BEIJING, Sept. 4 (Xinhua) -- 42 seconds. That's all it took for China to crown its first UFC world champion when Zhang Weili knocked out Brazil's Jessica Andrade to claim the UFC world strawweight title.
However, the reality is that the elevation of a Chinese fighter to the top of the world's premier mixed martial arts promotion has been a long time in the making. Certainly, a lot longer than 42 seconds.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship, UFC, founded in 1993 at a time when people were beginning to become interested in professional martial arts - beyond the commercial juggernaut of boxing. People began looking away from boxing-dominated America and Europe, to traditional martial arts in Asia and South America.
The 20th century saw the expansion of contests between different styles of traditional martial arts across East Asia. Perhaps the most famous of these early mixed bouts was between boxer Muhammed Ali and trained martial artist-cum-professional wrestler Antonio Inoki. While the bout was a dud, the desire for punters to see the clash of styles remained.
Across the world in Brazil, the traditional Japanese martial art of Jiu-jitsu, which some experts believe had its origins in ancient Chinese martial arts, was being updated and was beginning to find a foothold in North America.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), as the updated form of the Japanese art is now called, diverged from the strict rules of jiu-jitsu and judo into a more forceful and practical sport. In early 20th century, Geo Omori, a Japanese man who had built a career challenging and defeating practitioners of other martial arts, such as boxers and wrestlers, brought Jiu-jitsu to Brazil.
Later the style was improved upon and adapted by Mitsuyo Maeda - another Japanese migrant to Brazil - and his disciples, including Carlos Gracie, patriarch of the Gracie family. The Gracie family became synonymous with mixed martial arts (MMA) and were fundamental to the founding of the UFC in 1993.
Yet, the UFC would struggle for more than a decade to gain traction and become the mainstream success it has become today, instead, MMA would find its home back in Asia, back where martial arts began.
Pride Fighting Championships would become one of the most popular promotions in MMA during the 1990s and 2000s.
Offering audiences the unique blend of traditional Chinese and Japanese martial arts with the modern MMA styles, the promotion was a hit across East Asia and the wider world. Founded in Tokyo, Japan, the promotion would go on to usurp the popularity of boxing in its home country and other part of east Asia. Pride FC featured athletes from around the world including Americans and Brazilians as well as Europeans.
Suddenly, modern MMA found itself a mainstream home back where the traditional martial arts began. TV deals rolled in and so did the crowds. In 2002, Japan's national stadium hosted a record crowd of 91 thousand people for a Pride Shockwave event that broke records around the world.
The event was truly global, paired alongside Asian martial artists were Croatian kickboxers, American wrestlers and Brazilian experts at BJJ. It was the competition between styles that Omori had been fascinated by almost a century earlier but on a huge scale.
However, just five years later Pride would become defunct, and with it the collapse of serious mainstream MMA in an Asian setting. After several poor decisions made at the boardroom level, Pride would later be sold to Zuffa, the parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
AMERICAN DOMINANCE, ASIAN DECLINE
In 2005, after 12 years of mediocrity, the popularity of MMA began to surge. During the intervening years since the foundation of the UFC in 1993, the promotion had struggled to attract any attention from the wider sporting audience.
UFC struggled in the early part of the decade. Seen by many as too violent, UFC drew the ire of American politicians and policymakers. "Human cockfighting" was the turn of phrase that then-Senator John McCain used to describe the no-hold-barred, almost rules free form of MMA that defined UFC in the late 1990s.
At the turn of the century, UFC and MMA generally were banned in 36 states across the USA, including New York. Restricted and marginalized, UFC was forced to rely on small pay-per-view audiences and smaller crowds to survive.
The choice facing UFC was stark: adapt and survive or remain the same and suffer a slow painful death.
Up until UFC 12 in 1997, fighters were not classified by weight, i.e. a flyweight could face off against a heavyweight. However, after the event was moved from New York to Alabama, following a ban in the northern state at the last minute, UFC began to start introducing rules designed to protect fighters and change the image of the sport.
