The People's Elbow: Pro Wrestling's Rise in China

By Kirby John Carney, July 15, 2023

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"Wrestling is ballet with violence."
— Jesse 'The Body' Ventura

As we stepped through the doors of the unassuming sports center, an intriguing blend of excitement and trepidation was evident, echoing from the corrugated tin roof. This was no ordinary venue for the spectacle that awaited us. Instead of the grand arenas typically associated with professional wrestling, we found ourselves in the unlikely setting of a public badminton center. The clash of worlds was imminent, as the realms of figure-four leglock and shuttlecock were about to collide in a most unexpected manner.

wrestling-3.jpgAsh Silva kicks Peng Wei below the belt. Image via KOPW

The atmosphere within the sports center was an intriguing mix of tension and anticipation, tinged with a hint of bemusement. The hum of conversation echoed off the walls. The air buzzed with a curious energy, as if the walls themselves were whispering secrets of the unorthodox event about to unfold.

The surroundings, though peculiar for the occasion, added an unintentionally comical element to the atmosphere. The wrestling ring stood proudly in the center of the courts. The juxtaposition of the two worlds, wrestling and badminton, created an absurd yet strangely captivating tableau.

The Major Leagues

In America, pro-wrestling dates back to the 19th century, when catch-wresting was often promoted as part of traveling circus and carnival events. These events were legitimate grappling bouts with the objective of pinning your opponent's shoulders to the mat. As time went on, promoters began to realize that by fixing the outcome of matches, they could create storylines by pitting a good guy, a babyface, against a bad guy, a heel. The heel's job was to cheat, antagonize the crowd, and in general, piss people off so much that the audience would get so riled up that they would pay a ticket to see this heel get defeated. The babyface's job was to be charismatic, relatable, and preferably with some tangible showmanship that could excite the crowd to see them beat the heel. It is a simple formula that carried wrestling from the 1920s to the 1940s with characters like Gorgeous George, whom Mohammed Ali is quoted as admitting the source of inspiration for his trash-talking and bold personality. "I saw 15,000 people comin' to see this man get beat. And his talking did it. I said, 'This is a good idea!'" Mohammed Ali said of Gorgeous George.

Gorgeous_George_during_a_match_cph.3d02369.jpgThe wrestler Gorgeous George, photographed mid-match by Stanley Kubrick, circa 1949. Image via Wikimedia

Wrestling continued to grow through the subsequent years and really took off in the 1980s when the WWF (now WWE) put on Wrestlemania at Madison Square Garden to a crowd of 19,000 and was aired on pay-per-view closed circuit television to over 1 million eager onlookers, making this make-or-break moment a massive success for the company and for the future of pro-wrestling in general. In the 90s, rival promotions competed with the WWF, with each show averaging around 5 million weekly viewers on a bad week. Nowadays, the WWE attracts only half of its 90s viewership. But as TV viewership has declined, WWE has found great financial success with heavily criticized and controversial working deals with the government of Saudi Arabia, which not only net them USD50 million dollars per show but also attracted crowds of over 15,000 people each time — one attendance even reached 70,000 paying fans. In fact, pro-wrestling in general is thriving with a second company that can run arena shows, All Elite Wrestling. It popped up and is set to hold its first-ever UK show in England's Wembley stadium with over 65,000 tickets sold before even a single match was announced. 

WWE-Saudi-Arabia.jpegWWE Founder Vince McMahon (left) and Triple H (right) with Saudi Royal advisor and Minister of Sport Turki bin Abdul Mohsen bin Abdul Latif Al Al-Sheikh (middle). Image via @ewrestlingcom/Twitter

What does this mean for the Chinese pro-wrestling scene? With the expansion of WWE into countries outside of its initial markets of the US, Canada, and Europe, WWE has promoted several shows in China to lukewarm receptions with meager crowds. There could be many reasons for this; at the time, there was no Chinese talent on WWE television until Wang Bing was signed and had a match with WWE's Chinese live tour. However, not much came of his signing as he was released two years later. When Hoholun first appeared in WWE's cruiserweight classic, Chinese pro-wrestling started to pick up steam.

