A night of fast-moving action, brutal simulated combat and dangerous high-flying maneuvers has already shaken the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai as the third match on the card on the evening of September 21 begins. For many of the Chinese fans in attendance this is the first time they have seen a WWE Live event.
A jazzy tune blast over the loudspeakers as WWE superstars Mandy Rose and Sonya Deville walk down a ramp towards the wrestling ring. The pair of women boast statuesque physiques with impossible body dimensions — the kind that only a person whose job title is “professional wrestler” could ever have.
Rose and Deville are clad in matching skintight black spandex outfits and as if the symbolism of dark colors was not enough, the two posture to the crowd with an air of arrogance informing the audience that they are the “bad guys.” A chorus of boos erupts in response to their villainous antics as they continue to approach their opponent.
Image courtesy of World Wrestling Entertainment
Patiently waiting in the ring for the two is Xia Li, the first Chinese woman to ever compete in a WWE ring. In contrast to the jeers they have been shouting at Rose and Deville, the crowd showers Li with a cascade of cheers and applause. For the Chinese crowd in Shanghai, Li is a genuine hometown hero — one of their own competing in the largest professional wrestling company in the world.
This adoration is not unearned. Li is proud to display her Chinese roots in all elements of her presentation: her ornate red and gold outfit (an athletic version of a qipao), her choreographed Kung-Fu inspired moves performed with a bamboo fan before the beginning of the match and, of course, her ability to speak Mandarin.
As the three women settle in the ring, a one-sided brawl ensues. Rose and Deville disregard any pretense of sport and begin attacking Li in tandem — their exaggerated actions are there in part to educate the new audience members that what they are seeing, though physically demanding and not nearly as painless as most would assume, is in fact a predetermined spectacle. Although she is strong, Li struggles to defend herself from the ‘violent’ attackers. Suddenly, a hip-hop song plays in the arena as a fourth wrestler, the mononymous, Carmella, enters the ring. Carmella gestures to Li that she is there to help her.
As peace returns to the ring, Li signals to the production staff to hand her a microphone. Before resuming her ongoing fight, she’s decided to perform a monologue for the fans in attendance. Speaking in Mandarin, Li attacks her opponents’ integrity, claiming they have no respect for the sanctity of professional wrestling. Disturbed by their cowardice, Li agrees to accept Carmella as her partner — making this a tag team match. The hundreds of fans present voice their approval of the idea with a roar of cheers.
It is no coincidence that Xia Li is eliciting such a positive reaction from the crowd, in fact, it is the result of a strategy begun in 2016 by the WWE to solidify their presence in China. When the American professional wrestling company first tried to enter the market three years ago, pro-wrestler John Cena described China as having “no presence of product,” but since then the WWE has worked effortlessly to develop a fan base in the country (as has Cena, who is now an ardent fan of Lao Gan Ma sauce). This is the fourth WWE event in China; showing the company’s dedication to consistently return to China.
Like many other foreign companies, the WWE is looking to satisfy the growing demand for entertainment content in China. In order to do this, the wrestling promotion has gradually incorporated Chinese talent into its product. Xia Li is one of three Chinese wrestlers currently under WWE contract; they are the remnants of a 2016 tryout in which seven Chinese athletes were signed. Naturally, as the WWE’s fan base in China has grown, so has the number of Chinese athletes hoping to become WWE Superstars.
Image courtesy of World Wrestling Entertainment
One of these athletes is KC, a 23 year old from Sichuan province, who grew up in Hong Kong. KC was one of the 40 men and women who participated in a WWE tryout camp, the second of its kind in China, in July. KC has been training to be a professional wrestler for over a year, but has been a WWE fan since he was 15, elaborating by saying, “at the time, I always liked to fight with my friends and I would always win because I copied the wrestling moves I saw in WWE.”
Unlike many of the other athletes at the tryout, who had no professional wrestling experience, KC had already fulfilled his dream of becoming a wrestler after having debuted in Shenzhen last year in December. Working for the Chinese wrestling promotion Middle Kingdom Wrestling, KC has already had a few matches in China and has even wrestled in Vietnam, but he adds, “I want to wrestle in the WWE because it is a big company and many people watch it, and that means more people can watch me.”
In many ways, Xia Li is living the dream that athletes like KC have; to become a professional wrestler on the largest platform in the world. Ironically, for the WWE to maintain its dominance in the professional wrestling world, it depends on wrestlers like Xia Li to appeal to its growing Chinese fan base. Luckily for the WWE, Li is talented.
Screengrab via @XiaWWE/Twitter
Throughout her match, Li’s offense is intense, incorporating into her move set elements of her wushu martial arts background. With a final intense kick, Li knocks her opponent down and manages a victory. After the match, Li bows to all corners of the ring in gratitude to the audience. Though Li is not the most famous wrestler on the card and her match is not the main event, for the fans she is without a doubt the biggest star the night, a sentiment she echoes on her Twitter feed by claiming the match was “the best moment of her life.”
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[Cover image courtesy of World Wrestling Entertainment]