For professional fighters, nerves before a match come with the job. But for Xu Xiaodong, China's most controversial mixed martial artist, successfully leaving the country on a clear, cold day in November seemed like an impossible challenge.
Standing in the departure hall of Beijing's new international airport on a planned trip to Bangkok, Xu looked calm. But beneath the barrel-chested facade, the 41-year-old was full of worry. He felt like he was taking a huge gamble.
Would he be allowed to board the flight to Thailand to take part in the most important fight of his life?
Two years ago, before Xu began taking on China's kung fu establishment, the answer would have been a resounding yes. But now " after becoming a global internet sensation and the target of censorship, lawsuits and travel restrictions at home " he wasn't sure.
"It would be hard for other athletes to imagine what I'm going through," he told Inkstone a few days before the fight. "My fight organizers are withholding all promotion. They're afraid that I won't be able to leave China. I honestly can't believe I have sunk this low."
A lot was at stake. Instead of fighting a string of what he calls charlatans, Xu was on his way to his first competition outside of China to fight a proper professional: Yuichiro Nagashima, 35, a former Japanese kickboxing champion.
For Xu, it was his first opportunity to prove he could compete at a high level: That the guy who became famous outing "fake" kung fu masters wasn't a fake himself. That is, if he could get into the ring at all.
'Fake' kung fu
Xu didn't set out to make trouble. Growing up in China's capital, he was always better at sports than school. As a teenager, he became hooked on martial arts after watching people train.
Attracted to the competitive aspects, he enrolled in after-school classes to learn sanda, or Chinese kickboxing, at a well-known sports school in Beijing called Shichahai. For two years after turning 20, he competed in semi-professional sanda contests, which featured both amateur and professional fighters.
Then, in his mid 20s, he began practicing and teaching mixed martial arts, which was then virtually unknown in the country. Xu was among the first group of MMA enthusiasts and promoters in China.
Over the years, he has taught in about ten gyms in Beijing. During the best years, he taught simultaneously in five gyms, living comfortably on about $70,000 a year from coaching.
Xu's rise to infamy started only three years ago, in 2017, when he stumbled on Wei Lei, a tai chi master based in southwestern China, online. Wei was boasting that he could escape a powerful form of chokehold in mixed martial arts (called rear naked choke) with only one hand.
The two got into an online argument. According to Xu, Wei posted Xu's mobile number online and said Xu insulted tai chi. Xu says he was personally attacked online as a result. (Wei has not replied to Inkstone's request to comment.)
In a rage, Xu flew to Chengdu, the southwestern city where Wei was based. The two agreed to settle their differences on the effectiveness of mixed martial arts versus tai chi in a public fight.
In a now viral video, Xu knocked out Wei in 20 seconds. Xu, then a little known gym owner and mixed martial arts trainer, was catapulted to national fame. His followers on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, swelled to nearly half a million followers a few days after the fight.
For some martial arts practitioners, his rise to celebrity had more to do the world's perception of martial arts than Xu himself.
"Traditional Chinese martial arts has always enjoyed a mysteriously powerful image, thanks to kung fu movies from Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and others," Qi La La, a Taiwanese wing chun practitioner told Inkstone. "By taking on a subject with so much cultural currency, Xu piqued the public's curiosity."
"Everyone wants to see what is going to happen to martial arts," he added.
But in China, martial arts like tai chi are not just a form of exercise. They are an integral part of an ancient, rich culture that prizes respect for established norms and ways of doing things.
Over the years, Chinese lawmakers have repeatedly praised tai chi and kung fu as "one of China's great inventions," and hailed traditional martial arts as an important tool to spread Chinese influence to the world. A month before Xu's fight with Wei Lei, China nominated tai chi to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
In that context, Xu's challenge was seen by many as an affront to both tai chi, one of the most popular martial arts styles practiced in the country, and traditional Chinese culture. Perhaps it's not surprising that, for Xu, the official backlash came as quickly as the fame.
