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My Crash Course in Covering a U.F.C. Fight

New York Times - Tue May 4 09:00

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The assignment for a China correspondent: Report on a live sporting event for the first time. In a sport she barely knows. With less than 48 hours to prepare.

Credit...Gary McCullough/Associated Press

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As I was walking my dog in Taipei recently, I got a text from Gillian Wong, my editor on the International desk, asking if I could cover the Ultimate Fighting Championship event in Florida coming up that weekend.

Cue mild panic mode. I knew next to nothing about mixed martial arts or the U.F.C. and had never covered a sporting event before.

“Lol really?” I responded nervously.

Then, after running through a few self-affirmations, I tapped out a quick reply.

“I can do it,” I said.

It was a familiar feeling: As a China correspondent for The New York Times focusing mostly on politics, society and culture in the country, I’ve reported on a wide array of topics. In just the last month, I have written about Indigenous hunting practices in Taiwan, a devastating train crash on the island’s east coast and a bizarre propaganda musical about Xinjiang in China.

Also, the request from our Sports desk had not come out of the blue. My colleague Amy Chang Chien and I had just written a profile of Zhang Weili, China’s top mixed martial arts star and a prominent if reluctant symbol of women’s rights in the country. Zhang’s fight that weekend against the American Rose Namajunas to defend her U.F.C. strawweight title was going to be one of the main draws of the event in Florida, so it made sense for me to cover it.

Still, while I had watched some of Zhang’s fights online, I had never seen a live U.F.C. event. I did not know the rules of the sport, much less the jargon. But I wanted to see Zhang battle Namajunas and I was intrigued by the reporting challenge.

With less than 48 hours to get up to speed, I did a deep dive into The Times’s past M.M.A. coverage. I familiarized myself with popular M.M.A. websites like Sherdog and Bloody Elbow. Oskar Garcia, our deputy sports editor, sent through some helpful guidance.

Starting to pick up the lingo, I learned that fights are not matches but bouts, and that several bouts make up a card. I learned that takedowns are landed and that opponents are dropped to the canvas.

I read up on the basics, like the prohibitions on biting, head-butting and hair-pulling. Which makes for one advantage in doing a crash course on a sport like M.M.A. versus, say, cricket: There are fewer rules. Finally, I understood the origin of the phrase “no holds barred.”

The night before the fight, I texted my father-in-law, Gary, who lives in Pittsburgh and is a big U.F.C. fan, asking for tips.

“Don’t blink,” he said. “It’s fast paced and anything can happen in an instant, including lack of consciousness.”

I texted back a sweating emoji.

On Sunday morning in Taiwan, I woke up, showered and poured myself some coffee before settling on the couch with my laptop in front of the TV, ready to take in several hours of raw, unbridled combat.

Then the fights began. Watching the live action, I quickly realized that no amount of work beforehand could have prepared me for the gruesomeness of the sport. In the first bout, I saw one fighter, Jimmy Crute, go down in the opening round after Anthony Smith delivered a hard kick to the back of his knee. In the second fight, I watched Chris Weidman shatter his leg just by kicking Uriah Hall’s knee at the start of the bout.

Turns out my father-in-law was right.

There were also some uplifting moments. Like Hall’s gracious interview after Weidman was taken out of the octagon on a stretcher. And the Kyrgyzstani fighter Valentina Shevchenko’s endearing but lost-in-translation exchange with Joe Rogan, one of the announcers, about rising to the challenge.

And then there was Namajunas, who defied the bettors by knocking out Zhang with a powerful kick to the head in the first round. Tears streamed down the former champion’s face as the title belt was wrapped around her waist once again.

“I did it again,” Namajunas said. “I am the best.”

Soon after the event ended, I filed the story and then headed out to a yoga class to try to decompress from the jittery morning. By Monday, I was back to covering China.

I enjoyed my brief flirtation with M.M.A. reporting. Though, to be honest, I haven’t decided whether I’d be able to stomach watching another live U.F.C. event in the future.

“Making my debut as an M.M.A. sportswriter,” I tweeted after the article was published. “More blood than my normal Chinese politics beat, similarly brutal.”