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Boxing For Survival in a Chinese Fight Club

“I was supposed to be fighting some IT guy,” Bo Junhui groaned afterward. Instead, the 18-year-old student was up against someone a year older, ten pounds heavier, and a lot hungrier. Xia Tian has never worked behind a desk; he’d spent the last few years as a restless migrant, living on his wits. He didn’t know about computing, only that he wanted to put Bo “on the mat as fast” as possible. And Bo, better educated and properly trained, barely knew what hit him.

First it was a right hook, then a flurry of blows to the torso. Bo’s defensive kick went wide, leaving him open to more punishment. “I never expected such an onslaught,” he admitted. To Bo, who had trained for over a year, his opponent was a rookie. Xia had noble ambitions; Bo had league wins to his name. Yet Bo was now the one with the bloody mouth, hesitating on his back foot—Xia was still relentless. And there were still two and a half rounds to go.

Any amateur can try their luck at the Monster Fight Club in Chengdu, the capital of southwest Sichuan province. Most who come are squarely middle-class: accountants, for example, or their drivers or their managers. Young men like Bo, looking to blow off steam on the weekend like the characters in the movie Fight Club, by pummeling and being pummeled, rather than quaffing baijiu or howling karaoke hits, the more common after-hours pursuits of Chengdu’s 15 million residents.

Then there’s Xia, for whom Friday fight nights offer something different. After dark, Xia lies in his lower bunk in a room across from the kitchen where he spends most of his day. Work is an unskilled grind in which leisure means an early night, not a night out. Fatigue has been Xia’s constant companion since he left Jintang, his Sichuan mountain hometown, at 14 and started crisscrossing the country, looking for work. At Chengdu’s fight club, he found something better: the possibility of a future. Xia hopes to become his generation’s Zou Shiming, the former amateur flyweight, famous for winning China’s first and second boxing golds at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

When I met Xia in October, a few days before his fight with Bo, he professed to be still recovering from his previous bout nearly four months earlier. He didn’t recall the moment of victory much, nor did he care to; just thinking about it, he said, made his muscles ache. That had been Xia’s first time in the ring, swinging at a pudgy salaryman twice his age. “I got the first proper punch in, and blood started coming out of his nose,” he recalled. Nimbler and fitter, the young migrant exhausted his rival into sweat-soaked submission before the end of the third round. “It was intense. The crowd was shouting ‘Hit him!’.” It wasn’t just the victory purse, which was minimal anyway. It was the possibilities that came with it: The bragging rights, the recognition, the hopes of getting signed, maybe getting out of the kitchen for good. “All I could think about,” Xia said, “was beating the guy down.” He’d been thinking the same ever since.

The Monster Fight Club

By Wu Hao
  • Shi Jian is the founder of the Monster Fight Club in Chengdu. He is from the city of Lanzhou, and owned an online jewelry-shop before opening the fight club in 2016.
    Shi Jian is the founder of the Monster Fight Club in Chengdu. He is from the city of Lanzhou, and owned an online jewelry-shop before opening the fight club in 2016.
  • Xia Tian, 19, works in the kitchen of a Korean restaurant near Sichuan University in Chengdu.
    Xia Tian, 19, works in the kitchen of a Korean restaurant near Sichuan University in Chengdu.
  • Xia trains by skipping rope in his dormitory.
    Xia trains by skipping rope in his dormitory.
  • Bo Junhui, 18, shops with his sister on Chunxi Road in Chengdu.
    Bo Junhui, 18, shops with his sister on Chunxi Road in Chengdu.
  • Bo gets ready before his fight with Xia. Their fight was the first of four that night.
    Bo gets ready before his fight with Xia. Their fight was the first of four that night.
  • The MC (right) introduces Bo (second-left) and Xia (back, middle), as they prepare for the fight.
    The MC (right) introduces Bo (second-left) and Xia (back, middle), as they prepare for the fight.
  • Bo (left) and Xia, during the fight.
    Bo (left) and Xia, during the fight.
  • Xia (right), after winning the fight against Bo (center).
    Xia (right), after winning the fight against Bo (center).
  • Xia rests after the fight.
    Xia rests after the fight.