A few days after the fight, his Weibo account was shut down, cutting him off from his 400,000-odd followers. Shichahai, the sports school where Xu had trained and worked for over 20 years, told him to stop mentioning its name.
The state-run Chinese Wushu Association berated the fight in an unusual statement. It said the fight "violated the spirit of martial arts" and was "potentially illegal." The organization also said it would "promote a positive image of kung fu" and "eradicate similar future events."
"China uses traditional martial arts as a public diplomacy export," Jerry Liu, an MMA enthusiast and founder of the "Fight Commentary Breakdown" channel on YouTube, told Inkstone.
"When Xu knocked out Wei Lei, who was previously featured on Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, and then started criticizing many influential people in the community, he attacked a cultural establishment that had many close ties to the ruling party. It also made many people question one of China's biggest cultural exports," he said.
Liu said those questions were threatening a sport that had not only become a lucrative business through tourism and merchandising but had also helped shape the image of China's culture and heritage.
But Xu, never previously a public iconoclast, refused to toe the line. Instead, he chose to embrace "chaos" and his love for "the art of violence" and "freedom."
"I'm fine if they promote it (kung fu) as an effective work out. But if they promote it as an effective fighting art, that's just lying," he said.
After his fight with Wei, Xu fought three other kung fu masters in high-profile matches shown online. Xu beat them all in similar fashion.
In March 2018, he knocked wing chun master Ding Hao to the ground six times within two minutes. About a year later, he knocked out Tian Ye, a general kung fu practitioner, in the second round. In May 2019, Xu broke wing chun master Lu Gang's nose in 40 seconds.
As Xu kept on making traditional martial arts masters look bad, he also received more push back from both the Chinese martial arts community and the Chinese authority.
In May 2019, Xu was temporarily barred by a Chinese court from traveling on high-speed trains or booking flights and hotels because he had refused to apologize to Chen Xiaowang, a tai chi master, after losing a defamation case to Chen.
The court ruled that Xu must apologize to Chen, who Xu had accused of faking a win during a televised match in 2012. In June, Xu made a public apology online and the travel ban was lifted.
Around that time, nearly all of Xu's social media accounts in China became suspended without explanation. But rather than back down, he decided to double down. He hopped over China's "Great Firewall," by using a virtual private network to open a YouTube and a Twitter account.
"I just didn't give a damn anymore…I know it's illegal to hop over the censorship wall, but I also know they can't block me once I'm on YouTube," Xu said at a Beijing gym in November. "As long as I'm alive, I will keep live-streaming on YouTube."
When Xu made his first YouTube appearance in August 2019, he chose to tackle the most controversial topic of the day: anti-government protests in Hong Kong, which had begun two months earlier and continue to this day.
In mainland China, the protesters had been largely portrayed by state media as rioters and separatists intent on destroying the city's stability and prosperity. But Xu, once again, refused to toe the line.
On YouTube, Xu defended the city: "Hong Kong is the world's top free-trading port. Hong Kong has Asia's finest universities. It's also a place of wealth. I don't like to see, nor do I believe, that there would be that many rioters."
Shortly after that live stream, Xu was awakened by knocks on the door of his Beijing apartment. His young daughter opened the door to two uniformed Chinese officials.
Xu, who refused to give more detail, used a vague Chinese term, the "related departments," to identify the officials. The term is sometimes used to refer to law enforcement in China.
"They can go after me however they want. But by coming to my home, they were threatening me through my family," he said months after the visit.
Fight of a lifetime
All this controversy was why Xu was standing in front of immigration officers at Beijing's Daxing International Airport in November wondering if he would be allowed to pass. Xu feared he might be subject to an "exit ban," which would bar him from leaving the country.
Nervously handing over his maroon People's Republic of China passport, he wondered if the immigration officer would recognize the name. When the officer handed it back with a smile, Xu was relieved.
He was soon recognized by a patrolling police officer at the airport, who turned out to be a fan. Xu took a selfie with the officer, who cheered him on with the common Chinese phrase "add oil," before boarding a plane bound for Bangkok.
