalkiewicz (PhotoCred: New York Post)

The ultimate goal for any athlete is to be the very best that they can be. And more often than not, that is solidified once a world title is in hand — that’s no different for Yan Xiaonan. However, for her to currently achieve that feat it would have to come at the expense of Zhang.

Though, the pair’s personal familiarity simply goes as far as both being from China, and formerly sharing the same conditioning coach. The relation stops there.

A potential showdown would be one that lacks bad blood or false hype. It would just be two highly skilled competitors with similar backgrounds driven by the same goal and philosophy in mind. That alone should be enough to have any spectator salivating. Then consider that the magnitude is enhanced tenfold as it would be the first China vs. China UFC title fight ever. The largest nation in the world being represented to it’s absolute fullest in the sports world.

The only way it could get any better would be for it to actually be contested in China.

“If that fight happens, it must be the biggest moment in Chinese MMA ever,” Yan stated, “I think all the Chinese people would not work that day. They will sit in front of the TV screen and watch this fight, it will definitely be the biggest moment for China MMA and China sports.”

Obviously, this is all nothing more than a dream right now. Yan is fully focused on the tasks at hand, and with a win or two at most… It could come true.

Arriving in the UFC in late 2017 as the first Chinese woman to compete in the UFC, Yan was also the first to win. The successful unanimous decision nod against Kailin Curran started what is now a progressively impressive five-fight winning streak. Still seeking her first UFC finish, Yan’s performances are only getting more dominant. Evidence of that can be seen violently on display in her most recent showcase against former title challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz.

From one once title challenger to the next. Yan’s upcoming bout is her biggest yet as on November 7 at UFC Vegas 13 she meets Claudia Gadelha. When it comes to top strawweight contenders, Gadelha has been around for about as long as anyone. And the Sanda practitioner is well aware of this opportunity’s importance.

“I’m very, very excited about this fight because she is the highest-ranking fighter I’ve faced in my UFC career,” Yan said, “So I want to show my takedown defense ability to all the audience. Of course, I will win this fight from my striking abilities but I will show my outstanding takedown defense because she is such a good grappler.”

Yan’s first dozen fights took place exclusively in Singapore and her home of China — with the exception of one outing in the Philippines. After that, she made her stateside debut against Angela Hill in Chicago, Illinois before giving Auckland, New Zealand a visit.

Traveling around the world is expected once fighters reach a certain level. But what isn’t so predictable is the wild hurdle that is a global pandemic in its entirety.

Going from China to the US is a journey of a trip by itself. Add in all the other factors 2020 has presented, and it has forced some change-ups that couldn’t be fully planned for.

In Yan’s case, she currently finds herself in Sacramento, California. But to get there she needed to make a handful of stops.

The Shenyang, Liaoning native made her initial departure from Beijing on August 30. From there, it was to Shanghai. From Shanghai to Korea, from Korea to Detroit, and from Detroit to Las Vegas. Now, originally Yan vs. Gadelha was scheduled for September 27 at UFC 253 in Abu Dhabi. And on just her second day in Vegas, the news broke that Gadelha had suffered an injury. Thus pushing the fight back and ultimately leading to Yan heading out to Sacramento.

Whatever could be in Sacramento, you ask? Well, just one of the most notoriously successful MMA gyms to home lighter weight fighters, that’s all.

“When I arrived at [Urijah] Faber’s gym [Team Alpha Male] I found there are so many lighter division fighters here, male and female,” Yan expressed, “All the ways they train fighters is just specific for the small fighters. And Song Yadong is here so he helps me a lot to adjust to the new environment. Faber is a very nice guy and all the members of the coaching team are very nice, they help me a lot.”

Yan Xiaonan
Yan Xiaonan celebrates a UFC win (PhotoCred: CGTN)

Even after all the tumultuous relocating and being away from home for longer than expected, “Fury” is enjoying the golden state and hospitality she’s received. With that in mind, she fully intends to dish out the hostility come fight night and further stake her claim to 115-pound strawweight supremacy.

And although the arrangements leading up weren’t completely ideal, it hasn’t thrown rhythm off too much for the 31-year old. In fact, it may have just added a good bit of motivation to get the job done.

“The biggest thing that bothered our whole team due to the postponing of the fight was the financial aspect,” she began, “Because we have to stay in the United States for one month longer so the cost of living and for training, everything, the cost, as usual, is a problem for us. But training-wise, there is nothing special. Maybe I had to spend a couple of days to adjust to the new environment of Faber’s gym and Sacramento. But I was very ready when I was in China and came to the United States. So for the training, the preparation for this fight, there is not so much of an impact because of the postponement of this fight. [Getting a bonus] is my goal. Win the fight, get the fight bonus, and go back home with a very happy mood.”

Support systems are critical pertaining to a lot of things in life. Perhaps that’s an understatement for a venture as demanding as hand-to-hand combat.

Being a high-level athlete from China, Yan Xiaonan has the support of the world’s largest nation behind her. But from another perspective, that can be viewed as the heaviest amount of pressure. Thankfully, there are at least two other talented champions to help somewhat lighten that extremely dense load. But in the end, they’re potential enemies, after all.

Regardless, within that overall population support is more intricacy in the form of a team. And a team has to start somewhere, which goes even deeper than just training partners and coaches.

It’s in the blood.

“My first fight in Shanghai, it was the first time my mom saw some blood on my face on-site,” Yan recalled, “My lip was cut so my mom was shocked and hugged me. It was very emotional at that moment so we both cried. But now all my family members support me very much and they want to watch me fight on-site but they just don’t want to see any blood on my face anymore.

“Actually, my family doesn’t bother me [if they’re in attendance]. In my mind, when I’m fighting I’m so excited when I step in the cage, I forget everything. It’s only me and my opponent and I’m so excited about this so I don’t think ‘Where is my family?’ or something like that. I forget everything and only focus on the fight.”

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