CHENGDU, China, Jun 27 – Every Friday night, fighters trade blows in a ring in the dimly lit Monster Club in southwest China, competing for a Sh7,000 ($75) payday as a crowd cheer them on.
This joint in Chengdu is owned by a former Chicago resident who was inspired by the 1999 US film “Fight Club”, starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton as the creators of an underground club of pugilists.
Huoche, a man in his 30s who refuses to give his full name and exact age, founded the club in November 2015.
More than 4,000 fighters have faced off in some 2,000 bouts since then.
The competitors sign up online and Huoche pairs them up according to their level, weight and years of experience.
Wearing silk shorts and grappling gloves, they tussle in a 16-square-metre (172-square-foot) ring in front of some 120 spectators.
“People recognise us because we respect the fighters, we respect the stage,” Huoche says.
The club holds four to five matches on fight night.
MMA garnered attention in China recently after a video went viral showing a mixed martial arts fighter pummelling a tai chi master in seconds.
The demolition sparked a debate about the relevance of traditional martial arts in the face of the modern, brutal MMA sport that has become a global sensation.
Huoche wants to turn the club into a “calling card” of Chengdu. Fighters from 28 nations have come to fight here.
“The Monster (Club) belongs to all ordinary fighters,” he said.
But Huoche and his partner barely make ends meet operating the Monster Club.
“We worry about the 20,000 yuan rent every month,” he said.
They also had to deal with questions about the legal status of the club due to a lack of regulations regarding such establishments.
They have been visited by police but he finally received the necessary permits.
Now fighters are required to wear grappling gloves and protective padding, and the club gets insurance for all of them.
“When we started up, local police thought we were a gang-like (operation),” he said.
“Police don’t fully support us, but they don’t oppose us,” he said.
— This story accompanies a photo essay by Fred Dufour —