MACAU If Zhang Tiequan is worried about letting 1.3 billion people down when the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) makes its debut in China on Saturday, the Mongolian Wolf is showing no sign.
Zhang faces Jon Tuck of Guam in the former Portuguese colony of Macau as the world's biggest mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion tests Chinese waters for the first time.
Rich Franklin and Cung Le headline the card at The Venetian resort hotel in an event that will have a distinctly Asian flavor and is being targeted at viewers in the region, not primarily the United States.
The shaven-headed Zhang told Reuters that fighting in China did bring an element of added pressure but that representing his country in the UFC on Chinese soil was beyond anything he could have imagined as a child.
"Back when I was younger doing Mongolian wrestling I could never have imagined that one day I would be fighting in the biggest MMA event held in China," he said with a broad smile.
"China is the birthplace of all martial arts, but this sport, where all the arts are mixed, is just beginning to take root there. You could say that I'm the first real Chinese mixed martial artist," said Zhang, who transferred from wrestling to the Chinese martial art of sanshou before turning to MMA.
Fighters have shuttled between Hong Kong and Macau to boost awareness of the UFC brand and promote the event, as well as the sport itself in a region that gave the world martial arts movies and stars such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
At the Venetian's CotaiArena on Friday, long lines of fans waited for autographs from former champion Chuck Liddell, with his trademark Mohawk and tattooed head, while the appearance of 'The Korean Zombie', Jung Chan-sung, before the official weigh-ins had fans scrambling for their cameras.
The presence of the UFC in Macau has also given The Venetian a slightly strange feel ahead of the event, with tipsy wedding guests rubbing shoulders with muscle-bound fight fans in tight, threatening T-shirts in the cavernous casino.
The card is heavy with Asian fighters and the UFC's managing director for Asia, Mark Fischer, said that building "local heroes" was crucial to growing the sport in the region.
"There are 10 fighters from Asia on the card, there's great excitement here around Zhang Tiequan from China and Cung Le from the former Saigon too.
"Plus the 'Stun Gun' (Kim Dong-hyun) is a real challenger at welterweight and Korea is such a growing market for MMA so it's great to have him on."
Cung Le, who fled the former Saigon with his family in a helicopter days before the fall, said fighting in China brought his martial arts career full circle.
"Over here it's all about martial arts, this is where martial arts were born," said Le.
(Editing by John Mehaffey)