 

What he tried not to think about were the odds. A third of China’s total wealth is in the hands of one percent of the population, while the poorest 25 percent collectively own just a single percent, according to the most recent Institute of Social Science Survey by Peking University. For a man of Xia’s background wishing to accrue the fortune of someone like Zou—the boxer is one of China’s top-earning athletes, allegedly paid six-figure-dollar sums for every match—the tested path is to pursue China’s gaokao university entrance, a punishing do-or-die ordeal undertaken by 9 million annually. But, having left school in 2012, at the age of 14, Xia is one of the 3 million pupils who drop out early every year from rural education, another foreboding statistic. Without schooling or social security to fall back on, what kept Xia up at night was the hope of turning these amateur efforts into a possibly profitable vocation: of going pro. Even in this simple endeavor, though, he would be largely on his own.

Unlike the U.S. or U.K., where boxing has strong historic links to working-class communities (most famously Gleason’s Gym in the Bronx, where Jake LaMotta trained, and London’s Repton Club), its popularity often rising with economic downturn and unemployment, there’s no equivalent blue-collar boxing history in China, nor much infrastructure for training aspirants. Instead, there is a small but burgeoning interest in grassroots fight clubs. Like most, the Monster Fight Club uses Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) rules, a full-contact blend of fighting styles, although it is obliged to play by slightly looser ones when it comes to the law. As far as Shi Jian, one of the co-owners, is concerned, Monster is a “cultural sporting company” that promotes “positive energy,” propagandist language that reassures the authorities—who can close grey operations like Monster at the drop of a brown envelope—and allows them to promote low-key events that would normally require a complex series of permits.

For nearly a year, the dark two-story club has occupied a former bar in a nondescript office building, the kind of place where it’s not unusual to find a cosmetic surgeon next to a bookstore beside a nightclub. Although close to some of the nightlife that Chengdu’s foreign residents attract (the U.S. consulate is nearby), its slightly obscure location protects Monster from too much attention. Even the door lacks proper signage. But word of mouth through the app WeChat brought the attention of local media, who ensured a rash of new visitors. In February 2016, police briefly detained and questioned Shi: Did the fighters have insurance, was the bar licensed? Gambling is a serious concern; it is illegal on the mainland, though furtively practiced throughout the country. But, Shi insisted, “no one’s in this for the money” and the police were “disappointed” to realize this, he told me a few days before fight night. Perhaps they’d hoped to make a little, too.

The club insures each player against injury (rarely more than a split lip or a cracked tooth), but other than that, there are no contracts and only slender earnings: each winner receives 300 yuan (U.S.$43.50), the loser nothing. Matches are drawn according to weight and training level, but it’s not exactly strict—a recent bout between a 132-pound fighter and a man roughly twice his heft ended in a surprise draw. “The big guy wasn’t happy,” Shi smiled. Upkeep for the operation is around 10,000 yuan (U.S.$1,450) per month, which is met by a door cover and drink sales: bottles of beer and Rio, a fruit cocktail in a can, cost 20 yuan (U.S.$2.90); Rock Star, the house’s signature mix made with a dusty bottle of absinthe, is 60 (U.S.$8.70). With few attendees drinking much more than a bottle or two apiece at weekend openings, the fight club is currently not lucrative enough to be more than a passion project, albeit one that Shi came to in rather passionless, roundabout fashion.

A design major from the northwestern province of Gansu, 33-year-old Shi spent his younger years moving aimlessly from city to city, buying fashion accessories and selling them on various online stores. Eventually, he ended up back in Chengdu, where he opened the club, he said, on a whim. The decision was made with little logical progression. Shi likes wuxia movies, which depict the travails of martial warriors in ancient China, and has watched the film Fight Club, but doesn’t feel any inclination to psychoanalyze his decision. “It feels more like I was fated to do this,” is his best explanation.

Besides the transient glory of a win, though, there are more tangible potential benefits. Shi has tentative plans to partner with a local production company to broadcast competitive events. On the fighters’ side, a club signed one previous participant, a deaf boxer named Ma Pengzi, after two successive victories, allowing him to compete in professional tournaments.

It is this slim hope of going pro, Zou- or even Ma-style, that animates those like Xia, whose days are filled by 12-hour shifts at a Korean fried-chicken joint, and nights spent lying in a dormitory. Xia said his father, a train porter, had spent all his free time smoking and accumulating drinking and gambling debts, and Xia left home partly to avoid being another burden on the family purse. “Also,” he added. “I hated school.” He’d struggled with grades and with the gangs of rural peers who often ran wild and unsupervised. “I have a strong sense of justice,” he said during a work break. “If I’d see some little kid getting picked on, I’d say something.” Soon, he became the target. Leaving home wasn’t a difficult choice.

