It was a spectacular jumping knee knockout by underdog, Jeremy Miado that silenced the predominantly Chinese audience in the iconic Cadillac Arena in Beijing. Miado was the lone victor among three Filipino athletes who competed in Saturday’s ONE Championship: Age of Dragons tournament. It was the first time for ONE, Asia’s leading martial arts promotion, to hold a fight night in the 20,000 capacity stadium that was home to the basketball competition in the 2008 summer Olympics—the one that saw China make it to the quarterfinals.
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Striker Jeremy “The Jaguar” Miado sent hometown favorite Miao Li Tao to the floor, out cold, with a jaw-dropping knockout, just three minutes into the first round. Miado flew into the Chinese capital, unaccompanied unlike other competing martial artists who are attended to by a small entourage. His coach, he explained, had difficulty getting a Chinese visa. He also travelled in his training shorts and a light jacket, unaware that temperatures in Beijing could drop to zero.
The flying knee
“The Jaguar” may have come unprepared for the weather, but he was prepared to execute the game plan. “Yung flying knee na ginawa ko bale game plan ko na po ‘yon. May drills po kami na ginagawa. Iyon lang, paulit-ulit. Kasi pinag-aralan ko yung laro ni Miao, kumbaga doon siya mahuhuli. Yun ang opening niya. Tumama talaga siya.” (“My flying knee was really part of the game plan. In my drills, I would do it repeatedly. I studied Miao and knew this would be the way to defeat him.”)
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As soon as the first bell struck, the strawweight clash was on a fever pitch. The two athletes traded strikes, with Miado almost securing a takedown. Miao managed to escape and proceeded to punish Miado, twice taking hold of his neck with a standing guillotine. But Miado knew what was coming his way. “Masyado siyang aggressive talaga, yun talaga ang pinaghandaan ko,” he said. “Expected ko na na explosive siya at susugurin niya ako nang susugurin sa round one.” (“Miao is an aggressive and explosive fighter but I was ready for him. I knew he would come after me in round one.”)
Because he came solo, in Miado’s corner was Gerome Bote, who came to coach another strawweight contender Ramon Gonzalez. “Masasabi ko sa kapwa natin Pinoy, sobrang matulungin, hindi ka pababayaan,” adder Miado. (“Our fellow Pinoys are really very helpful. They take care of you.”)
From losses to victory
Both Gonzalez and another Filipino athlete, Edward Kelly of the famed Cordillera-based group, Team Lakay, lost to their Chinese opponents. It was these losses that further spurred Miado to claim his victory. “Sobrang saya ko,” said Miado. “Nakakalungkot kasi ang dalawang Pilipinong kasama natalo, kaya ginawa ko ring inspirasyon yon para makuha ang panalo. Siyempre ang mga kababayan nating Pinoy nag-aabang na manalo ang mga Pilipino.” (“I am so happy. It was sad to see my fellow Filipinos lose so I turned it into my inspiration. I didn’t want to disappoint our country.”)
It is this kind of fandom, says Hua Fung Teh, Group President of ONE Championship that spurs the growth of the platform, which has ambitious aims of becoming the world’s biggest sports media company. “It starts from supporting your own country’s best. Our formula for success is really local heroes on a global stage — that’s why Chinese people like watching ONE Championship, that’s why Filipinos like watching Team Lakay be victorious over various nationalities. But martial arts itself is a widely understood and widely appreciated sport. In the stands, there were a lot of non-Chinese as well watching and you saw Chinese cheering on athletes, none of whom are from China. While local heroes on a global stage create fandom, when your sport is easily understood, people will generally like it.”
Birthplace of martial arts
China, with its 3000-4000 year history of kung fu and wushu, is regarded as one of the birthplaces of martial arts thus it makes for a lucrative market for ONE’s growing global footprint. It began mounting physical live events in 2014, established an office in Shanghai in 2016 and recently opened another office in Beijing. It also plans to have a number of events next year in other major cities like Guangzhou and Chongqing.
The strategy, like in other Asian countries, is to recruit and showcase local talent, like reigning ONE Championship strawweight champion, Xiong Jingnan, who was present in the signing ceremony between ONE and Bloomage International Investment Group, owners of the Cadillac Arena. “This is not a Chinese martial arts league, it is not a Japanese martial arts league, it’s a global martial arts league that is rooted in Asian culture,” said the ONE Championship Group President. “If you look at Xiong’s fights, she hasn’t fought fellow Chinese, all are against foreigners and fellow Asians and that’s what creates fandom and a strong following. If you think about Yao Ming as an example, he was always a great basketball player, he was always good, but it was only when he went to the NBA did he become a legend in China and that helped the NBA in China as well.”
In the Age of Dragons main event, kickboxer Wang Wenfeng failed in his bid to become China’s first male kickboxing champion, in a fierce match against flyweight champion Ilia’s Ennahachi of the Netherlands and Morocco. The back and forth between the two fighters sent the audience on their feet many times during the bout, with the loss a big disappointment of the night for Chinese fans. However Chinese mixed martial arts champion Meng Bo saved the day, announcing her arrival on the global stage as one of the rising stars of the atom weight division. Meng thrilled the the crowd when she secured a first round takedown on two-time South American MMA Champion Argentinian Laura Balin.
A passage to India
Making an impressive debut was Ritu Phogat of India. India is another of ONE’s lucrative markets, where wrestling has a strong following. ONE has not staged a live event in India but the bouts are broadcast there via a deal with Star Sports. ONE President Hua Fung says, ”We have a media asset and don’t necessarily have a live event. Am sure tonight, all of of India was watching.” Phogat comes from a famed wrestling family whose father, a legendary coach, inspired the hit movie, Dangal.
Hua Fang stresses how the ONE Championship fights are more than just events at sports arenas. “A big part of what we do has nothing to do with the live event: it’s content, it’s distribution and that part has just grown tremendously over the past 12 to 24 months.” As for their competition with UFC, the dominant mixed martial arts promotion company in the West, Hua Fung says, “Martial arts is niche in the US, but it is mainstream in Asia where every single country has its own martial arts tradition.”
But ONE is setting its sights higher—world dominance, banking on the sport’s rich history. Hua Fung says mixed martial arts is a fast growing sport but acknowledges they have a long way to go in their bid to dislodge NFL as the world’s largest sports media property. “When we think of the world’s biggest, it’s the NFL, it’s worth an excess of $ 80B, but that is a single country sport, it’s an amazing thing that they are worth a lot or money, in a country of about 330 million people. If you look at majority of Western sports that tend to dominate the global consciousness, they are all sports with short histories. Basketball, for instance, has less than 200 years of history. American football has a short history as well. Martial arts go back thousand of years. We want to create a platform that helps the best martial artists to show the world Asia’s greatest cultural treasure.”