Way of the Warrior is an ongoing series exploring the growth of MMA in China from a variety of unique perspectives. We’ll introduce the sport’s rising talents, burgeoning fanbase, and cultural ties to China.
China has entered the ring. The nation’s mixed martial arts (MMA) scene has seen exponential growth in the past few years, with its fighters competing against the top dogs from the United States, Brazil, Russia, Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada, and elsewhere.
That reputation came to a head in 2019 when Zhang Weili became the first Chinese and East Asian fighter to win a belt in the sport’s premier fighting league, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). To secure her title, she defeated Brazilian fighter Jéssica Andrade, former UFC women’s strawweight champion.
Since Zhang’s ascendancy, the conversation has turned to the continued growth of Chinese MMA, with many wondering how the sport will develop in the world’s most populous country in the coming years.
Over the past few years, more and more Chinese fighters have joined the sport’s preeminent promotions. The UFC opened a world-class gym in Shanghai to foster young talent in 2019. Meanwhile, Asia’s biggest MMA promotion, One Championship, is home to a rising number of young Chinese fighters, like women’s strawweight champion Xiong Jingnan.
But the ones playing an even more pivotal role in grooming the next generation of fighters are the gyms. Zhang Weili fights as a part of Black Tiger Fight Club, while China’s next most famous MMA warrior, Li ‘The Leech’ Jingliang, comes out of China Top Team.
Arguably the most impressive and enigmatic gym in China, Enbo Fight Club is based out of Chengdu in the country’s Southwest. While Enbo’s global reputation is controversial — making headlines in 2017, it was touted as a fighting gym for orphans and impoverished youth (which is essentially accurate), it’s been a ‘home away from home’ to several big-name UFC fighters, like Song Yadong and Su Mudaerji, as well as One Championship’s Banma Duoji.
The gym is named after its founder, En Bo. An enigmatic and mysterious figure in his own right, he has played a significant role in the Sichuan fight scene for years, serving on fighting commissions in the province.
Born in Heishui county in northern Sichuan, En Bo was just 8 years old when his father passed away — a loss that made an indelible mark upon his being.
He began practicing sanda, also known as Chinese kickboxing, at the age of 18, which was considered late in the game. When addressing this period of his youth, En Bo said, “I wasn’t at the right age to participate in MMA competitions, which gives me a lot of regret.”
Instead of becoming a professional fighter, he served as an armed police officer before setting his sights on construction, an industry that experienced a huge bubble during the 1990s. In the early 2000s, he founded the Aba Prefecture Sanda Club, which trained young fighters in Chinese martial arts.
En Bo began taking left-behind children and orphans under his wing, offering them free-of-charge training and board at his gym. Many of the impoverished kids enrolled at the gym hailed from remote regions in Sichuan province and are from ethnic minorities, like the Qiang and Yi.
As MMA began to take root in China, En Bo introduced the combat sport to the club’s offerings in 2015, bringing in international trainers and expanding its staff. By this point, the club had changed its name to Enbo Fight Club — a moniker that would achieve celebrity status in China’s combat sports community.
Jeremy May, an American veteran of the UFC’s popular reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, trained at Enbo Fight Club for nine months over two years in 2016-17. After, he shared a revealing account of life at the gym with MMA news site The Bloody Elbow.
In the interview, May mentioned the kids’ living quarters, daily routine, and general treatment by En Bo and his staff. His descriptions upended many misconceptions about the fight center.
“The kids were very well taken care of,” affirmed May. “I would get their stories secondhand. Like, so and so’s mum died in a car accident or work incident. Plus, there were kids who were brought there by family members who could not afford to take care of them. They would get fed all week long and train, and then they’d go and spend the weekend with their parents.”
It is here at Enbo Fight Club where some of China’s most promising young fighters have been and continue to be groomed for greater things.
Song Yadong, a fighter born in Heilongjiang in China’s frigid Northeast, joined Enbo Fight Club and subsequently built his career there. Affiliated with Sacramento-based Team Alpha Male since 2017, he won his last three fights in the UFC, most recently defeating Marlon Moraes in March 2022.
Another potential MMA champion, Su Mudaerji is ranked 13th in the UFC flyweight division. A Tibetan born in Aba Prefecture, he joined Enbo when he was 14 years old, initially training in sanda before transitioning to MMA. While Su lost his first fight in the UFC, he scored three consecutive wins afterward.
Up-and-coming 22-year-old Banma Duoji is another fighter to watch. He made his One Championship debut in 2021, losing against Thailand’s Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke. That said, he previously enjoyed an impressive winning streak.
While Enbo Fight Club is well respected among professionals and in fighting circles, controversy has dogged the gym in recent years.
Perhaps this smear in reputation can be pinpointed to Enbo Fight Club making global headlines in 2017. It was the year that Pear Video released a short documentary on the gym, showing En Bo himself explaining how the state sends him orphaned or left-behind children to train and educate, while also depicting young kids fighting one another at the gym. The content got tongues wagging.
Some social media users criticized the practice, calling it a form of abuse, while others decried implanting ideas about the industry’s rat race in young children.
Ignoring commentary from the kids themselves, which told a different story, accusers insisted that the young fighters were being exploited. Enbo Fight Club then came under scrutiny and was investigated by police and civil authorities.
Shortly after, news of students being forcefully removed from the gym began to surface, with at least one fighter bemoaning his fate, saying he might become addicted to drugs or end up as a migrant worker if he were to return to his hometown.
A few months after the ‘fighting orphans’ controversy, Enbo Fight Club secured official credentials as a sports school, which allowed students who had been taken out of the school to return.
While being a stressful year, 2017 also saw the start of Enbo Fight Club alumnus Song Yadong’s training with Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. The 24-year-old has enjoyed a burgeoning reputation since.
Alas, in 2020, Enbo Fight Club made international headlines again for the wrong reasons: Fighters representing the gym were sent to the border between China and India before skirmishes broke out between opposing troops.
According to local media reports, 20 fighters from the gym joined the Snow Mastiff Plateau Resistance Team and participated in fights that led to deaths and serious injuries.
While Enbo Fight Club often seems a hair’s breadth away from dissension, there is no denying the gym’s status as one of China’s best.
Even though the gym has only been offering mixed martial arts training for less than a decade, one cannot ignore its influence on the world of MMA. It will be intriguing to observe what En Bo and his team bring to the table in the coming years.
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Cover image via ‘Way of the Warrior’
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