Photo by Mitch Viquez/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
Before I ever saw Zhang LiPeng step foot inside an MMA cage, I witnessed him devour a massive plate of shrimp, ripping crustacean heads from bodies, seemingly swallowing entire shellfish whole. He even went back for seconds.
The scene didn’t seem too out of place for a kid from rural Inner Mongolia, put up at the five-star Shanghai Marriott Changfeng Park for a few nights while handling some press obligations for an upcoming fight. Shrimp were non-existent in his hometown, deep in the grasslands, where the locals ate beef in the summer and lamb year round. So he savored this opportunity to chew away at the plentiful shellfish available at the upscale hotel buffets of the eastern China seaboard.
By that point, Zhang and I had met on two previous occasions during recruiting trips up to Beijing, developing an immediate rapport on account of sharing the same Chinese nickname, 大鹏. Soft-spoken and mild-mannered, he showed the requisite respect young Chinese are taught to offer their elders, but didn’t hold back his unsolicited opinion, making sure to tell me that he would make it to the UFC in the next five years. And while it was obvious that Zhang had potential as a mixed martial artist, it was only while watching him inhale these prawns that a primal tenacity penetrated his normally shy exterior.
Less than a month after the shrimp incident, on August 27, 2011, I observed Zhang LiPeng in live MMA action for the first time. And at the sound of the opening bell, he transformed into a rabid beast, applying the same savagery to the face of his opponent, Ta Yier, whom he bludgeoned with elbows before securing a triangle choke, as he did to the seafood a few weeks earlier.
Victory came swift and easy for Zhang LiPeng, who was only 21 at the time. But it would be the last occasion in the ensuring three years that mixed martial arts, life, and career would be so simple.
A few months would pass before Zhang and I would meet again.
He had caused a reasonable stir in the fight with Ta Yier, the seventh of his young professional career; people started to believe that he might eventually become China’s top lightweight, sooner rather than later. But after suffering a boxer’s fracture in his left hand in December 2011, Zhang was shelved from competition until the following March, when he was contracted to face BJJ black belt and 2011 Abu Dhabi Pro no-Gi champion Rodrigo Caporal.
The two would meet on March 24, 2012 at Chongqing Indoor Stadium. And while MMA was (and still is) relatively unknown in China, you would have thought Zhang LiPeng was a household name in the Middle Kingdom, as thousands of fans chanted “加油张立鹏! 加油张立鹏!” in unison during the three-round bout, many waiving homemade signs and assorted flare for the television cameras.
Zhang LiPeng looked impressive in the fight, defending a handful of submission attempts early on. And as the contest progressed, he gained steam, dominating the third round with superior cardio and striking.
But it was all for naught. Zhang LiPeng would drop a majority decision that night, and eventually the calm façade began to crumble.
First on the chopping block was his longtime coach and mentor Ao HaiLin, a proto generation Chinese MMA fighter. Ao, who also hailed from Inner Mongolia, groomed Zhang as his protégé, housing the young fighter at his UMAC Gym, later re-named the Ao HaiLin MMA Club.
The two, previously inseparable, including during the 2011 all-you-can eat shrimp affair at the Marriott, had soured on each other, evidenced after Zhang submitted to Arthit “A Ting” Hanchana, a fighter he previously beat, going unconscious to a triangle choke.
Embarrassed by his defeat, Zhang needed a fresh start, and chose to leave Ao HaiLin’s tutelage, opting, instead, to sign with the Fighting Empire club, the home team of featherweight Yang JianPing. But Zhang LiPeng would soon find himself ostracized from the Chinese MMA circuit, labeled a pariah for breaking contracts and attempting to dictate his own terms.
Shortly after demolishing Xuan PengFei in September 2012, Zhang, under instruction from his manager, began a contractual holdout, refusing to honor an exclusive clause he had with the RUFF promotion. Contracts in China are not the bulletproof documents we know them to be in the West, and for a 22 year-old, trapped in a developing world where legal papers are regularly disregarded, the unwise decision seemed to be indicative of following a cultural norm.
Now without a contract and a promotion, Zhang LiPeng was again forced to sit on the sidelines. However, luckily for Zhang, MMA and combat events in China are a fly-by-night operation, with local governments reserving funds for crony fight nights and a handful of regional promoters attempting to stage large-scale events. So finding a new job wouldn’t prove to be very difficult.
Eventually Zhang LiPeng would sign with Real Fight Championships, a small upstart in central China’s Henan Province. He would compete at a higher weight class, enter a four-man welterweight tournament and place second. And in his next outing, Zhang again went unconscious, refusing to tap out to a first round guillotine choke.
All within a span of 21 months, Zhang LiPeng went from the next big thing in domestic Chinese MMA, to an outcast who had gone 2-4 since his breakout performance.
And that’s when The Ultimate Fighter: China came calling.
Normally a lightweight, Zhang moved to 170 pounds for the UFC’s first foray in Chinese reality television. He was considered one of the top prospects on the show, but in front of a live TV audience, he was forced to recall his strained relationship with his old mentor Ao, who was one of the series’ coaches.
Regardless, Zhang earned a place in the TUF: China finale, and despite some controversy, took the title with a contentious split decision over Wang Sai.
Now set to make his sophomore appearance inside the Octagon against Brendan O’Reilly at UFC Fight Night 48, Zhang LiPeng can truly say that he has followed one of life’s more obscure trajectories, investing everything into a sport that is largely unrecognized in his homeland, even turning his back on respectable paydays and opportunities. And despite enduring through a short career filled with numerous hurdles and a myriad of obstacles, challenges that would have broken lesser individuals, Zhang LiPeng persisted.
Now it just remains to be seen how long he can survive in the deep waters of the UFC.
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