Sunday, 15 December 2013 15:14
TUF China Episode 2 Report
By Mark Harris
The second episode of The Ultimate Fighter China told two engaging stories, both of which built on the first episode’s attempts to educate new audience members. The show divided neatly into two halves, with the first half hour playing out as conventional reality television and the second half hour promoting this week’s fight. Following this episode, the audience will have a sounder sense of the skill level required to compete in MMA, and will be more aware of the way fights are conducted in the UFC.
The production errors of the first episode were improved in a minor way this week. It was stated more clearly that the host of the show is sports presenter Huang Jianxiang. His post-show interview with the coaches featured more focused questions than before. The post-show interview seems to be conducted live, and to its credit it had a more interesting visual presentation than last week’s show. Huang’s interview with the guests finished less abruptly this week, due to credits scrolling across the bottom of the screen prior to the end. However, the closing sequence still cut off Ao Hailin as he was speaking, dropped the English subtitles, and pulled the camera back in a disorientating fashion. The main episode of TUF featured no significant production faults.
Reports suggest that the first episode of TUF China drew approximately five million viewers, and “several millions more” watched the show on video-on-demand. That number is a success, but a questionable one. In itself five million viewers is a great audience for the UFC, but the future of the show on Liaoning Satellite Television (LSTV) likely depends on what ratings the station regularly pulls at primetime. That data is currently unavailable to me. To take a positive perspective, the UFC can lay claim to at least five million people interested in their product, and at the early stages of its approach on China that’s a number with a lot of economic and cultural potential.
The first half of the show portrayed the downfall of yoga instructor Li Jin Yang. After failing to impress anyone during training, Li decided to quit the show. The second half of the show built up the first fight of the season. Team Dragon’s Zhang Li Peng (7-6-1) defeated Team Lion’s Zhu Qing Xiang (0-0) by first round TKO.
The show opened with an advertisement for resorts in the Cotai Strip. The Cotai Strip is where this season’s finale will be held in March. UFC seem to be positioning Macau as its Asian equivalent to Las Vegas. Gambling is banned in mainland China, even though literally everyone gambles, but Macau is autonomous enough to have it legalised. Macau is also located very near to Guangdong and Hong Kong, which are two of China’s wealthiest regions. When you have combined the popularity of gambling and Macau’s nearness to wealthy places, the Cotai Strip is a safe venue for hosting fight cards now and in the future.
A montage aired to review the first TUF China episode. The emphasis of the montage was on last week’s team choices and Li Jin Yang’s unsuccessful first sparring session. The clips segued into another montage that previewed this episode of TUF. An interview with Li Jin Yang about his peculiar role on the show kept the emphasis on him. An appearance from Benson Henderson was teased for later. These two opening montages lasted 2 minutes before the first ad break, and as with last week the ad break was longer than the show’s opening.
The credit sequence returning from the break has been re-edited to feature more of this season’s cast, especially Cung Le. In his studio, Huang Jianxiang reintroduced himself to the audience and broke down the fighting styles involved in MMA. He characterised this season as a story of fate for each of the TUF contestants.
Team Lion were shown travelling to their house for the first time. This was juxtaposed with Huang in the house explaining the concept behind the fighters living together for six weeks. The editing implied he was there before the fighters arrived, but it was fairly apparent that he’d filmed himself in the house in post-production. He hyped the house as a three-story villa, which I can see being perceived as luxurious to most Chinese people. He explained that there were two floors for sleeping on: one floor had independent bathrooms for each person sleeping there, whereas the beds on a floor below had shared facilities. The gimmick of this segment was to see how the contestants would work out who was sleeping where.
If the producers were hoping for chaotic reality TV when they set this up, they were no doubt let down. The fighters settled who was sleeping where with great modesty. Team Lion arrived at their house, noticeably with less energy than the editing conveyed at the end of last week’s episode, and talked about how they’d use the space in the house. They re-aired from a different angle the clip of one fighter shoulder shuffling across a carpet. It is still gif worthy. They worked out that the English speakers of the team would share the small room with a Chinese fighter, after one fighter seemed to sacrifice some comfort to keep the atmosphere harmonious. Wang Sai and Yang Jianping were treated as the senior members of the team, and in deference the rest of Team Lion gave them priority in choosing where to sleep.