To Be the Man, You Gotta Beat the Man

Back in the badminton court, we are impressed by the 300 people in the venue here to watch the show. We have front-row tickets, so we get to high-five all the wrestlers as they make their entrances. 

At the venue entrance, they check people's names for pre-paid tickets. Past that you see a bunch of wrestlers with their merch, t-shirts and flair, laid out on a table.

empty-stands.jpgThe ring before the ropes are tightened. Image via That's

The ring is set up at the back of the venue and is 8 feet in stature and 6 meters wide, as Hoholun tells us before the show. His match is the last one on the card, so he is hanging out by his merchandise table with a great view of the ring. Outside, a bunch of curious locals are looking through the glass window, wondering why there is a battleground in their badminton center.

The production for this event is fairly impressive. They have LED boards around the ring with the main poster on them and they've got a good ring announcer who gives energy to each wrestler's entrance, making them feel larger-than-life.

mask-wrestle.jpgMulti-champion Chen Wen Bin "King Of Man" makes his epic entrance. Image via KOPW

Before all the matches begin, the owner of KOPW comes out to thank the fans for coming out and promises a great show. Then Killer Bee somberly announces his retirement from pro-wrestling because his arm is fractured for a second time after recovering from the first one. His friend Black Dragon, who is in the main title fight, embraces him, and they walk backstage together. The retirement segment is a pretty slow start given the buzzing excitement for the show to kick off. But to those familiar with the storytelling nature of pro-wrestling, we have a hunch it won’t be the last we see of Killer Bee.

Hug-it-out.jpgKiller Bee's "fake retirement". Image via That's

The first match is a qualifying tournament match; the winner of the match will participate in a tournament for a chance to wrestle for a championship belt. The crowd is about 50/50 in their support for this match. Michael Su is a white-meat babyface from Hong Kong who performs high-flying acrobatic moves and a few power moves. His opponent Gao Yuan is of shorter, stockier build with a knack for power moves.

202307/fly-in.jpgAsh Silva makes a massive slapsh. Image via KOPW

The first sign that we're underestimating what's in store is the sheer raucousness of the ring itself. Every time Gao Yuan hits a power move on Michael, a deafening crash reverberates through the arena. Ooohs and aaaahs ring out from the crowd. The two of them, at one point, engage in a chest-chop slapping exchange. As Michael Su's entire pectoral muscle area becomes inflamed, Gao Yuan is getting the upper hand. We wince at the sound of palm against sweaty flesh and remind ourselves not to mess with these hardened professionals.

Nate-Grimm-grimace.jpgNate Grimm analyzes his opponent as fan look on. Image via That's

The second match of the evening is between "The Red Devil" Voodoo and "The Reaper" Nate Grimm. Voodoo dons a red mask and a one-piece in the style of André the Giant. He is very optimistic, going around high-fiving crowd members. He goes over to kiss his wife and baby daughter who are ringside. Nate Grimm comes out barefoot, looking miserable and psychotic; he is mouthing off at the crowd, telling people how worthless they are and how they can’t possibly support Voodoo.

voodoo.jpgNate Grimm brutalizes Voodoo. Image via That's

The match is very one-sided in Nate's favor. He dominates most of the game, with Voodoo mounting short comebacks. At one point in the competition, briefly thwarting Nate's cheating and domination, Voodoo gets a moment of sweet revenge by grabbing his daughter's diaper from his grinning wife and smearing it in the bewildered face of his antagonist. Nate Grimm, now irate, quickly disposes of Voodoo for the three counts and the win. Post-match, Nate attacks Voodoo and takes off his mask, which is a massive no-no for masked wrestlers. In Mexico, removing a wrestler's mask is viewed similarly to spitting in their face.

"Every sport has its own cast of characters."

