Tie Quan Zhang: rxtremesports.com
When unbeaten lightweight Tie Quan Zhang steps into the cage at WEC 51 on Thursday night, he’ll become the first Chinese national to compete under the Zuffa banner -- a particularly significant happening to those who believe MMA can flourish in the birthplace of traditional martial arts, possibly indoctrinating over a billion new fans.
Originally slated to meet Alex Karalexis, "The Mongolian Wolf" learned in early September that he would instead face another UFC veteran, Jason Reinhardt. This past weekend, Reinhardt was forced from the bout after failing a pre-fight eye exam, and Zhang’s opponent changed once more.
Zhang is now set to square off against TUF 12 alum Pablo Garza, a fact which doesn’t seem to bother Zhang at all.
“I’m here to fight,” Zhang says plainly of his third slated foe. “And I want to win.”
Similarly, Zhang's coach from China Top Team, Ruy Menezes, reviewed tape of Garza over the weekend and decided there would be no significant alterations to his fighter’s gameplan. Sure to be on the menu are the vicious sanshou strikes and versatile ground game which have helped run Zhang's professional record to a perfect 16-0.
Zhang arrived in Colorado almost two weeks early to begin acclimatizing his body to the state’s notoriously energy-sapping high altitude. He has taken up training at Grudge Training Center in Wheat Ridge, Colo., the home of the likes of Shane Carwin, Brendan Schaub, Tyler Toner, and in this case, fellow transplant “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung.
The relocation has been beneficial to Zhang; the caliber of training being higher than what he has become accustomed to in China, while also giving him the physical benefits of the locale. Monday, Zhang ran sprints in the mountains of Littleton, reportedly with no trouble.
Perhaps it should come as little surprise that he adapted naturally to the geographical circumstance, given his background.
“I grew up around wild wolves; they run around the grasslands of Inner Mongolia,” Zhang explains. “The wolf isn't only intelligent, but they say it's so fierce that when it bites your arm, even if you kill it, the jaw doesn't open. I like the ferocity of the wolf.
“There's a song I really like right now called ‘The Wolf.’ The lyrics go: ‘I'm a lone wolf coming from the north, ready to find my prey.’ I feel like that's me. I'm a lone wolf coming from the east, ready to find my prey.”
Zhang's history speaks of a pre-modern state-of-nature essentialism, but modern amenities have some serious appeal to the ethnic Mongolian. He was quite taken with his rental car -- a black Infiniti -- and the motorcycle culture prevalent in Colorado. Likewise, much of his downtime between training has kept him connected to home, playing the vegetable-stealing Chinese social networking game “Toucai.”
However, it's a different kind of Chinese technology that has been most important during Zhang's trip stateside.
Last Saturday, a video of Zhang training with fellow WEC fighter Tyler Toner was uploaded to Youku, China’s answer to YouTube. By Tuesday morning, with virtually no promotion, the three-minute clip had garnered over 12,000 views. While the number pales in comparison to the 8 million who watched a live “China vs. Thailand” muay Thai Web broadcast last year, it’s considerable for a fighter who hails from a nation where despite hopes of a lofty future for MMA, the sport has yet to fully take off.
Should Zhang win on Thursday night, his bout will likely be broadcast in his home country by Tianjin-based digital cable channel Power Sports, China’s first nationwide HD sports channel. It's a small start, but given the nation's over 170 million cable subscribers, "The Mongolian Wolf" stands to add significant numbers to his pack in a nation that might just have a lupine appetite for this sport.