Joel Resnick, RUFF China MMA Pioneer

On August 27th, 2011, the Ranik Ultimate Fighting Federation championed years of efforts inproducing a government-partnered Mixed Martial Arts fighting promotion in China with their first successful event, RUFF: Genesis. They secured fighters from notable teams and organizations such as UMAC, Xian Sports University, Brave FC and China Top Team and sponsorship from heavyweight brands Nike and Ducati. RUFF proclaimed it was the first “government sanctioned” MMA event in China.

Wanting to know more about this aggressive start-up, I spoke with Co-founder Joel Resnick about how this fledgling MMA promotion is impacting the sport in China. We also discuss the trials of launching such a promotion in China, RUFF’s goals, and the future of MMA in China.

LL: Firstof all, congratulations on concluding your inaugural MMA promotion. I understand you’ve been working on this project for almost three years.

JR: It’s actually been 4 years since we first came up with the idea for RUFF.

LL: Four years, there must have been some huge obstacles to overcome for it to take that long for RUFF: Genesis to finally be realized.

JR: Honestly, given that what we’re doing with MMA in China has never been done before, there have been, and there will continue to be obstacles along the way. We remain undeterred and are optimistic about the future of RUFF and MMA in China.

LL: Can you tell me specifically about the most recent delay? I remember when you held a press conference at the beginning of the year and expected a March show. This got the MMA community in Asia very eager for your promotion.

JR: In the case of the delay from March to August, we just needed the extra time to put on an MMA event that would live up to the high standards that we’ve set for RUFF, and ultimately, our patience, and the patience of Chinese MMA fans, was met with a first-rate event with some of the best fights I’ve seen.

LL: Given that so many people are interested in business in China right now, can you tell us why the process was so long and complicated?

JR: Any time you’re doing something for the first time, there are inevitably going to be surprises that arise out of nowhere, and what we are doing with RUFF is unprecedented; no one has ever started a nationally-affiliated MMA organization like RUFF, where we’re partnering with the government to eventually award the first-ever MMA National Championship Belts.

LL: China nationally-recognized MMA belts, that’s indeed a huge accomplishment! What is the main government organization you are working with to accomplish this?

JR: We have partnered with the Wushu Administrative Center of the General Administration of Sport of China.

LL: WACGASC. They need ashorter acronym. I understand theyoversee other combat sports competitions in China. What kind of regulation do they bring to the sport of MMA?

JR: The most important aspect, aside from promoting quality events with fair fights and great entertainment, has been the safety of the fighters. We have gone through every measure to ensure the safety of all of our fighters, from physical examinations and insurance, to having an on-site emergency medical team and ambulance in case of any injury. Any fighters who sign with and fight for RUFFcan be assured that we adhere to the highest medical and safety standards.

LL: So RUFF: Genesis took four years to accomplish as a government-recognized event with regulation and national championship recognition. How - and why - do two guys in textiles from Toronto, Saul Rajsky and yourself, get involved with starting an MMA promotion in Shanghai?

JR: I have been living and doing business in China for over a decade, and have been interested in martial arts since I was a teenager, training and competing in Tae Kwon Do. Saul and I have been following MMA for quite some time – it’s very popular in Canada as you may know – and one day, four years ago, we decided that it would be really exciting to try and start a real, world-class MMA organization in China. We were right, thus far RUFF has been a great experience, and we’re quite proud to help China, a country with such a rich culture and history of martial arts, and Chinese athletes usher in a new era of MMA in China.

LL: Sounds like you were able to culminate your personal interests into a business, congratulations. Now I can better understand your dedication to getting this promotion off the ground. How did you get Joel Gerson involved?

JR: Joel Gerson runs Toronto’s largest MMA gym, Revolution MMA, and is a former fighter himself, having most notably competed in Japan, defeating the legendary Rumina Sato. Saul and I were actually training in Krav Maga with Joel when we came up with the idea for RUFF, and given his professional background and expertise, it was a natural fit to bring him on board.

LL: Then you had Jerin Valel, Big John McCarthy’s only certified coach for his COMMAND training center to work with your fight officials and be the head referee. You captured international attention with Joel and Jerin’s involvement. How about locally, was the turnout for RUFF Genesis as high as you expected for the first event?

JR: We had just over 4,000 people attend RUFF:Genesis, which is actually quite a great turnout given that we only had 3 weeks to advertise.  Now that we have some more experience, we expect RUFF 2 to attract an even larger audience.

LL: That’s a very big turnout for a first time event, let alone for a sport relatively new to the area. Many MMA promoters have reported having trouble with ticket sales in China, saying that the audience expects to watch for free. Were you able to get past that, or did you still have lots of giveaways?

JR: We actually didn’t encounter this problem, but as I mentioned, we just did not have enough time to advertise the event. RUFF: Genesis was a great event and a great experience that will help us improve for RUFF 2.