Team Dragon was shown traveling and talking together. Li Jin Yang was at the centre of their conversation. He said he was very impressed to meet all of the fighters on the show. He said he had seen them in magazines and was impressed by their fame. He came across as painfully naïve in this segment. Zhang Tiequan said he respected Li’s courage for coming on the show despite not having any training.
Team Dragon also had to work out who was going to sleep where for their six weeks together. The Dragons’ downstairs floor had no bathroom at all, but they worked out an arrangement easily enough. If any of the fighters had kept accommodation at a Chinese university, then they would likely have experienced more difficult living circumstances in the past. One fighter suggested using their large living room for jiu-jitsu, but another fighter said they’d be too worn from their actual training to roll in the house. To celebrate their arrival, they all shared a bottle of wine. Surprisingly neither team let off firecrackers outside their front door, as is traditional for Chinese people to do when they move to a new home.
Interviews aired with the fighters before the primary focus of the next few segments settled on Li Jin Yang. Zhang Tiequan put over his four coaches as talented martial artists, who can each bring different disciplines to the team. His stand-up specialist was former Art of War fighter Bao Li Gao.
Li Jin Yang was shown struggling at his first training session. He said he didn’t enjoy it. In his own words, he felt like a “human sandbag”. There was a funny shot of him stretching towards the sky while displaying a Herculean boner. Everyone I was with at this point said he was hiding something down his drawers.
While most of Team Dragon played games in the house, Li Jin Yang sat on his bed discussing with his teammate how unhappy he was with his situation. He said he was afraid of Wang Sai. Li asked his teammate who he would pick to fight him. His teammate told him not to show any weakness. Li Jin Yang started to meditate to calm himself down.
At training the next day, Li was practicing his striking. Zhang Tiequan said his technique was poor. The meditation hadn’t helped. Zhang vowed to help him improve. In the octagon, the coaches tried telling Li to keep on his toes and to hurt his opponent. His sparring partner let him throw a series of free shots at his head gear, but Li’s punches were completely useless. Li’s sparring partner taunted him for this and hit him with some hard shots. Cung Le was watching from outside the octagon. He was not impressed.
Cung Le called the coaches together to discuss Li. One coach said his girlfriend could beat Li. Le’s assistant coach Scott Sheeley joked they could let him run around the octagon when it came time to fight. Cung Le said they’d arrange for Li to have a practice fight of two three-minute rounds.
Initially, Li Jin Yang said he would not take the practice fight. He said he couldn’t punch any of his teammates. To him, they were his friends and not to be punched. Team Dragon temporarily left him out of the training session. He stood alone on the far side of the room contemplating what to do.
Li decided to get in the octagon for a practice fight. Instead of a teammate, he took on Scott Sheeley. Within seconds, Sheeley took him to the ground and got in half-guard. He punched Li, got the mount, and wailed on him. He threw some body shots before the editor cut away to a striking bag.
Li was bleeding from the mouth after the fight. He looked as dead as Dillinger. He decided to quit the show.
Cung Le said Li had made the best decision for Team Dragon. He stated his intention to bring in an alternate fighter to replace Li. In the first of two unbelievable (as in not-believable) comments Le made this episode, he said Li Jin Yang had possessed a “great fighting heart”; he wished him the best.
Team Lion had their first training session together, during which Ao emphasized the importance of learning every element of the game. He had selected specialists in each field of MMA to be his coaches. He reserved his highest praise for his assistant Marco, or as the subtitles would have it ‘Mr Marco’. Mr Marco demonstrated to Team Lion what to do when pressed up against the cage in a clinch. Ao encouraged the fighters to use their brain as well as their physicality.
During the break advertisements aired for milk, milk, noodles, and milk.
The second half of the show returned with another Cotai Strip ad. In a lobby, Cung Le surprised a new Chinese fighter with the news that he was about to join the cast of The Ultimate Fighter China. The new fighter was overwhelmed with happiness. I know surprises like this are conventional for reality TV, but, speaking as someone who never watches reality TV, the new fighter’s reaction made it feel like a good moment. Zhang Tiequan welcomed him on to Team Dragon.
As Ao Hailin got to pick his first team member last week, Zhang Tiequan chose the first fight of this season. He chose Team Dragon’s Zhang Li Peng (ZLP) to face Team Lion’s Zhu Qing Xiang. ZLP is one of the more experienced fighters on this season’s show and has fought for most major Asian promotions. Zhu Qing Xiang is an amateur fighter who started his own MMA gym in Tianjin. Despite having a backstory that lends itself to heroism, Zhu quickly put himself in a bad light by pushing ZLP during their stare down.
