Zhengtong's girlfriend and baby came to the sports school to watch us train. I made several jokes about his 2-year-old being almost ready to start grappling. The first few times, Zhengtong laughed, but later he said with uncharacteristic seriousness, “I think it's good if my son wants to wrestle as a hobby, but I don't want him to be a full-time wrestler like I was because when it's over, he won't be able to do anything."

His mother worked as an administrator in the city sports department. Consequently, he and I were offered a city-owned martial arts school, rent-free, in which we could open an MMA gym. The Chinese government hopes to start promoting MMA so the nation can excel in international competition. Consequently, opportunities like this exist — but even with free rent, I figured that we couldn't afford to keep an MMA gym open.

The average pay in Weifang is $500 a month. Most gyms charge less than $200 a year. To be able to cover just the salaries, we would need 200 members, and there's no way we could get that many. Yes, Weifang is a city of unemployed professional athletes, but it's low on people who want to pay for training. Even the fitness gym I wound up joining — the nicest one in the city — never had more than 10 clients in-house at a time. Paying to exercise is still a new concept in China. Paying to fight is so inconceivable that I generally had to explain it several times before people understood. And even then, they often thought I was making it up.

After a couple of weeks of training in the fundamentals at Weifang Sports School, it was time to move to Changle, the even more remote district where I'd be working. Desperate to find people to train with, I visited a san da gym that was open only on Saturdays. The coach turned out to be a heavyweight judo and Chinese-wrestling major from Weifang Sports School.

He said that apart from teaching san da to children, he hadn't trained since he graduated and that he'd gained 65 pounds. I paid him to train with me, but even though his skill level was much better than mine, after just a few minutes, he collapsed on the floor. Why? Because most men in rural China, including elite athletes, smoke. Once they stop training, they often add alcohol and overeating to the mix. Consequently, they get out of shape.

I hoped he'd be as excited as I was to connect and therefore would be motivated to get back in shape, but he wasn't. He just needed to earn money. Training with me was like hardship duty — he'd rather do anything else for the same pay.

At the gym, I learned that a former national wrestling team member who also trained there had sent word that he wanted to work out with me. I was excited when I heard that he weighed 240 pounds because it's rare to have someone that big to wrestle with in China.

We did five rounds of pummeling and technique practice. After that short session, he was exhausted, but at least he said he wanted to train with me again. He seemed to have good, although not phenomenal, strength, which I thought was odd for a former heavyweight. When I asked him for details, it turned out that when he was a national champion, he weighed 140 pounds. It's insane to think that an athlete could gain 90 pounds simply because he stopped training.

His strength was good as he wrestled, which is as much a result of muscular development as it is of technique. If you've ever grappled with a 70-year-old Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt or an old silat or kung fu master, you know what I mean. In the exact pathways of their accustomed movement, they retain their strength well into old age.

Eventually, I settled my training-partner issues by paying Zhengtong and his brother to drive up to Changle several times a week and work with me. Zhengtong also helped me hire coach Wang, a graduate of Weifang Sports School whose only source of income was teaching boxing to 20 students on the weekends.

Just like all the other ex-fighters I met in Weifang, Wang had gained 45 pounds since graduating. He smoked, drank, overate and never trained. To get through a training session of 16 rounds, I found that I needed to have at least two paid coaches who would alternate rounds — or else one of them would suffer a heart attack.

Paying to fight is so inconceivable that I generally had to explain it several times before people understood.

When I was at Shanghai University of Sport, I had a fairly positive opinion of the Chinese school system. All my teammates had told me how happy they were to have grown up in a sports school. One of them said, “From age 9, I got to live with my friends, and all we ever did was eat, sleep, play and wrestle. What could be better?"

After coming to Weifang, however, I really soured on the system. I saw firsthand how it chewed people up and spit them out.

When we finished training one day, I took Zhengtong and his brother out for dinner and asked them why they believed Chinese parents would send their kids to a sports school. They cited two compelling reasons.

Zhengtong's brother said it was because when they were young, Weifang was still a third- or fourth-tier city. Everyone was poor, and the parents often had no education. They saw very little opportunity for their children, so why not just send them to a sports school and play the Olympic lottery? If the child made it to the Olympics, the family would be rich. If not, the child could return home and take the same menial job he would have had if he hadn't gone off to a sports school.

Zhengtong added that when they were young, he and his brother were terrible students who misbehaved horribly. If they hadn't been sent to a sports school, they might have become criminals and dropped out of school anyway.

It made sense, and in some way, I wish we had sports schools in the United States because a lot of kids are just not suited for academics. On the other hand, it made me feel sad for my friends there. My monthly salary now exceeded the average annual income in Weifang, and as sports graduates, they might never even hit that average.

Antonio Graceffo's book
Warrior Odyssey is available
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