MMA Interview of the Week: Ex-Green Beret Gene Yu

MMA Insider

This week, MMA Insider speaks to a highly accomplished warrior who has seen action in some of the world's biggest theatres of combat and is now turning his attention to the growing mixed martial arts (MMA) scene in Asia.

Who: Gene Yu, 34, is a former US Special Forces officer and the nephew of Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou. Founder of Flow MMA, Chinese fight gear and apparel brand, Gene is a pioneer in mixed martial arts (MMA) scene in Taiwan and is has been greatly involved in the Asian MMA market for the past five years.

The West Point graduate was exposed to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) in high school when he watched UFC 1, subsequently training at Ralph Gracie’s academy in Mountain View. He later became commanding officer of the United States Army Special Force, better known as Green Berets, and went through real-life combat experience.

After leaving the military, he built on his passion for MMA and spotted the opportunity to create a homegrown label in fight gear, Flow MMA. Yu has an extensive network in the Asian MMA region and is excited about ONE Fighting Championship (ONE FC) breaking into the Taiwanese market next month. MMA Insider speaks to him extensively on his thoughts on ONE FC Taiwan, when ONE FC should break into China, his contribution to the MMA scene in Taiwan and how his military experience applies to MMA.

ONE FC and Taiwan

Q: What are your thoughts on ONE FC coming to Taiwan on 11 July?

A: ONE FC coming to Taiwan is an unheralded event for introducing a large-scale MMA event onto the island. MMA is certainly in its infancy here in Taiwan, but the fanfare around a big brand like that to the locale could prompt a surge of interest from the Taiwanese market.

Q: What effect do you think ONE FC will have on Taiwan?

A: Certainly, there will be greater exposure to MMA for the Taiwanese public. Much of the content for MMA is limited here on the island, so with ONE FC breaking into Taiwan, it certainly should have an impact on the overall awareness of MMA.

But to be honest, I think that the larger implications of ONE FC coming to Taiwan demonstrate the reach and resources that ONE FC currently has an organization, as well as its primacy on the Asian MMA market.

I’ve been involved in the MMA scene here in Asia for years and watched several shows rise and fall — ONE FC is standing the test of time. Its ability to invest and reach into an untapped MMA market like Taiwan truly belies its ambitions to reach into all corners here in the Pacific.

Q: As one of the pioneers of MMA in Taiwan, how do you hope the sport will continue to grow? What would you like to see?

A: The eye on the prize for Flow MMA and anybody interested in MMA in Asia is obviously China. What we need there is a great Chinese fighter to inspire and catch the attention of all the people. This is why Flow MMA has one of its partners, former UFC and ONE FC fighter Andy Wang, up in Beijing, building and training Chinese MMA fighters and creating a Jiu Jitsu tournament system in China. We understand that for MMA to explode in China, all hands need to be there to lift up the tide.

Four years ago, I took Andy Wang to Beijing for his first trip and we visited every fight gym in Beijing. Andy was sold afterwards on the idea that the raw talent was there in China — I mean, there are 1.3 billion people there — but there are numerous things in terms of the science of dieting, conditioning and techniques that have been honed in the MMA scene over the last 20 years that are not current on the mainland.

Q: When you were considering your move into the greater China, did you have any reservations or concerns about promoting modern MMA in a country that is steeped in martial art history?

A: If you look at the early days of Art of War with Andy Pi in the 2000s, there was quite a bit of that in China — there is an awesome video of Andy Pi fighting as a BJJ blue-belt against a Chinese sanda fighter on YouTube demonstrating the doubt the public had in MMA techniques over traditional Chinese martial arts.

As MMA becomes more mainstream on a global scale, China will naturally gravitate toward it for the world recognition of being able to compete on this level and will put its government bureaus behind it. This is inevitable in my mind and it will promote MMA on the main stage in greater China.

There is certainly resistance here and there, but the fight scene is generally untapped in Asia currently — MMA has a chance to burst onto the scene and fill a market gap entirely.

Q: What are other challenges you faced in trying to promote MMA?

A: The education of the greater China MMA crowd will be very important, as I think the branding cannot be the same as we’ve seen in the States — it needs to be seen more as an art and a sport, and a celebration of deep, cultural historical martial virtues and principles that all Asians can identify with in their cultures.

Q: What else can be done to capture the Chinese market?

A: I hope that we begin to see more adaptations of classic Chinese Wushu or Kung Fu techniques in the cage. While I think that MMA’s essence is ferreting out what works and what doesn’t – tradition-be-damned – I can see that to capture the Chinese audience, either a greater Chinese fighter must emerge or a modern adaptation of Chinese martial arts must be witnessed. The creme de la creme obviously would be if some Shaolin monk appeared out of nowhere and used qi gong to become a world champion — that’s unlikely but I’m just highlighting a point of how that would galvanize the Chinese mass market audience for MMA.
His personal MMA journey

Q: Looking back, would you have wanted to become a professional fighter if you had the chance to?

A: It’s funny you ask this — I wonder a great deal if I could have made it if I started like these kids today. I was a talented boxer and I was obsessed with studying martial arts when I was in my teens to mid-20s. It would have been really cool to see where I could have been in terms of Jiu Jitsu and everything.

Unfortunately, numerous injuries, surgeries, combat tours and life have blocked me from that. Please don’t get me wrong, I am nostalgic more in the sense of just my own achievements as a martial artist. I do not think that I have the physical genius to be a professional fighter and I do not think I would have made it — I only regret that I never was able to realize my own full potential as a martial artist at this point in my life.

Q: When you were a kid, your parents discouraged you from taking up martial arts. How would you try to educate parents that martial art is very good for character development?

A: I remember my father told me before I left for West Point as a 17-year old kid — “They will teach you how to be a man at that place in a way that I loved you too much to teach you.” I will never forget that — because it is true.

There is a tough love out there that people need to harden up for the brutal reality of the real world, and it can’t always be taught by parents who should be nurturing and loving. This is an excellent role for a martial arts instructor to fill as a mentor, who doesn’t broker as a parent.

Q: How then, has MMA changed your life or enhanced your personality?

A: MMA certainly changed my life in the sense of self-discipline. I always like to say that my boxing experience taught me self-discipline — to stay in the pocket, keep form in all the chaos, trust in your combination and trust in your technique.

It keeps me hooked because of the physical challenge — it is hard, I do it because it is hard. I do it because it helps me stay sharp for self-defence and gives me self-confidence that I can protect myself and my loved ones. I do it because it makes me feel like a man and makes me feel proud of myself.

Q: As someone with real-life combat experience, what do you think about the sport of MMA and how does it apply to life?

A: What I love about MMA is the purity of the competition and how it ruthlessly eliminates what doesn’t work and keeps what works. This is what I saw in the US Army as well, especially in the early days of the war after 9/11 where I had a chance to observe all the useless peacetime bureaucratic policy go out the window.

It was a matter of Darwinwism. Either what you did as a leader worked, or men died. And so you either were fired and things changed dramatically, or literally people died. I admired the efficiency of the US military to quickly adapt and adjust to the environment of Iraq and Afghanistan, and I see the same parallels in the MMA cage.

I like to try to live my own life in this way — ruthlessly ferret out things that do not work or are not efficient, and laser-focus on what really matters. When the bullets start to fly, you realize pretty quickly that a whole lot of bullshit doesn’t matter.