By Engen Tham
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Fans flocked to the first event staged in mainland China by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) as a new generation added their names to a proud martial arts history that stretches back thousands of years.
Ticket touts outside the sold-out Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai did a brisk trade as Chinese fighters recorded five victories and three defeats, welterweight Li Jingliang scoring the biggest win with his knockout of Zak Ottow in the co-main event.
In the main event, the crowd fell into a stunned silence after chanting the name of former middleweight champion Michael Bisping when he was knocked out halfway through the first round by hot prospect Kelvin Gastelum.
The real support, however, was reserved for the eight Chinese fighters on the card, many of them competing for the first time under the UFC banner.
Every heavy blow landed by a Chinese fighter was greeted with roars of approval from the partisan crowd, with the biggest cheers reserved for Li's knockout of Ottow.
"I want to send this victory to every supporter who supports me here in China, I love you! And for every one of you in the audience here that witnessed this victory, this is for you!" Li shouted into the microphone following his win.
"China is the birthplace of martial arts! China is getting brighter and stronger!" he told his supporters, who answered his subsequent chants of "China!" by bellowing "Power!"
With events in Europe, Australia and Asia during 2017, the UFC is continuing its efforts to expand globally and the Chinese market represents an area of huge potential, with local fighters an integral part of building a loyal fan base.
"I like Li Jingliang, he's Chinese and he fights well. He has blood lust," 27-year-old aspiring fighter Tong Cheng told Reuters. "I'm proud because China won a lot tonight."
Cai Jingyu, a 40-year-old import-export executive, enthused over featherweight Wang Guan, who sent Alex Caceres crashing to the canvas on several occasions before winning on points.
"I like Wang Guan because he represents China. He is China's dream," Cai told Reuters.
"I think he will develop well and I hope that he will bring pride to Chinese people in the future."
UFC Asia vice-president Kevin Chang was delighted with the turnout by fans and the performance by the Chinese fighters on show.
"They brought their best level and I think it shows where the level of talent has come to in China," he told a media conference.
(Reporting by Engen Tham, writing by Philip O'Connor, editing by Rex Gowar)