Beijing- China Air’s first class cabin was a welcome change from the economy class austerity I’d grown accustomed to crisscrossing the country for my work. Large comfortable chairs, private video screens, ample space, and dainty Chinese flight attendants with demure smiles and faint, childlike voices made a first impression which stood in harsh contrast to terse, peanut-hoarding American flight attendants. When the plane landed, two police vans with flashing blue lights pulled up beside the plane. I watched from my window as technicians attached an air tight covering from the white van to the deboarding steps and then to the door of the plane. At the time, Asia was still in the grips of Avian Flu panic and China was taking no chances. If someone on the plane was even suspected of being ill they’d taken off the plane and straight into quarantine. How and when they’d be released was still an open question but they’d never set foot on Chinese soil. Technicians dressed in white biohazard suits with gloves, goggles, and surgical masks boarded the plane and went slowly through the cabin pointing a thermometer that looked like a ray gun at each passenger’s forehead. They deliberately examined the readings, sometimes ominously conferring, before moving on. I stifled the urge to clear my throat, suddenly very aware that I was in an authoritarian country.
At the Crowne Plaza Hotel in the Wuzhou district of Beijing well-dressed American and European businesspeople jockeyed for deals in the hotel’s restaurants and lounges. Arab oil representatives with exotic entourages lingered in the hotel shops. The new generation of Chinese capitalists, young and well educated, mingled and greased the gears of international commerce. The Crowne Plaza and many hotels like it throughout Beijing had become hotspots for the deal making and idea swapping that was reshaping the world economy and shifting its focus eastward.
I was in Beijing because of a letter I received at my office three weeks before.
“Under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, the mixed martial arts tournament, Art of War Fighting Championships will be held on 23 May 2009 at the National Olympic Sports Center Auditorium in Beijing China…”
The letter, which was inscribed with the insignia of the Royal House of Abu Dhabi, went on to invite me to Beijing as a guest of His Highness. My first thought was that this was a derivation of those Nigerian phone scams I’d heard about over the years, but after making a few phone calls, the invitation turned out to be legitimate.
The Art of War Fighting Championship was the brainchild of two Chinese brothers named Andrew and Konrad Pi. Brought up in the United States, they moved fluidly between the cultures of East and West, thanks to substantial family connections among the Chinese business and government elites (the ever-important guanxi, without which it is next to impossible to get anything done in China.) Balls-to-the-wall Andy was often in a t-shirt and jeans, his cell phone permanently plastered to the side of his head, sometimes pitching in English, other times directing in Chinese. In contrast, Konrad was always decked out in a perfectly tailored suit. One night I had dinner with the Brothers Pi in a palatial private banquet hall at the Crowne Plaza. The room had been commandeered for the week and was big enough for all of the Sheik’s several hundred guests. On each side of the room were two enormous buffets, overflowing with Mediterranean and Asian cuisine. The Brothers Pi and I shared a table of in a corner of the large room.
They told me that MMA in China was similar to its early days in the United States; so Chinese stars were developing gradually. Chinese fans, accustomed to the classical striking martial arts like Kung Fu, needed to be educated about MMA, specifically about ground fighting. “Originally, Chinese people found it very shocking for someone to strike an opponent on the ground or to mount a fallen opponent and continue attacking while he’s down,” Konrad said.
The brothers considered themselves purists and were both big fans of the Old PrideFC. When PrideFC folded, the UFC was the only fight promotion in a position to fill the void. The brothers founded Art of War FC to compete for Asian market share. Art of War FC borrowed heavily from PrideFC’s old format, only awarding victory for a knockout or submission and opening live events in rock concert-style.
Later, as I headed out of the dining room, I stopped by Rickson Gracie’s table to say hello. “You know over here they think it’s bad form to attack a man when he’s down,” I mentioned, ribbing the Jiu Jitsu Icon.
“Well,” he smiled, not missing a beat, “they’ll learn.”
One day, I went with a group to a place called the Hong Qiao Pearl Market, a large multi story complex in downtown Beijing, where you could go and haggle for just about anything you could think of from clothes to art to high-tech gadgets and toys. There was even a fish market in the basement. One caveat, though: except for possibly the fish, it was all fake. You’ve heard about Chinese knockoffs, well the Pearl Market was knockoff heaven.
We were there with a man named Mike Swain. He worked in radio, and had been in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, so he knew the drill about how to get the best deals from the hyper-aggressive Chinese vendors. The trick, he told me, was to turn and make like you were going to walk away. Because there were always several stalls selling the exact it item, they’d do just about anything to keep you from going to another stall for a better deal.