Wu Hao for ChinaFile

Xia rests between rounds.

Wu Hao for ChinaFile

Spectators around the cage watch the fight.

 

He drifted between cities like Beijing, Zhengzhou, Chongqing, Dongguan, and Guangzhou, working menial jobs—in a hair salon, factory, laundromat, construction sites—before arriving in Chengdu, where he has distant family and now, at five months, his steadiest job. But the long hours and familial pressures take a toll. He sends home most of his 2,000-yuan (U.S.$300) salary to help service his father’s medical bills. He spent a whole month’s salary on a dedicated training course to prepare for his upcoming face-off, but with his work schedule Xia rarely had the energy to attend. He needs his job to survive, but the work won’t allow him to prosper. Without the club, there’s no chance of escape; unless he trains, he wonders, what chance does he have?

For his opponent, Bo, the stakes are lower, though a betting man might not say the same about his chances. At 130 pounds, he’s almost ten pounds lighter than Xia. Thanks to a year’s worth of MMA training, he already has 17 notches on his fighting belt from back home in Guizhou province, where grassroots leagues proliferate. The General Administration of Sport of China, which governs the country’s sporting industry, only recognizes one commercial MMA entity, the currently dormant Ranik Ultimate Fighting Federation, but many more exist unofficially and are self-funded, part of a burgeoning movement that has come at the expense of local fighting styles already in steep decline.

A mostly elite pursuit in imperial times, kung fu (a collective term that embraces dozens of disciplines) flourished during the populist 1920s patriotic movement, which helped embellish the mythology and promote its quintessential Chinese lineage, culminating in the sport’s inclusion at the 1936 Olympic Games. This same mystic history, with its Buddhist and Taoist customs, ensured kung fu’s doom at the hands of the secular Communists, who curtailed then brutally persecuted practitioners during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. Rampaging Red Guards purged temples, such as the famed Shaolin, of their devotees and manuscripts, murdering many masters and driving many others underground or overseas. Today, the era of ideology-fueled book-burnings may be long gone, but the rampantly exploitative market that’s replaced it, exemplified by the newly emergent and rapacious Shaolin brand, has further etiolated the status of other homegrown martial arts.

Although its owners talk of promoting “traditional Chinese martial spirit,” clubs like Monster have instead embraced imports such as Muay Thai boxing and MMA, which are more popular with younger, middle-class devotees like Bo. “Kung fu is just a performance,” Bo remarked dismissively, referring to wuxia’s ubiquitous modern use in television and theater, and among traveling troupes. MMA is the more fashionable technique among his peers.

Asked to name an inspiration, Bo points immediately to the work of the actor Jason Statham. “This kind of fighting style is far more practical,” he said, when we met in Starbucks on the eve of fight night, Bo dressed in sleek sportswear and carrying a Nike gym bag. His appreciation of Statham’s style served him well, apparently, when three wannabe gangsters strutted into his classroom one afternoon in Guizhou, expecting a shakedown. One made the mistake of slapping Bo, then 14. “I grabbed him by the shirt and put him right on the ground, like that,” he gestured at the floor. “His two friends just watched.” A couple of years later, Bo took on his first sporting opponent in the youth division of a semi-professional competition held in a local basketball stadium (he claims it was a knockout). After his mother remarried, Bo moved to more comfortable circumstances in Chengdu, where he lives with his sister, who attended both our interview and Bo’s fight later that week.

Looming larger than the match is the matter of Bo’s future: He might open a café that becomes a bar at night, or maybe a fight school. It depends. He’d rather get a girlfriend first. Perhaps he’ll impress one at the fight? “It’s my last match before exams, so yeah, maybe. But after this, it’s all study. I have to go to college.”

Wu Hao for ChinaFile

Xia (left) and Bo, in the fight cage.

“OK, OK, ladies and gentlemen, it’s motherfucking time for some… rock… star… fighting!” Shaven-headed, tattooed, and with a tendency to use “motherfucker” as a punctuation mark, 28-year-old Ma Huoche prowled the cage, compèring like the hip-hop MC he usually is, fast-paced and foul-mouthed. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, make some noise! Motherfucker.”