— 'Macho Man' Randy Savage

uncle-money.jpgUncle Money's raps his won entrance theme. Image via That's

We are treated to a third qualifying match with Uncle Money, for whom the lights dim as he raps his own full length walkout song about "making somebody pay." He is well-built and mean-mugging the audience. Next out is Mad Dog Connor, a reasonably famous wrestler who has wrestled in many countries and is one of 48 wrestlers who lay claim to the Mad Dog moniker. Mad Dog is the victor of this match, securing his spot in the tournament along with Nate Grimm and Gao Yuan.

double-team.jpgBuffa (left) and Bitman (right) perform a double suplex. Image via KOPW

The next match is a tag team championship match. The Lion Dancing brothers (Shen Fei and Wang Junjie) against HK$NY (Bitman and Buffa). Only two wrestlers are allowed in the ring at one time. As this is a team match, you can call in your partner to do more damage to your opponent for a brief interval, or if you are being too worn down, you can sub out with your partner and rest up. This match has people flying around and is full of crazy action. It comes to an abrupt end when Bitman attacks Shen Fei with a weapon, thus causing a disqualification. Despite the unsatisfying ending to a championship match, it is clear that this feud is not over, as neither team had a clear upper hand, and the crowd wants more. The announcer suggests a brief interlude and the crowd slowly gets up to stretch their legs.

Buffa.jpgBuffa posing as a tag team champion. Image via The Foundation: Live

READ MORE: Pro-Wrestling Exists in Shenzhen and Here's How the Show Went Down

Uncle Money has laid out his merch on a bench for loyal fans to purchase.We introduce ourselves and then ask whether Uncle Money always has to take the fall. At first he is extremely reluctant to follow us down this bleak road of questions, but we buy four RMB80 dogtag necklaces with his power pose and his demeanor shifts. He tells us that, although the troupe can devise the storylines with some creative autonomy, ultimately the organizer has veto power. If they decide that they want Uncle Money to lose then the story must be changed. Overall, however, Uncle Money assures us that the fans just want to see good wrestlers.

versus.jpgPre-match trash talk from Uncle Money (left) and Madd Dogg (right). Image via That's

The fighting resumes and we find Buffa standing ringside watching the grudge match between The Slam and Chuan Jiehan. He says he is concerned that some of the wrestlers want to make flashy and dangerous moves to get a reaction and that sometimes there is no way to make the flashy move. At the end of the day, your character is supposed to want to win the match, and making moves only to get a reaction will not build a story that people can follow. Other wrestlers share the same sentiment; Nate Grimm said the same thing before the show, and current AEW World Champion MJF has been vocal about making dangerous high-flying moves that are difficult to pull off without looking like they are trying to win the match.

wrestling-2.jpgAsh Silva bodyslams Feng jianlang. Image via KOPW

The next match is for the KOPW JR title and features some complex rules. The JR title is typically used to promote a high-flying style of contest. In this match, two wrestlers start the game while four other wrestlers are tied to ring posts. Every two minutes, a wrestler is untied, released from their handcuffs, and enters the match. When a wrestler is pinned or submits, they are eliminated and must return to the locker room. The champion retains his title belt. 

The final match is a four-way match where the winner takes all. Hoholun and Black Dragon, who we saw raise his retiring friend's hand at the start of the show, are the challengers. At the same time, Big Sam and King of Man are the two champions putting their KOPW Heavyweight championship and their ZTF, CWE, and Fighting Spirit championships on the line, respectively.

big-boy.jpgBig Sam has a domineering presence as a champion. Image via KOPW

Big Sam is a towering force dominating the competition, quickly throwing his smaller opponents around the ring. Hoholun is outside for most of the action until he comes back and tactically picks his moments to deal out some damage. The match's finish comes when now-retired Killer Bee runs and hits Hoholun with a weapon allowing his friend Black Dragon to steal the win and Big Sam's championship.

