Chinese MMA took a huge step forward with the opening of the state-of-the-art UFC Performance Institute in Shanghai last month. But there were concerns this week it might have taken a strange step backwards.
Last year, China's top media regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, decreed that media programmes "should not feature actors with tattoos (or depict) hip hop culture, subculture and dispirited culture", according to a report in Chinese news outlet Sina.
This later widened to televised sport, with footballers in China's three professional leagues told by the Chinese Football Association to cover up tattoos with athletic tape " "no visible ink" was the word from the top.
The issue has also appeared to touch MMA and other combat sports with rules said to be in place across CCTV and other major state broadcasters.
"The new bosses of CCTV have introduced laws to stamp out crime, so there's no bad officials, no bad police and no more bad influencers on society in the media. This includes people with tattoos," a senior official who works closely with the government told Asian MMA website The Fight Nation.
Chinese fighters have been able to get away with covering up any tattoos with rash guards or tape, just like their footballing counterparts " but one of the top Muay Thai/MMA crossover gyms in Thailand claimed this week the rules have recently become even stricter.
"MMA in China has made another strange step … No tattoos allowed," Phuket Top Team tweeted. "Fighters are having to wear rash guards or tape over tattoos. Promoters are getting bored of that and now just saying NO fighters with tattoos allowed. That sure does take out a large pool of pro fighters."
Phuket Top Team claimed the no tattoos rule was "direct from the Chinese government" and combat sport representatives.
"If you have tattoos, they don't want you competing in MMA/kick-boxing,Sanda/Muay Thai or boxing in China," it said. "Combat sports have been BOOMING in China! Now the government has banned tattoos from being streamed or televised."
Phuket Top Team has several UFC veterans and stars on its roster " featherweight Zabit Magomedsharipov and welterweight Zelim Imadaev are both there right now sharpening their Muay Thai skills in camp " so their voice clearly carries some weight.
The gym claimed that in the past two weeks, every local promotion in China had contacted them asking if they had any tattoo-free fighters, while a few said fighters can have tattoos but only ones small enough to be covered up with patches or wraps. Many Chinese fight promotions are broadcast on state television or streamed within China, such as WLF, Kunlun and Glory of Heroes.
"This will rapidly decline the fight scene in China. A huge shame for all of the top fighters who were embracing the fight scene there," Phuket Top Team added in a reply to another tweet. "UFC and One Championship are two major (organisations) that have been hitting the Chinese MMA market. Now they need tattoo-free athletes to fill cards."
Of course, the UFC has a big Shenzhen show coming up on August 31, where Zhang Weili will be the first Chinese fighter to challenge for a UFC title when she takes on Brazilian straw weight champion (and heavily tattooed) Jessica Andrade. The UFC signed a five-year exclusive rights agreement in China with PPTV Sports, the nation's leading online sports platform, in 2016.
None of the UFC's nine other Chinese fighters have been announced for the card yet, though only Song Yadong has tattoos, on his left leg.
In the only other announced fight for the card, neither New Zealand's Kai-Kara France nor American Mark De La Rosa have visible tattoos. The Post reached out to UFC China for clarification on the rules " and received no response.
A post shared by song yadong (@yadongsong) on Feb 5, 2018 at 8:26am PST
One Championship told the Post there is no issue with foreign athletes who have tattoos competing on their fight cards in China.
For Chinese athletes with tattoos, One always asks the fighters to cover them up whenever they do promotional material such as interviews " but not for fights " on Chinese shows.
Officially, the Chinese government has not sanctioned a law on the matter, however, One said, adding that the rule applies more for football players and less so combat sports, with the reports of new changes to the rule just a rumour.
China is not the only Asian country, though, that has a problem with tattoos. Japan will host two of the world's biggest sporting events " the Rugby World Cup and the Olympics " in the next 14 months. World Rugby has warned players and fans to cover their ink later this year, in a bid not to offend their host where body art is associated with criminal gangs.
Rugby players and fans are one thing but MMA and its followers are a different beast. Tattoos and combat sports go hand in hand, and are a way of life.
"You can imagine how many of the world's best fighters they have eliminated from being able to fight in China," Phuket Top Team tweeted, presuming that the no tattoo rule would also apply to foreign fighters.
The issue is certainly unclear, and one to keep an eye on.
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