SHANGHAI, China – Her toothy smile and "Supermom" nickname may not seem very intimidating, but that changes when Chinese mixed martial artist Miao Jie steps into the cage.
The 30-year-old single mother is 2-0 in Asia's ONE Championship professional mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion, setting back-to-back women's records by blitzing her opponents to win in just 49 and then 45 seconds.
A title bout remains a distant dream but Miao – who fights to support the three-year-old son she calls "Peanut" -- is among a growing number of Chinese fighters, fuelling predictions of an MMA explosion in the birthplace of martial arts.
A former judoka in China's state sports system, Miao switched to MMA, the formidable multi-discipline amalgam of grappling and striking typified by Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) stars such as Ireland's Conor McGregor.
Photo by Chandan Khanna/AFP
But outside the ring the Shanghai native is a dedicated parent to son Li Muyuan, arranging her five daily hours of training around his sleep and meals.
"It's like how some people listen to motivational music. My motivation is my son. Without my son, I feel like I can't do anything."
Accurate estimates of Chinese MMA adherents remain elusive, but gyms and provincial-level competitions are proliferating, and with a pool of state-nurtured athletes like Miao, China is the sport's next frontier.
'Long way to grow'
The sport will take a major step into the country on Saturday when ONE's rival UFC – the world's richest MMA promotion – holds its first Fight Night in mainland China.
It will include bouts featuring foreign and Chinese combatants such as Li "The Leech" Jingliang, a bruiser with a 13-4 record.
"It's a great honor for me. I have worked hard and me, my team, friends and family are proud, and we want to make China proud," the 29-year-old said on Thursday.
The sport got a PR boost in China this year when a Chinese MMA fighter challenged a traditional martial artist, taking him apart in seconds.
A viral video of the white-washing sparked soul-searching over the efficacy of classic martial arts in a real fight, but also underscored the belief that a mix of old and new could fuel a massive Chinese market.
"You're going to start seeing some of that 'China, the birthplace of martial arts' manifested in the octagon (ring) soon because it's rising here," said UFC Asia-Pacific Vice President Kevin Chang.
"A lot of that is still untapped. We still have a long way to grow."
Singapore-based ONE has dozens of Chinese MMA fighters under contract, recruited from gyms across the country, and plans four China events next year.
It could stage up to 25 cards a year in China soon, said ONE chief executive Victor Cui, who relocated to Shanghai a year ago.
"Here, whether you are five years old, whether you are a 105-year-old grandmother – you know martial arts, you know Bruce Lee, you know Jackie Chan, you know Jet Li. So our ability to reach and connect with a fanbase is a lot easier," Cui said.
Challenges remain, including safety concerns highlighted when 21-year-old Chinese ONE prospect Yang Jianbing died in 2015 from heart failure blamed on the rigors of dropping weight for a fight.
And doping cast a shadow over Saturday's UFC card when MMA legend Anderson Silva was scrubbed from the main event over a positive drug test.
Chang said that underlined the UFC's "strong" anti-doping stance.
Other concerns include whether MMA's violence and trash-talk will repel Chinese viewers accustomed to humble stars.
Photo by Chandan Khanna/AFP
Chinese Conor McGregor?
Chang says a Chinese champion – "The Leech" is highly rated – would be a game-changer.
"If over the next 10 years we get a Chinese fighter with the charisma and skill of McGregor, that changes everything overnight. And that could be in three years, it could be much sooner," he said.
"Supermom" hopes it'll be her.
"Hyperactive" at school, Miao was steered into the state judo system.
The 163cm (5ft 3in) Miao switched in 2010 to Brazilian jiu-jitsu, MMA's dominant style, before jumping this year into MMA.
It don't go well initially.
A "blow-out" loss in an April provincial-level competition, her first bout, left her with a fractured vertebrae. She was bed-ridden for four months.
"Everything became clear to me then. I wanted to take on my greatest challenge and fight in MMA," said Miao, who debuted for ONE in Shanghai in September and fought again last month in Yangon.
Spurred by "Jia You!" ("Go for it!") voice recordings from "Peanut," she pounced on her Australian opponent in Yangon, forcing her to tap out with a painful armhold.
"My next goal is a championship belt. I was really encouraged by my two contests and feel that I am improving each time," she said. – Rappler.com