Cheng Jiasheng, the founder of Ultimate Fighter, a fight organizer in China, told Inkstone that because of uncertainty over whether the fight would go ahead, he only began advertising the bout after Xu got on the plane.
"He messaged me right away: 'Ahhhh, I made it! Ahhhhh, I made it!' He really thought he wouldn't make it," Cheng said.
Xu's critics often point out that he won fame by beating up kung fu masters with little professional fighting experience. Sometimes, the people he fought were smaller. That was why Xu decided to take on Japanese kickboxer Nagashima in Bangkok.
Nagashima became famous for dressing up in cute anime cosplay on his way into the ring. Despite the gimmick, his credentials are no joke; he won a K-1 kickboxing title with three back-to-back knockouts in 2010.
Like many things about Xu, even the location of the fight was controversial. Xu claimed the fight was set in Thailand because he wasn't allowed to fight in China anymore. Cheng, his promoter, refused to confirm this, saying he chose Thailand to give Xu more global exposure.
But even after making it to Bangkok, he couldn't shake free of the restrictions imposed at home.
The Chinese fight promoters wanted to live stream the December match on China-based platforms, which meant Xu had to disguise his face, or risk having the live stream cut off.
Xu covered his face with blue and white paint as a tribute to Braveheart, his favorite film, whose hero, Scottish revolutionary William Wallace, charged into battle to fight for Scotland against the English.
As Xu began warming up, groups of mostly middle-aged male Chinese fans hounded him for selfies and hugs and cheered him on, "Win or lose, we are here for you, brother Dong!" The stadium, usually reserved for Muay Thai, was brimming with Chinese-speaking fans hailing from all over the world.
Xu's opponent Nagashima received muted applause as he walked into the ring. But when it was time for Xu, the stadium exploded with cheers of "Xu Xiaodong! Xu Xiaodong! Xu Xiaodong!"
The two fighters touched gloves, and then it was on. The first round of the match was restricted to kickboxing while rounds two and three would fought in mixed martial arts.
Nagashima dictated the tempo at the start of the match, putting Xu on the defensive in the first round. But Xu held his own, trading blows and kicks with Nagashima.
By the second round, Xu managed to take control and impose his MMA style on the fight. Nagashima wearily kept his distance from the larger Xu.
Then, in an instant, the fight was over. Xu saw an opening and struck Nagashima with a hard jab to the face. Nagashima fell to the mat. Xu lunged. On top of Nagashima, he landed one rapid blow after another.
The referee called the fight and the crowd went wild.
For a brief moment, Xu jumped up to celebrate. He circled the ring, letting out a few cathartic screams.
Then he stopped. He had just won the biggest fight of his career, but this time, he didn't want to be seen celebrating.
"If I look too happy, there will be more people coming after me," Xu said after the match.
In the locker room after his win, Xu had a solemn, detached look. Had it not been for the flowers around his neck, you might have thought he lost the fight.
Speaking to some 240,000 viewers on his YouTube live stream, he said he was just thankful that the fight happened at all, saying that the fight organizers had faced pressure from Chinese authorities to cancel it.
For Xu, as much as things change, they stayed the same. A day after his win in Bangkok, it was back to reality; his account on Weibo, China's Twitter, was suspended once again.
It was his 12th account, which he opened just six days before. Every time one of his Chinese social media accounts gets shut down, Xu sets up a new one. He is now on his 14th.
Recently, he suffered a new blow. On January 2, his business account on Tencent-owned WeChat, in which he used to receive donations from his fans on YouTube, was suspended. It was one of his main sources of income, besides teaching mixed martial arts in gyms across Beijing.
Xu said he felt the suspension was "treacherous" and potentially threatened his ability to make a living. And even though he was allowed to travel to Thailand, he worries he may be banned from traveling abroad in the future.
The constant worry and paranoia has diminished the once-boastful, bombastic Xu, who told Inkstone he just wants "some basic rights" in 2020, like the means to earn a living and the freedom to travel.
"My new year resolution for the year is simple: to survive," he said.
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