In the city of Weifang, China, my friend Zhengtong drove me to eight hotels until we found one that was licensed to accept foreign guests. I checked in, and the next day, he picked me up for training. Along the way, I asked him what he did every day to pass the time. He said he sleeps until 11 a.m. and then plays video games on his phone. Luckily, his family supports him; otherwise, he'd be on the street..
We reminisced about our training mates at Shanghai University of Sport and wondered what they were doing now. One of them, a judo major, told us he couldn't graduate. He'd competed for three years but accumulated no academic credits. Someone had convinced him to open an MMA gym, but it was failing. China just doesn't have enough people yet who have money and want to train in MMA, it seems.
Meanwhile, Zhengtong said he was struggling to get his own MMA career off the ground. Because there's no money in judo or wrestling, MMA is the only option for many guys. Unfortunately, after a lifetime of training in exactly one discipline, it's nearly impossible for most of them to learn new ways of fighting.
We were reminded of an older man from Inner Mongolia who used to hang around the wrestling room at the university. Apparently, he failed to graduate a decade earlier but still wanted to train. He volunteered to coach me once. I asked if he was free in the daytime, and he said yes. I asked if he was free at night, and he said yes.
“So what do you do?" I asked.
“I don't do anything," he answered.
Zhengtong said that the guy finally found a job doing menial labor in Shanghai. Under Chinese law, however, citizens are not allowed to move from the provinces to the major cities without a permit. As a native of Inner Mongolia, he'd be living like an illegal alien in Shanghai with no rights and no access to government services.
On one occasion, we recalled, Zhengtong brought his younger brother Chang from Weifang to wrestle with us at the university. He and Zhengtong had grown up together in Weifang Sports School, but Chang failed to gain admission to the sports university. When I met him there, he said he was doing nothing. As we drove through the streets of Weifang, I asked Zhengtong what Chang was doing now. “Still nothing."
At a traffic light, Zhengtong said, “Chang usually hangs out on that corner." And sure enough, there he was! We pulled over, and he got in.
Farther up the street, a man named Fan joined us, as well. He was a taekwondo graduate of Weifang Sports School who, like Chang, hadn't qualified for the sports university. Being a taekwondo graduate, however, he was at least able to work part time as an instructor. In the provinces, taekwondo and san da are popular with children, but the gyms are open only on weekends because Monday through Friday, the kids go to school from morning until night. This means that taekwondo teachers can find employment two or three days a week but have to do other work the rest of the time. Unfortunately, like Zhengtong, Fan hadn't figured out how else to make money, so his income was extremely low.
I asked if it was true that one of our wrestling teammates had become a long-distance trucker rather than a cop, which was his goal. Zhengtong explained that the man hadn't graduated. Apparently, he failed his English exam, and for some reason, he chose not to stay an extra year and try again.
Zhengtong updated me on more failed or former wrestlers, many of whom now hung around Weifang doing nothing. When I asked about their plight, he said, “No one wants them. They have no skills, no computers and no English — what job could they do?"
We walked into the Greco-Roman training hall at Weifang Sports School. I was immediately struck by what seemed to be a recurring feeling in China: It signaled to me that everyone in the room was a better fighter than I was. In most U.S. gyms and schools, you'll find variety: beginners, intermediates, advanced people, those who train once a week and those who train more often. Not so in Chinese sports schools and sports universities. Here, every single person trains full time. And as the expression goes, iron sharpens iron. Translation: When you train in a school with 35 full-time athletes, everyone's game improves.
That meant that the young wrestlers at the sports academy were so much better than I was that it made me wonder what I was doing there. Nevertheless, having so much time with Zhengtong and the wrestlers there ultimately proved a godsend for me.
The first day, the coach had me spar so he could ascertain my level. After that, we worked on my fundamentals. The reason we even had permission to train there was Zhengtong's former classmate now served as wrestling coach. I asked him if he'd graduated from a sports university, but he said he'd failed the admissions test.
So basically, out of the whole group of kids who'd spent their youth wrestling, only Zhengtong made it into a sports university and this one lucky guy got hired as a coach at the school in which he grew up even though he had no bachelor's degree. He lived in the same dorm as before, but now it was in a two-person room — a big step up from when he was a student living in a four- or six-man room. He still had to shower in the group facility down the hallway, but now he earned $600 a month. As I said, lucky.
Zhengtong said the wrestlers of this new generation are better than they were during his day because of the new coach. Honestly, the bar that had been set wasn't all that high. Zhengtong told me that when he was a young wrestler there, his coach taught him to smoke. That coach also took the wrestlers to fight on the street.
“One of our coaches was a great fighter," Zhengtong said. “He was over 50 but would win street fights all the time. Now he doesn't fight anymore because someone hit him in the head with an iron bar. When he was young, he would block it with his arm and nothing would happen, but because he is old, the bone in his arm broke."
(To be continued.)
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