It’s 9:00, the crowd still arriving, and Ma wanted to get started. After the participants, seven Chinese men and one incandescently white foreigner (“Hello everybody, I’m James from Canada. Glad to be back again. Yup, that’s it”) introduced themselves in a mix of English, Chinese, and local dialect, there was only time to order a lukewarm can of Rio before Bo and Xia, the first pair of fighters, were checking the bandages around their knuckles. “I’m not as nervous as last time,” said Xia, “but I’m worried about my leg defense. That’s my weak point.” Bo hunkered down for a few moments with his sister before the music blared—Meek Mill’s swaggering “A1 Everything” booming relentlessly between each and every bout—and the fighters touched gloves. “Respect,” announced Ma solemnly. “Respect the fighters, respect the ring. Respect the club, OK?”

The first round did not go well for Bo. He’d been expecting to draw out his opponent; instead he’d been surprised and pummeled. Bo approached the second round more leery of his opponent, while Xia was focused on “closing the barrier.” A leg strike to the thigh took out Bo’s ability to effectively kick, which Xia followed with a series of powerful head blows that had Bo, gloves raised protectively over his face, fighting blind and pinned to the edge of the ring, absorbing as many hits as Xia could manage before the two collapsed in each other’s arms. The referee pulled Xia off, as Bo reeled like an exhausted lover. “When you’re fighting, time slows,” Xia explained. “A round seems to go on forever.” For Bo, his left flank wracked with pain, the current round couldn’t end quickly enough. What he didn’t know, as the next and final round began, was that Xia was now running on fumes.

Wu Hao for ChinaFile

Xia (left) wins the fight against Bo (right).

Wu Hao for ChinaFile

After a blow to his hip, Bo struggled to continue fighting. Disappointed after losing, he is comforted by his sister.

 

It was the crowd—mostly in their twenties and early thirties, and two-thirds male—that kept both going as Xia launched a brutal final assault on a disheartened Bo. A right kick to the head landed with an audible smack (“Ahhhh!” heaved the mob as one) and a follow-up to Bo’s aching abdomen took away the last of his fight. Bo may have the experience and practice but Xia’s grit was indomitable. “If you punch me once, I will punch you back twice as hard,” he’d told me. After he took a punch to the mouth, Xia kept coming with haymakers and knee jabs, unloading everything he had until his rival was inert and helpless. “Mentally, I’d already surrendered,” Bo said post-match, recalling the moment. One saw it in the slump of his shoulders, the unsteady retreat around the ring while his still-walloping opponent followed. Gone was the theatrical exuberance of the first round. The final moments were punctuated with frequent, unsteady clinches, neither too keen to break, marking time until the clock ran down on a sputtering struggle.

The excitement abated immediately. After each contest, the crowd seemed psychically drained, the yells and jeers replaced by cheers and polite applause honoring the blood and sweat that had been spilt for them. The fighters were invariably flat-out whipped (at the end of a separate fight later on, the loser surprised several spectators by crawling out and vomiting at their feet). In the immediate aftermath, though, Bo appeared almost hysterical. “Sorry! I’m so sorry!” he gasped, hands on knees, sucking for breath, before his sister led him quietly upstairs. Xia, alone on a stool, head leaning against the wall, seemed sedated in contrast. “My legs are numb,” he sighed. His emotions too: “No special feeling,” he muttered. Bo also didn’t want to dwell on the outcome. “I’d meant to save my energy for the third round but the pain was too much,” was his evaluation, as the club emptied around an hour later. “It just didn’t work out.”

It worked out for the spectators, even if only a handful watching were aware of the dynamics that had brought two disparate men (boys, really) into the cage. Just as every fight has a ready-made narrative, a storyline with a surefire ending, so every great sports tale can feel like an echo of the American Dream: the plucky underdog, overcoming the odds through sheer strength of will. Pugilists like Bo and Xia occupy a well-scarred landscape that involves hardscrabble beginnings and lonely hours of endless training, often with only fleeting triumph or honorable defeat to look forward to: It’s no coincidence that most famous boxing stories end in tragedy. A small number of China’s fighters seek something beyond the Chinese Dream, a state prescription that calls for “modest prosperity” and “national rejuvenation,” rather than a triumphant individualism. They may find it in the din of battle, the approving roar of strangers, or a singular moment that belongs only to them. “I won by chance,” Xia insisted, without a note of false humility. That’s the lure of the ring. Even for a few fleeting moments, everyone is equal; everyone has a chance.