I picked out a watch from one of the stalls. If it were real, it would have cost about $5,000 in a US store, but in the Pearl Market it ran 800 Yuan (about $120). I offered 100 Yuan. After a few minutes of heated debate with a Chinese lady vendor who was about the size of my thumb, I used the secret weapon Mike taught me. I threw up my hands and turned to walk away in fake exasperation. My opponent caved and agreed to 150 Yuan, or about $22. Who knows if the watch was even worth what I paid for it, but I still left feeling a rush of victory and not caring which one of us had most successfully deceived the other.
The portrait of Mao Tse Tung, the first leader of Communist China that hangs over Gate of Heavenly Peace in Tiananmen Square is an object lesson in the effect of a carefully crafted image. Mao’s portrait was produced by the collective effort of 30 artists over 14 years from 1950 to 1964. It went through subtle changes over that time until the group felt they had gotten it just right. First he was wearing a cap, and then some years later, off it came. His gaze was slowly altered so that, eventually, he was seen staring straight out as if peering into the future. Initially, only one of the Chairman’s ears was pictured, but then it was decided that both ears should be shown to indicate the he was listening to the masses. Each subtle variation to the image was meticulously planned and debated to ensure that the Face of Mao conveyed the symbolic message the state desired to promulgate.
When I saw it in person I wondered what exactly the artists were trying to portray. Mao appears imperious, iconic, unconcerned. But rather than conveying omnipotence, the effect was one of suffocation.
The portrait is replaced every year with a new one and it’s been vandalized more often than the government likes to admit. In 1989 three friends, Lu Decheng, Yu Dongyue and Yu Zijhan, threw eggs filled with ink on it. After the government crushed the protests the men were caught and put in prison for sentences ranging from 17 years to life.
Near the portrait of “The Great Helmsman” whose life most fittingly serves for contemplation on how historical greatness and personal wretchedness often converge, is Chang Ang Ave, where the most famous image from the 1989 protests was taken almost by accident. A photographer named Jeff Widener caught the image on camera from the 5th floor of the Beijing hotel. He had originally wanted a picture of the tanks rolling through the streets when a young man carrying a bag of groceries suddenly jumped into the action and promptly stood down the armored column for some 13 minutes until bystanders rushed him off.
Widener hid the film from government censors in the water tank of the toilet in his hotel room before smuggling it out and soon the image spread around the world. No one has ever found out the man’s name or what happened to him but the defining moment of his life has been immortalized in that picture. Sam Sheridan wrote an article about courage that appeared in the first issue of FIGHT! and mentioned Tank Man, as the anonymous protester has come to be known. We ran Widener’s famous image with the article. It was a stretch to run a think piece and a famous political photograph in a magazine about cage fighting, but at the time I could do what I wanted and I felt fortunate when I imagined that someone somewhere who had never seen the picture of Tank Man might first encounter it in the pages of Fight! Magazine.
Bas Rutten and Stephen Quadros were reminiscing about their days as an announce team in Japan for PrideFC back in the glory days of the Promotion. We were sitting at the front of a chartered bus the Brothers Pi arranged to take us all to the Great Wall. Royce, Royler, and Renzo Gracie were with us in back. It’d been forty-five minute drive so Bas entertained us with stories of his infamous career as a bouncer in Amsterdam. As a champion fighter and bouncer, Bas had always been notorious for the power of his kicks. Once on a show called Sports Science his kick maxed out the measurement of a machine designed to measure the concussive force of car crashes. The technicians had to rerun the test because they couldn’t believe the results, which were again verified. He told us about kicking one troublemaker in Amsterdam and knocking him out then dragging him behind a bush to hide him before the police showed up. “I used to wear these big steel-toed cowboy boots and had one pair of jeans that the shins were covered in blood where I had kicked so many people while wearing them,” he laughed, his face lighting up in a manic grin.
Quadros, I discovered, originally came to Los Angeles to break into the music business as a drummer. He fell into his broadcasting gig by default but 20 years later he was still one of the best announcers in the business. The talk turned serious. All three of us were problem drinkers and worse in our youth and we compared notes on how we’d each quit that lifestyle and after what cost. Bas had bounced back from the death of Pride with a good gig in Los Angeles where he is the co-host of a weekly television show called Inside MMA. His manic energy made him perfect for TV. Quadros was hustling, keeping himself in the limelight by doing announcing and radio gigs.
The further we got from Beijing the more rustic the countryside became. About thirty minutes outside the city we passed a farmer grazing a camel by the side of the road. The signs we passed on the way to the Wall made valiant if incomplete efforts at English translations:
“Have you had contact with a pig?” one tactfully inquired.
“Do Not Drive Tiredly,” advised another.” “Mentality Determines Outlet” was another and one company proudly announced, “Does Not Spend Money On Incentives.” My favorite proclaimed, “The Law of New Thought,” but disappointingly did not offer any insight as to its tenets.