The next two years the gradual introduction of rules and the attempts to rebrand from spectacle to sport. At UFC 14, gloves became mandatory, while UFC 15 banned headbutts, hair pulling, groin shots and strikes to the back of the head and neck. The introduction of shorter five-minute rounds at UFC 21 and the later introduction of referees to the contests began to slowly change people's minds about the sport.
However, MMA remained niche in the USA until 2005 when UFC launched the Ultimate Fighter reality TV series on Spike TV.
The year before had seen parent company Zuffa make losses of 34 million dollars on UFC. Four years earlier Zuffa had purchased a nearly bankrupt UFC for just two million dollars.
From the financial struggles, UFC was now placed directly into the mainstream, with a primetime slot immediately after the conclusion of Monday Night Raw - the flagship show for the immensely popular WWE. All of a sudden, millions of eyes were on the product and UFC finally had lift-off.
In the decade that followed the overnight success of The Ultimate Fighter, UFC grew exponentially. Soon the company would move away from Spike TV and onto the platform of media giants Fox Sports, while events that were restricted to small towns in the southern states of the USA due to bans in other states, were now staged across the world. From Madison Square Gardens in New York City - the city that once banned them on the eve of UFC 12, to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil - the spiritual home of modern MMA and BJJ, to Tokyo, Japan - the center of the MMA world only ten years earlier, to Shenzhen, China.
IT'S COMING HOME
To understand the origins of MMA, one needs to go further back than Brazil and jiu-jitsu and further back than Japan and judo, all influenced by one place: China.
The lineage of many martial arts all over the world can be traced back to China, and many styles in MMA is no different.
Currently, in the UFC, one of the most common and successful styles that is used is Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the style that has its origins in Japanese jiu-jitsu and judo. While jiu-jitsu and judo, as old as they are, have their roots firmly in ancient China.
For more than 3,000 years, China had been the home of martial arts, from the control of Wushu to power of Mongolian wrestling to commanding modern style of Sanda. For as long as there have been martial arts, people have been competing in it.
In fact, the earliest contemporary records of people competing in martial arts appear in the Spring and Autumn Annals in the 5th Century BC, while records from Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD) had reference to martial arts in the Zhou Dynasty and even earlier in the Shang Dynasty, a thousand years before the Spring and Autumn Annals were written.
Many of these traditional Chinese martial arts have remained in situ for centuries while some have been developed and exported around the world.
Today, the martial arts that were exported globally are returning home to China, updated and refreshed. China could perhaps be about to head into a renaissance of martial arts.
The arrival of the UFC in China began humbly. An event here and event there, but as the sport has continued to grow, many young Chinese martial artists began to take notice. One such artist was Zhang Weili.
The Sanda (Chinese kickboxing) athlete, turned primary school teacher, turned waitress has just been crowned China's first-ever UFC world champion. An athlete with a foundation in Chinese martial arts who has adapted to become a modern all-round fighter.
Her style reflects the journey martial arts have been on since leaving China centuries ago. Her devastating kicks and the ferocious knees that won her the belt come from her background in Chinese Sanda, while her superb ground game originates from Brazil and North America.
Zhang was not the only modern Chinese martial artist to demonstrate this lineage in Shenzhen on August 31. Other Chinese fighters, while having different styles from Zhang, demonstrated their foundations in Chinese martial arts.
Li Jingliang defeated the heavy favorite Elizeu dos Santos by staying at range, a discipline plucked straight from various forms of kung-fu, while Heili Alateng, the fighter from Inner Mongolia, dominated his opponent with his wrestling that originated with Mongolian traditions.
For now, UFC may only have a single champion from the home of martial arts, but as UFC continues to grow, and with thousands of years of tradition and discipline to draw from, it will not be long until UFC begins to crown Chinese champions regularly.
It may have taken Zhang 42 seconds to win the belt, but that 42 seconds contained thousands of years of martial arts traditions and Chinese history.