Rumble in China

Fightland Blog

By Sascha Matuszak

Photos by Eli Sweet

Rumble Johnson is far from home again, this time in the distant city of Chengdu, in southwest China. If that weren’t far enough, he’s also on the far northern outskirts of that city, in a schizophrenic district of sagging old buildings waiting to be demolished, newly paved four-lane boulevards waiting for the cars to come, and warehouses filled with veggies, pork and a brand new MMA gym.

This is the second seminar tour the Blackzilians have organized in China, the first featuring Tyrone Spong teaching a bit of kickboxing to Li Jingliang, Jumabieke Tuerxun and members of the Big King gym in Beijing. The relationship began a few years ago when Blackzilians manager Glenn Robinson and Justin Chou watched a few China MMA matches and saw some potential. Justin reached out to a few gyms in Beijing and Spong volunteered to be the first to head out.

“When we were planning our trip this year we know we wanted to go to Beijing since it's where the majority of the pro MMA fighters are located in China,” said Justin. “The seminars are free for pro fighters since our goal is to help the fighters with their game. The hobbyists and amateurs that pay for the seminars are really not enough to pay for the cost of the seminars so we always try and look for sponsors to break even. This year Emei Legend, a new gym that's just opened in Chengdu got in contact with us and graciously offered to sponsor some of the cost of the trip and invited us to Chengdu.”

Emei Legend is a gym run by Chen Chen, a female manager and athlete whose fighters competed in the regional C3 promotion for some time, before Chen decided she had enough competitors to stage her own events. In true Chinese “build first ask questions later” fashion, her gym is outfitted with the latest gear and machines, has it’s own octagon, and just hosted the number one contender in the UFC light heavyweight division. So what did Rumble have to say about the provincial city of Chengdu? In typical “eat first ask questions later” fashion, Rumble’s first response was:

“The food out here is pretty oily. Pretty spicy. Tastes good though.”

Anything else about the city?

“Yeah. The driving man. It’s crazy out here. They got scooter gangs. It’s fierce, when it comes to driving out here, it’s survival of the fittest.”

Rumble spent a week in Chengdu rolling and striking with fifty or so Chinese fighters. The Chinese fighters came in from all over the country for the seminar, flying in from Henan, Beijing, and other spots just to spend a few minutes sparring with Johnson. He was even recognized on the street, which is pretty amazing given the still underground state of MMA in China.

Seminars like the ones the Blackzilians held are critical to the growth of the sport in China. Competitors need to see the level of talent at the top in order to have the right goals and understand the amount of work it will take to get there. Having a tiny new gym like Emei Legend—a lot of machinery hadn’t even been installed yet—sponsor a trip out there shows the dedication Chinese managers and entrepreneurs have to promoting the business end of the sport. Things have really picked up in the China MMA scene since the TUF: China season two years ago. Gyms are popping up, events are held regionally every weekend, an adulterated version of MMA has made it onto the major television channels, and young people from the middle, people with choices in modern China, are choosing to train daily and fly out to Chengdu to roll around with Rumble Johnson.

The training sessions went well, Rumble said. A few Chinese fighters tried to go hard against Rumble, trying for leglocks and chokes, but it was kind of like a group of kids trying to dunk on Lebron.

“They got talent, that’s for sure. The striking isn’t bad. The weakest point I saw was wrestling. You need good instructors and good training partners to really improve, and I think that’s all it will take out here. I just told them all to keep pushing themselves, keep working, so when I come out here next time I’ll have a wild look on my face.”

Although rolling around with regional Chinese fighters shouldn’t say much about Rumble’s ground skills, the ease with which he deflected and submitted at will was still pretty impressive. Every MMA fan has a buddy they discuss fights with. Maybe you have three or four. My main betting partner and personal MMA encyclopedia is Eli Sweet. Eli attended the seminar in Chengdu, yapped with Rumble, and snapped the shots you see in this story. I trust the man’s opinion, and after watching Rumble, he said:

“Dude seems really calm and mature out there. Real at ease with himself and everything around him. Sure his movement and striking are beautiful to behold, but when you see a fighter so comfortable with himself, you know he’s at the top of his game.”

“That’s right,” added Rumble. “I’ve been through a lot, you know. Getting cut, being accused of stuff. Having your life and career hanging by a thread makes you grow up real fast. I’m feeling real good, relaxed. Being at 205 feels great and I feel no pressure at all about [the upcoming Jone’s fight]. My game is more and more well rounded and I also know that if I touch you, I’m gonna hurt you. I don’t rely on that one-punch knockout, but I know in the back of my mind that I can end it just like that. So that’s a good feeling too.”


Check out these related stories:

Tyrone "King of the Ring" Spong in China

Rumble Beats Jones in Two Rounds, According to Rashad Evans

Rumble Johnson's Unexpected Advance