hoholunfight.jpgHoholun hits a corner elbow on Big Sam. Image via KOPW

Through this action, Black Dragon and Killer Bee have effectively turned heel to the audience. Big Sam, furious at this, takes his frustration out on the referee with thunderous powerbomb not once but twice. The crowd is behind Big Sam and can relate to his anger at losing his championships due to shenanigans; they chant for another powerbomb, which Big Sam happily obliges. This unprovoked attack on the referee causes the owner to come out and suspend Big Sam indefinitely.

ref-drop.jpgBig Sam powerbombs a referee. Image via KOPW

Thus concludes the show, and the spectators either leave the venue or decide to hang out, take pictures with the wrestlers or practice moves in the unoccupied ring with their fellow amateurs. The crowd's response to Big Sam's treatment of the referee has turned him into a babyface, a good guy. Speaking to Big Sam later, he admits it wasn't part of the plan for the fans to cheer him, as attacking a referee is supposed to be a cowardly move. These are the unexpected twists which blur the lines between scripted and spontaneous.

Wrestling with Reality

This post-match sequence of disqualification is, of course, all in the storyline. After speaking to Big Sam about his future plans for wrestling in China, he reveals to us that he is returning to England because a family member is ill and doesn’t know when he will be back. Although still starstruck in the moment, we are harshly reminded of the real and complex lives of individuals behind these enormous personalities on stage.

big-boy-innocent.jpgBig Sam stands as he  awaits the match to begin. Image via KOPW

Big Sam will leave for England soon. Mad Dog Connor will return to his day job as a principal of an international school. Hoholun will travel to Zhuhai and then go to Taiwan to conclude his tour of Chinese wrestling promotions. "One of my responsibilities for Dragon Gate is to make connections so my bosses can send their wrestlers out into the world to get more experience," Hoholun tells us. This tour is vital for his company to develop connections to other countries' promotions. We ask him if he is also looking into scouting anyone he sees tonight. "Not part of my job as an agent for Dragon Gate." Hoholun's goal was to get contacts for wrestling promoters and other wrestlers to put everyone in touch with each other, which is probably why he is so open to communicating with us. "If I'm producing a show, I would tell my guys not to do any risky, flashy stuff and to tone it down. A pro-wrestler can only take so many bumps in their career, and they need to be wise about it."

flying-knee.jpgA swift dropkick from the talented Michael Su. Image via KOPW

Hoholun has produced shows in Hong Kong since 2009, getting his start alongside The Slam.

hoholun.jpgHoholun is popular amongst the Guangzhou fans. Image via KOPW

"I found out about [The Slam] on the Internet. He was an exchange student from the Republic of Korea. While he was studying in Dongguan, he started training and set up a wrestling ring behind his house and put videos on QQ. He puts it out there and says if anyone is interested, they can join in. At first, it's just him and his neighbor wrestling for the QQ fans. When I found out I started traveling from Hong Kong every week to join in. I remember the first couple of training sessions thinking 'wow this is painful. I don't want to do it.' But I kept going until I could take a few bumps. I was kind of trained by The Slam and thought there's nothing like this in Hong Kong. Maybe I should follow The Slam's footsteps, buy a wrestling ring, set up somewhere in Hong Kong, get a bunch of neighbors, and start it out. So this was how I started HKWS." 

hoholun2.jpgHoholun works for Dragon Gate in Japan. Image via KOPW

From there, Hoholun traveled to the UK to wrestle a few shows while living in Birmingham. As Hoholun continued his career, he became internationally known when he took part in a WWE tryout in Hong Kong and was invited along with eight other Chinese athletes/pro-wrestlers to come to America to participate in WWE's cruiserweight classic tournament, where he made it to the second round. Hoholun was put in charge of looking after the other athletes because he could speak English, even though it was his first time in America. He was signed to the WWE for a year and a half before asking for his release to take care of his mother. After this, he got more involved in training the young Chinese wrestlers until around 2019, when he left Bitman, a fellow Hong Kongnese wrestler, in charge of things.

hoholun3.jpgHoholun started wrestling when there wasn't even a scene in China.. Image via KOPW

Back when Hoholun started, there was little interest. Still, he believes that when conventional athletic (real) wrestling got put into the Olympics, sponsors and other investors saw potential in the Chinese pro-wrestling scene by proxy. Hoholun's success in America, along with another successful female Chinese wrestler, Xia Li, who regularly appears on WWE television, means that there is finally something that aspiring Chinese wrestlers can aim for in terms of international success.