Interviews and training clips aired of the ZLP and Zhu. ZLP said his skills are comprehensive. Unfortunately, a clip of him throwing uncrisp punches at a striking bag was shown as he was saying this. Zhu got a pep talk from his team and shadow boxed for the camera. He said pushing ZLP was a psychological tactic. He wanted to make ZLP’s blood boil. He said defeating ZLP psychologically was the first step towards gaining victory.
Zhu stated he had a strong background in wrestling, which is unusual for a Chinese fighter. He saw his wrestling as a skillset with which he had an advantage over ZLP. Ao complimented Zhu’s wrestling skills and said he believed in him.
In the house, ZLP talked about the importance of vegetables and keeping his weight down. He was drinking a lot of water. Chinese fighters don’t seem to cut weight before a fight like UFC fighters regularly do. For now the norm is to fight at their natural weight. Oddly, ZLP at the end of this segment said he hoped his opponent would crush him in their battle.
Ao told Zhu that he had trained with ZLP in the past and knew his weaknesses. He said there would openings for Zhu to finish him on the ground. The Team Lion coaches also told him to let his opponent feel shock, let him lose punching power, and to take advantage while he’s stunned.
ZLP told viewers about his MMA background and how he’d often lost in his first year of fighting. Out of 10 fights he maybe won three; but he didn’t give up and kept improving on his mistakes. He said his record is getting better. He felt that his boxing had been improving and he knew he could win the fight on the ground.
Zhu wanted to be ready for ZLP’s jiu-jitsu locks, so he trained with his coaches in how to defend them. While sparring he was told to get in some good punches before shooting for a takedown. The coaches wanted to integrate his striking with his wrestling in future training sessions. They discussed a fighter’s sense of distance and how it disappears when you backtrack into the cage. Ao said that Zhu should just punch ZLP. Genius.
At the weigh-in, Zhu came in at 169lbs and ZLP at 167lbs. ZLP said his dream is to win The Ultimate Fighter.
A red moon shone over the houses the night before the fight. ZLP said he wanted to buy a house for his parents if he wins the competition. Zhu said he wasn’t sure who would win.
A preview of the fight aired before the commercial break. Growing tired of my milk jokes, LSTV put up a graphic to make it clear the station is actually sponsored by a milk company.
The morning of their fight, Zhu and ZLP ate together and travelled to the training camp. They didn’t speak. In the Team Lion locker room, Zhu taped up and practiced his ground game. Ao advised him not to get punched. Genius.
Benson Henderson arrived before the fight began. He got a nice applause from the fighters when he arrived. Shih Liang said Henderson is a so-so athlete who got to where he is through hard-work. The way Henderson has achieved success was something he was motivated by. The interview threw me off a little, since I couldn’t understand why he’d called Henderson a so-so athlete, but he meant what he said as a compliment. Despite his appearance being teased heavily, Henderson was only featured once more on the show.
Zhu got a slow-motion entrance as he came into the gym. Cung Le said Zhu was about to make history. Zhu showed a lot of charisma when he came through the doors. ZLP got an entrance with fewer blows and whistles, but in an interview he promised to chase Zhu down and beat him up.
The fight began at 10:55. Zhu quickly went for a takedown, but ZLP rolled into half guard and they had to scramble. ZLP went for a guillotine, but Zhu threw him off and took his back. The scrambled again, until ZLP looked like he had a kimura locked in. He lost it, but found half guard. He threw knees to Zhu’s shoulder and managed to get full mount. Zhu gave up his back and ZLP started throwing punches from above. Zhu tapped. The fight ended at 10:57 – a TKO stoppage two minutes into the first round.
Highlights of the fight were replayed. ZLP celebrated around the ring before making peace with Zhu. He said it wasn’t his best performance, but he was happy with the win. In the second of two non-believable things he said this episode, Cung Le called the fight “very exciting”. Le said Zhu can make a comeback after better training. He praised his ground game and his ability to roll. My friends laughed about Le for this interview. He came across as insincere. To be fair the fight had back-and-forth action, but there wasn’t a high level of skill on show.