LL: I’m sure part of it was your reasonable ticket price, quoted before the event as 180RMB which included a travel voucher of 20RMB. This seems like it was derived from very targeted marketing research. How did you arrive at this?

JR: We want RUFF to be something that everyone can afford, the kind of event that can attract families and people from all different economic classes and backgrounds. We will always make an allotment of affordable tickets available for people who want to come watch great MMA fights.

LL: Did you attract a wide range of people, or mainly expatriates who know the sport? Is the expat community in Shanghai really interested in MMA?

JR: Yes, there are lots of expats in Shanghai that are interested in MMA, but the majority of the people in attendance were local Chinese people. There was also a high percentage of women in the crowd which was really good to see.

LL: So, like the audience, the majority of your fight card was Chinese; there were only two westerners on the card. Will you try and stick with mostly Chinese fighters or are you scouting overseas?

JR: RUFF is sticking to Chinese and China-based expats for now. We will slowly add foreign fighters. Eventually it is our goal to build the fighters’names and reputations domestically, so that one day our own RUFF roster will consist of many well-known fighters.

LL: What is your opinion of the level of MMA talent in China right now?

JR: Obviously there are talented fighters here, and we expect to continue to find new, undiscovered talents all around the country. While a lot of older fighters still rely on Sanda and standup technique, we are finding more and more young guys who are more well-rounded, most likely as a result of the worldwide popularization of MMA.

LL: So is there a pool of MMA-trained fighters in China from which you will add to your roster? Where do they come from?

JR: Most Chinese fighters are still making the transition from Sanda to MMA, but there is definitely a talent pool to choose from. We regularly go on recruiting trips and meet with coaches to evaluate the country’s up-and-coming MMA talent.

LL: Chinese promotion Art Of War started with sponsored athletes training under its own banner, and with the recent One FC announcements, we’re seeing that some teams are willing to train for a single promotion. Legend co-sponsored Team Quest’s Pat Healy and Brad Hannah in Xian doing a six week fight camp prior to Legend FC 6. I know that Joel Gerson is back in Canada, so he’s not assisting with any of your efforts on the ground in China right now. But in the future, will RUFF promote similar training camps for its fighters?

JR: No we will not. We believe that as an MMA promoter it is a blatant conflict of interest to train some fighters in certain disciplines and not offer the same training to everyone. Obviously it would be impossible for us to train every potential MMA fighter in China in Jiu Jitsu, so we have decided to place our focus on bringing in world-class referees to ensure the integrity of our fights.

LL: I have a very specific question for you that has been on the tongues of quite a few people. The name of your organization is Ranik Ultimate Fighting Federation. You use an octagonal ring. Do you have any affiliation with the Ultimate Fighting Championship or any future plans with them? They have made announcements about expanding operations into China this coming year, and recenty stated they will hold a show in Macau.

JR: RUFF is an independent MMA organization, and our only affiliation at this time is with the Wushu Administrative Center of the General Administration of Sport of China and our current sponsors, and we are strictly concerned with building MMA and an MMA culture in China. That said, we believe that continued growth in MMA worldwide will only help increase awareness of MMA domestically.

LL: What is your view of the state of MMA in China right now?

JR: Of course MMA is still quite new in China, but with RUFF we’re mostly concerned with how to usher in the future of MMA in China. Like most other businesses, China is still developing, but the potential in the future is tremendous.

LL: And what is your own expansion plan? Do you think your promotion would be successful in other provinces of China (not Beijing, or Xian which already have MMA shows, but other less cosmopolitan places)?

JR: They are on our list but not until later next year.

LL: Big news, so you are planning to hold events outside of Shanghai? Do you have the next show planned?

JR: We are already well into planning for RUFF 2, which will take place this December, although we have decided to bring the show on the road and have our second event in a different city, which was always our plan to help spread MMA around China.

LL: So RUFF 2 will be about 3 months from RUFF 1. What is your time interval for future events?

JR: We are hoping to do events every 8-12 weeks.

LL: Pretty quick turnaround. So since you've already run an event the government regulated way, you’re anticipating your subsequent events to be easier to produce?

JR: JR: Actually now it is easier as we are partnered and sanctioned with the China government, but still it’s not so easy!

LL: LL: Government sanctioning. Nationally recognized belts. Sponsors like Nike and Ducati. You have now become a part of Chinese MMA history. Where do you see the production heading in the future?

JR: JR: RUFF: Genesis was such a huge undertaking, and at the end of the day, it was a great event. In the future I only see our organization becoming stronger with experience, and I fully expect that our events, which will happen more regularly, will offer the highest standard of competition and entertainment.

LL: Best of luck to RUFF in accomplishing your goals! We look forward the announcement of your next event, RUFF 2… somewhere beyond the borders of Shanghai.

For more information on the Ranik Ultimate Fighting Federation, visit the website at and the Youtube channel.

Lee Li is a journalist based in Hong Kong, focused on the development of MMA in Asia. When not injured, she practices Lung Ying kung fu, BJJ and Kali.

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