At the same time, China's pro wrestling continues to grow. Suppose KOPW and other promotions like MKW and CWE continue to put on more shows of similar quality. In that case, it is definitely a possibility that they can garner ever-increasing crowds. "I look forward to seeing how the Chinese pro-wrestling scene can grow bigger and bigger," Hoholun says before returning to his merchandise table to sell some more t-shirts and talk to lingering fans.

Success or Submission

Despite some disbelief in the beginning, everyone was on their feet by the end of the show. If there is one universal measure of a show's success, it's surely crowd participation. All the spectators, young and old, were screaming like Roman peasants for the finishing blow in the final matches.

knockout.jpgIn the storyline, Voodoo is crippled post-match. Image via KOPW

We felt lucky for the chance to parlay with the wrestlers in the hours before showtime. Nate Grimm says he is wrestling today and made sure not to bring his child because she might get too hysterical and annoy the crowd. Voodoo brought his wife and daughter to the show and used them as part of the performance. We got to witness Voodoo ask his opponent's permission to involve the fake excrement. The Slam and his adversary arrived at the venue, both smoking cigarettes and going over the choreography while other wrestlers chatted about previous shows that they wrestled at. Big Sam has wrestled four different shows in the past two weeks and he is feeling a little stiff.

These are human beings that, for a few hours, become larger than life and sacrifice their bodies in the name of entertainment. The only performer from the show that currently makes a full-time living as a pro-wrestler is Hoholun. He works in Japan in an already established organization, Dragongate. "Three years of experience in Japan is worth 15 years of experience in China," he tells us. "We do 10 shows every month with the same wrestlers and our company sends us overseas to get experience with different styles and circuits. While in China, a wrestler might get one show over two months or get four shows in two weeks. The wrestling scene in China had a very late start but it is slowing growing and will be exciting to see where it goes from here."

202307/hoholun4.jpgHoholun made a short tour of China. Image via KOPW

China's deep-rooted kung fu culture forms the bedrock of its combat sports legacy. Kung fu, with its intricate techniques, philosophical underpinnings, and emphasis on discipline and self-improvement, has captivated generations of practitioners and enthusiasts. Its influence can be felt not only in traditional martial arts styles but also in the modern iterations of combat sports.

Throughout history, China has produced legendary martial artists whose feats and skills have become the stuff of legend. The tales of warriors like Wong Fei-hung, Huo Yuanjia, and Bruce Lee have reverberated across the globe, elevating Chinese martial arts to an iconic status.

As the popularity of combat sports continues to rise in China, the future prospects of professional wrestling in the country remain intriguing. pro-wrestling, with its blend of athleticism, storytelling, and theatricality, has the potential to captivate audiences seeking unique forms of entertainment.

fly-high.jpgThe flying-crossbody from Michael Su onto Gao Yuan. Image via KOPW

However, pro-wrestling faces challenges in China due to cultural differences and the dominance of traditional combat sports like kung fu and Sanda. The scripted nature of professional wrestling might initially struggle to find acceptance among a population accustomed to the authenticity of martial arts. Moreover, the lack of a strong wrestling culture and limited exposure to the genre may present obstacles to its mainstream success. Nonetheless, after just one show, we are officially converted and will surely be courtside at the next confrontation.

KOPW's next event is on August 19th of 2023 at the Tianyue Sports Mall

KOPW The New Era of Chinese Pro Wrestling III

Date : 19th August 2023

Venue : Tianyue Sports Mall

"This ain't no garden party, brother;
this is wrestling, where only the strongest survive."
— 'Nature Boy' Ric Flair

[Cover image via KOPW]

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