After the fighters went to the back, Henderson made a brief appearance telling Zhu to keep trying at MMA. Cung Le came in and told Zhu he has good initiative. Le awkwardly slapped Ao on the shoulder before making his leave. What would have been best for Zhu is if he had won bonus money to take back to his gym in Tianjin.
Elsewhere in the camp, Team Dragon celebrated ZLP’s victory. A preview for next week’s episode aired. It featured Chinese lanterns, an interview with Ning Guangyou, and a tease that Ning would fight Shih Liang.
Cung Le, Zhang Tiequan, and Ao Hailing joined Huang Jianxiang for the post-fight show. Huang’s questions were more focused this week and he tried to ask things that would educate the audience. He asked Cung Le if Zhu’s tap out was a submission or a TKO victory for ZLP. Le rambled on the differences and concluded it was a TKO. He said it was like saying ‘uncle’ in the US. Huang asked Zhang if he and his team picked opponents strategically. Zhang said he aimed for at least an 80% chance of victory with each opponent that was picked. He added it can be hard to say who’s strongest or weakest in a fight because the dynamics are changing so much so often. Huang asked Ao if the loss weakened his team’s morale, and Ao admitted that it had. Zhang chipped in that his team always intended for that advantage. Huang mentioned the phrase “positive energy”, and Zhang and Ao teased him for using a Chinese buzz word. Zhang reflected on tonight’s fight and said ZLP’s TKO win came from wearing out Zhu. Ao would only agree that the fight ended by TKO, and said the match wasn’t one sided, because Zhu looked like he had the advantage early on. The back and forth between Zhang and Ao was fairly entertaining here. I wouldn’t be surprised if LSTV wanted something more entertaining than last week to keep viewers watching. Unfortunately, Ao didn’t finish what he had to say because the credits rolled and the sound faded out. The producers need an off-camera time-keeper to give Huang and the guests a signal for when there is only 20 seconds of air-time remaining. That way whoever is speaking can say their peace and let Huang wrap up for the audience.
-- The teams this season:
Team Dragon’s featherweights are Fu Chang Xin, He Jianwei, Ning Guangyou, and Yao Zhikui; their welterweights are Cheng Albert, We Qi Ze, Zhang Li Peng, and Li Jin Yang’s replacement.
Team Lion’s featherweights are Chong Allen Solomon, Rocky Lee, Shih Liang, and Yang Jianping; their welterweights are Dong Xin, Wang Anying, Wang Sai, and Zhu Qing Xiang.
-- Fight Sport Asia indicates that the first episode of TUF China pulled in the region of five million viewers. It has since gained “several million more” viewers through video-on-demand. From a business perspective, whether or not that’s a good number depends on how the UFC intends to create revenue from Chinese consumers. Spending power in China can’t compare to the USA, so it’s dubious whether there is currently a lot of consumer capital at stake for the UFC. On the other hand, five million sounds like a strong number for generating ad revenue. As the Chinese economy grows, UFC will be in a good situation if it has five million or more regular Chinese fight fans.
Liaoning Satellite TV doesn’t register on lists of the most-watched Chinese TV stations, so it’s not possible for me to compare TUF’s viewership to how many viewers the network averages. The optimistic view would be that five million people is in itself a strong number, if it is or if it isn’t competing with other primetime programming, since you’re reaching a huge number of potential buyers. On the flip side, what if LSTV has another primetime TV series on the back-burner that has a record of pulling higher ratings than TUF China? If anyone with better Chinese skills than me can research this, I will appreciate it if you get in touch.
-- Mark Fischer told the Global Times earlier this year that the UFC’s decision to broadcast on LSTV was based on their prior relationship. In the past, LSTV has received the highest ratings of all broadcasters of UFC programming in China.
-- Weibo is surely a poor indicator of the show’s popularity, but it’s possible to observe the following increases between the airing of episode one and two of TUF China:
Wang Sai’s followers increased from 116,837 to 116,914.
Yang Jianping’s followers increased from approximately 440,000 to 445,994.
Zhang Li Peng’s followers increased from 52,553 to 52,635.
It’ll be interesting to see how these figures change as characters develop this season. The official TUF China Weibo page had 1,356 followers prior to episode 2.
About the Author
Mark Harris is a recent university graduate currently working in mainland China. Contrary to popular belief, his email address was not censored by Chinese authorities last week. To send feedback to his reports you can email the following address typed backwards: moc.liamg@anihcfutstroperkram