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Chinese fight club a testament to entrepreneurial young Chinese

  • NEW YORK TIMES Li Weiguo, left, a high school sports teacher, and Yan Nan, an office worker in a state-owned machinery company, in the third and final round of their match at a karaoke nightclub in Chengdu, China, on Jan. 26. A pair of Chinese entrepreneuers, inspired by the the1999 film "Fight Club," started weekly boxing, kick boxing and mixed martial arts bouts they thought would appeal to young adults who were bored with karaoke nights and bars.

CHENGDU, China >> On the sixth floor of a down-on-its-luck shopping mall in this southwestern Chinese city, a brawny, hyperkinetic master of ceremonies going by the name “Train” strutted around a new fight ring, pumping up the crowd for a Friday night of punching, jabbing and kicking.

After a monthslong shutdown, “fight club” was back in business.

The funk music faded, lights brightened and two amateur boxers started squaring off. Yan Nan, a lithe 33-year-old office worker in a state-owned machinery company, was up against Li Weiguo, a neatly muscular sports teacher, 4 inches shorter and seven years younger.

“I hope the kids in his class don’t mess up,” the master of ceremonies, whose real name is Wang Zijing, joked about Li to the hundreds of fans crowded around the ring.

The fight club in Chengdu, a city with about 8 million urban residents and a reputation for spicy food and laid-back living, is a testament to entrepreneurial young Chinese trying something new, even when numerous obstacles, licenses and official jitters stand in the way.

Shi Jian, club manager, and Wang said they had been inspired to open their venture in late 2015 after repeated viewings of “Fight Club,” the 1999 cult film in which Brad Pitt and Edward Norton star as two unlikely partners who start an underground barefist fighting club.

“Before all this, I didn’t have anything to do with fighting,” said Shi, with a folk-singer-like bowl cut and heavy glasses. “I like to have fun and also do something meaningful, and then I saw that movie.”

Shi, 35, a man of few words, and Wang, 29, a man of few silences, also seem like unlikely allies.

But they and another investor found a shared cause in entertainment that they thought would appeal to Chinese in their 20s who were bored with karaoke nights and bars. Their club features weekly boxing, kickboxing and mixed martial arts bouts and goes by the English name “Monster Private War Club.” It seeks an edgy audience, with graffiti-sprayed walls and a dimly lit recreation room.

“What Chinese people lack most is a spirit of fun, that’s what Chinese people need most of all,” said Wang, a former soldier who spoke in a torrent of Sichuanese-accented Mandarin Chinese and rap-inspired English, salted with plentiful profanities in both. “They really need to let themselves go.”

“Here it’s a bit more commercial,” he said of their new space inside a karaoke nightclub, “but we’re trying to find some of the vibe of the underground.”

A Chinese saying goes that it’s easier to get away with things in the far provinces, “where heaven is high and the emperor far away.” And it would be difficult to imagine such raucous entertainment surviving in button-down Beijing.

But boxing, mixed martial arts and other high-energy fighting forms have been enjoying a minor boom in China in recent years. Gyms and audiences have multiplied across the country. Precise numbers are hard to come by, but one fan group estimates that the number of clubs had reached 8,300 in 2016, up from 2,700 in 2008

Even so, commercial fight venues that draw a broader audience are rare. And Chengdu, with its zestful night life and hipster scene, seemed as good a place as any to try opening one. Yet even here the club has struggled to balance between being cool enough to draw customers and respectable enough to keep the inspectors at bay.

In a former venue, the fight club had to fend off complaints from police, who deemed the weekly bouts undesirable, if not illegal. Authorities cut off their power and water late last year, Shi and Wang said. Tensions had also grown when a national controversy erupted last April after Xu Xiaodong, a mixed martial arts fighter, challenged masters of China’s gentler traditional martial arts to a fights, and flattened one of them in about 10 seconds.

Xu may have won that fight hands down, but the episode brought bad publicity for new martial arts in China.

The Chengdu club shut down in November because of the friction with authorities, and reopened late last month after the partners persuaded city sports officials to support them. They found a new venue in the half-empty mall, which some residents say is cursed by ghosts from an ancient cemetery that was dug up nearby.

Even with that official support and begrudging approval from police, the club has to be careful to stay respectable. There is absolutely no gambling, no drugs, no brawling between patrons, nothing that could bring officials’ wrath, Shi said.

“If we were into gambling, do you think we’d be as poor as we are now?” Wang chipped in. “In a year I could afford to buy a Rolls-Royce.”

Each Friday night involves four boxing, kickboxing or mixed martial arts fights between men, and sometimes women.

“I think it’s a great setting with plenty of atmosphere,” said Liao Yanyun, 22, a professional boxer who fought a match at the club recently, when she and her opponent fought to a draw. “You attract a big crowd to this kind of fight, and that will help boxing to develop,” she said, though she added, “There are a lot fewer female fighters than men, and it’s hard for women to find matches and opponents.”

This year the partners plan to expand by bringing in professional fighters from across China, and maybe stars from Thailand. For now, the club’s fighters are hardscrabble professionals from local clubs or pure amateurs.

Before Yan’s fight, he and a dozen or so friends warmed up with a dinner of peppery tofu, and Yan appeared cheerfully indifferent about his chances in the club. “I haven’t thought about tonight, it’s just for the kicks,” he said.

The famous first rule in the movie “Fight Club” was “do not talk about Fight Club,” and Yan had his own twist: Do not tell his parents. He inherited his love of boxing from his grandfather, but said his mother and father would be alarmed if they found out he was climbing into a ring.

“They think at my age you should be more stable,” he said.

In the first of three rounds against Li, Yan initially appeared to have the upper hand. While Li went into a defense crouch, Yan threw down punches as dozens of supporters screamed encouragement.

But Li had a strategy: Younger and smaller than his opponent, he figured he first had to tire Yan out. By the second round, Yan began to flag. In the third round, Li moved in and began pounding at Yan — who by the end of the third round was slumped and beaten.

Wang, the master of ceremonies, hurried the two fighters out of the ring to make way for the next bout, a kick boxing match between two professionals from nearby clubs.

By the final fight of the night, the competitors and the crowd were screaming for more. Yet Wang and Shi said they wanted to create an even more passionate crowd, by bringing back a cagelike octagon-shaped ring that would let spectators press closer to the fighting.

In the dressing room, Yan was tearful — losing was harder than he had expected.

But he vowed to return to the club’s ring. “After more time and practice,” he said.

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