Pandemic-sized challenges can’t stop Chinese fighter reigning

Xiong Jingnan stole the show at One Championship’s return to live-audience action, encouraging the Singapore-based promotion to make deeper inroads in China.

With her training curtailed and no sparring partner or family by her side for about 10 months, Xiong-China’s first major international MMA titleholder-proved nothing could stop her from reigning in One’s strawweight division as she retained the 125-pound belt against local challenger Tiffany Teo on Friday at Singapore Indoor Stadium.

Caught up in the virus outbreak after landing in Singapore in January, Xiong soon found her preparations hamstrung by stringent local virus-control protocols, which banned all close contact between people and kept training facilities closed. Despite being left alone during the critical tuneup period, ‘The Panda’ roared anyway.

Setting the tone with her trademark flurry of heavy punches, Xiong outlasted the better-prepared Teo, known as ‘No Chill’ in the ring, via unanimous decision after five rounds to retain the belt in a rematch of her 2018 title-winning bout against the Singaporean in Jakarta.

“To prepare for a fight as big as this one during the pandemic was so hard,” Xiong, a 32-year-old Shandong native, told China Daily in a telephone interview on Sunday.

“I am far from satisfied with my performance as my preparations were badly affected by the gyms being shut. I couldn’t have any drills with a sparring partner or work out with a coach beside me. It was me and only me throughout these months.

“It shows that I still have room for improvement. I am really proud to show the Chinese power in MMA for the entire world to see.”

Featuring three other men’s title fights on the main card, Friday’s One: Inside the Matrix was the first live international MMA event in Asia this year to allow fans to attend amid the coronavirus pandemic.

With the outbreak under control in Singapore, the event was part of the country’s pilot program for the return of international sports, with 250 socially distanced spectators holding “superfan “ticket packages, priced at $108 each, allowed entry.

One Championship’s previous live-audience event was back on Feb 28. Group president Teh Hua Fung suggested the smooth staging of Friday’s fights can pave the way for more to come.

“It’s a small pilot for a start, but hey, it’s still a decent number. If this goes well I am pretty sure that the next time we try it will be a bigger number,” Teh told China Daily in Beijing before a fight-viewing event on Friday.

“I hope what we’re doing in Singapore demonstrates that it is possible to have both an international event and an audience happen at the same time as long as adequate virus-control protocols are put into place,” added Teh, who specifically covers the Chinese market.

Almost all the noise generated by the boisterous fans in attendance was for Xiong’s opponent, however the Chinese champion was happy just to hear any kind of din, even if it was boos.

“I think we all need that reaction from an actual crowd after so long,” she said.

“I think they did a good job in creating the right vibe.”

Having carved up everything One has to offer in the strawweight class, Xiong (15-2) is eyeing a move to the lighter but more competitive atomweight division, currently reigned by Singaporean Angela Lee, who is taking time off to become a mom.

“I am always in pursuit of a stronger self so I am open to any possibilities to chase more glory,” said Xiong, who lost to Lee in her first shot at the 115-pound belt in October in Tokyo.

With MMA punching its way into the sports mainstream in China, the popularity of the combat sport keeps surging thanks to Chinese stars such as Xiong and her fellow strawweight champion Zhang Weili, who competes in the Las Vegas-based promotion Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Zhang’s hard-fought split-decision victory over Polish challenger Joanna Jedrzejczyk in March in Las Vegas went viral on Chinese social media and lifted the nation’s spirits at the peak of the virus outbreak in China.

Despite being in competition with UFC, One Championship acknowledges that Zhang’s success is a positive for the entire sport’s profile in the birthplace of ancient martial arts.

“I think all of us have a role to play. All of us are just making the pie bigger in Asia,” Teh said.

Teh also refused to rule out a mouth-watering cross-promotion, all-Chinese clash between Xiong and Zhang.

“I think it’s a no-brainer,” he said. “We are open to it. As long as all the relevant parties are open, we are open. I would want to watch that as a fan.”

With a live event originally scheduled for April in Chongqing canceled due to the pandemic, One is keeping the lines of communication open with governments of potential host cities in the hope of resuming the One Hero Series, a talent-selection program launched last year which was broadcast online.

“China has the longest history in martial arts and has a deep talent pool,” Teh said. “I’m optimistic that we’re going to find world champion-caliber fighters.”

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