Bas winced with every step he took climbing the steps to the lift once we arrived. “My knees are shot, man,” he said shaking his head, “It was God’s way of telling me it was time to stop.” We walked along and posed for pictures. Bas perched precariously in one of the turrets. It was a great shot but if his balance were a bit off he’d have tumbled to his death. I felt honor bound to duplicate his daring feat and he took a picture of me doing the same thing, with the Great Wall winding over emerald green treetops into the horizon in the background.
When it was time to go we decided to take the quick way down. The section of the wall we were on had a toboggan system that you could ride to get down. Bas, Quadros, and I all jumped into our toboggans. They went first and I watched them speed off down the mountain. I followed soon behind in my own unstable craft. When I came around a corner, I had to slam on the minimalist brakes because Bas and Quadros had somehow crashed their toboggans into each other and were in the process of getting back on the track. They soon sped off again, with Chinese attendants chasing after them, waving their arms and shouting for them to slow down.
At one point, as Quadros had sped ahead, Bas and I came to a stop at a turn and a dingy Mongolian attendant started giving Bas a hard time about the way he was driving. The man was shouting in Chinese and gesturing angrily at Bas, who ignored him. He became more and more animated. He knew some English because as Bas finally started to pull away he translated the venerable Asian curse into English for Bas’s benefit, articulating clearing “Go fuck your mother.”
From my vantage point I saw the back of Bas’s bald head instantly turn red and in one movement he bounded from the cart and suddenly towered over the now petrified attendant.” What did you say to me? Do you know who I am,” thundered his voice now an octave lower and his face suddenly contorted into a frightening grimace. He was so close to the now petrified man that their chests were touching! I watched Cartoon Bas become Scary Bas and he proceeded to dress down and cow the Chinaman with a tirade of Homeric intensity. I worried things might escalate and Bas might, in his inadvertent fit of rage really hurt the guy, maybe accidentally kill him. I started to get out of my cart to defuse things but I knew that if Bas wanted to get at the man there wasn’t much I could do about it. Fortunately as I started to get out of my cart Bas, satisfied he’d made his point, left the shrunken man, got back into his cart and hurled himself down the hill faster than ever. I slowly followed him leaving the attendant, dazed, shaken and happy to be alive.
I drove cautiously the rest of the way down- half expecting soldiers or police waiting for us at the bottom and strategizing on how exactly to get bailed out of a Chinese Jail. But as I reached bottom, Bas and Quadros were talking about the escapade. “Did Bas tell you about the guy back there that nearly kicked his ass?” I asked Quadros so that Bas could hear and pointing over my shoulder with my thumb. “It’s a good thing I was there to back you up or that little dude might have killed you,” I continued deadpanning to Bas and I’d remind him from then on about the time I saved his life at the Great Wall of China.
Lil’ Jon started to blare through the sound system and I told the man next to me, who was a business writer, “If you want a metaphor for globalization in MMA, here it is: a Russian making his entrance to music by a rapper from Atlanta so he can fight a Brazilian at a show in Beijing.”
I was in press row and behind me, all the BJJ players who had come with the Sheik from the UAE. The Sheik wasn’t at the event but somewhere behind me sat the son of the crown prince and the princess. The entire UAE contingent wore white polo shirts with the insignia of UAE Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu on them.
Once the fight began, one of the new generations of the Gracie family fighters, Rolles Gracie, immediately took his opponent down and slowly worked his way to a dominant position. The UAE contingent went wild for Rolles, and chants of “Jiu-Jit-Su, Jiu-Jit-Su” sprang up regularly from them. It could’ve be Rio de Janeiro circa 1991, with Carlson Gracie’s boys fighting their cross-town enemies, the Luta Livre gang, for all of the “I fly the flag of Jiu- Jitsu” machismo floating around. I half expected to see Wallid Ismail run out and take a victory lap around the arena.
After Rolles’ victory in the main event, the stadium crew started breaking down the arena and ushering everybody outside. Interested as I was in the global growth of the sport, I made a point to gauge the crowd’s reaction to what they have seen. There was a buzz in the crowd as fans talked excitedly about the fights.
Waiting for a ride back to the hotel, I watched the Sheik’s UAE BJJ contingent mingle with the new Chinese fans and I remembered something that Rickson said to me earlier about the loss of his father, Hélio Gracie, the man who invented Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. When I said that I had been sorry to hear about his passing, he’d said. “Why be sorry? What a life my father had! Think about his long life and legacy. I am not sad at all. I even feel like he’s with me more now because, instead of being at his house in the mountains, now he’s with me everywhere.”
I wondered if Grandmaster Hélio could have imagined anything like what occurred in Beijing tonight when he started the first Gracie Academy with his brother Carlos so many years ago and about as far from where I was as it is possible to be.