Feature – Jeremy May: From Ultimate Fighter to training child fighters in China

Back in July of this year, a short documentary about EnBo Fight Club in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, went viral. The video revealed that hundreds…

By: Tim Bissell | 6 years ago
Feature – Jeremy May: From Ultimate Fighter to training child fighters in China
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Back in July of this year, a short documentary about EnBo Fight Club in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, went viral. The video revealed that hundreds of orphaned children had been ‘adopted’ by the gym’s owner En Bo. Under En Bo’s guidance, dozens of boys were shown training in MMA, including two pre-teens competing in a cage for spectators.

The video was viewed and shared millions of times, especially over Chinese social media platforms. Many viewers were outraged. Among viewer concerns were that the orphans taken in by the club were being exploited for child labor. That concern came thanks to a coach who implied that the boys earned money for fighting, but this money was then ‘managed’ by the club.

A month later, authorities stepped in and began removing children from the gym, claiming that there was no proof that En Bo had legally adopted any of them. En Bo had claimed that he had taken children in after finding them wondering the streets or nearby mountains. Some of the children are also believed to have been sent to En Bo by family members.

Education officials repatriated 21 of the boys back to their home counties in Liangshan; one of China’s poorest regions. There, schools were instructed to ensure the boys were registered for the forthcoming term.

One of the few ‘westerners’ with first hand experience of what went on at EnBo Fight Club is 11-year MMA veteran Jeremy May. Over the past two years he spent around nine months at the gym, coaching the child fighters who trained, ate, and slept there.

MMA fans, especially those who watched early seasons of The Ultimate Fighter, may recognize May’s name. He was a cast member on 2008’s The Ultimate Fighter season seven, coached by Quinton Jackson and Forrest Griffin. Along with May, this iteration of the show included a number of competitors who would go on to achieve notoriety in and around the UFC, including C.B. Dollaway, Matt Riddle, Mike Dolce, Amir Sadollah, Jesse Taylor, and Matt Brown (who eliminated May from the competition).

After his stint on the reality show May continued fighting on the American regional circuit, taking wins over fellow TUF alums Frank Lester and Darrill Schoonover. In 2015 he signed a contract with Russia’s M-1 Global to compete on a card they were putting on in Chengdu. He didn’t realize when he took that fight that he would end up with one of the most lucrative – and bizarre – gigs of his life.

At M-1 Global: Way to M-1 China, May – who fights at heavyweight now – was matched-up with Belorussian Alexei Kudin; an M-1 mainstay and multiple kickboxing world and European champion.

Though he wasn’t lacking confidence heading into the fight, May knew he would be best served by avoiding Kudin’s highly credentialed stand-up game. In the first minute of their contest he kept his distance and probed with kicks before rolling for his opponent’s leg.

Kudin dropped down over May. But the wily Floridian was able to work his way into a set-up for a triangle choke. After a little squirming, he sunk it in. In trying to defend, Kudin lazily left his arm dangling along May’s stomach. The former TUF’er snatched it and went belly down on an arm bar that made Kudin tap immediately.

Watching all this, with his hands resting atop the ring apron, was En Bo.

As May was cooling down backstage, En Bo approached him. May recognized him; he’d seen the middle-aged man with the close cropped hair hanging around during fight week. He assumed he was part of the commission, but he had noticed that the man was always accompanied by young boys. The same boys who were working various jobs at the event (like holding the ropes when he stepped out of the ring). A day earlier, May had watched some of these boys fighting in an MMA tournament of their own.

En Bo shook hands with May, looked him in the eye, and said, “How much to keep you here?”

May’s first thought was, ‘huh?’ Through a translator En Bo carried on, asking May what it would take to keep him in Chengdu. “Dude, I can’t stay. I own a construction company back home. I have a family, I can’t just up and drop everything.”

May had recently moved his young family to Texas and started a company that specializes in custom timber frame structures.

“What’s your price? Name it.”

May, who was now starting to feel a little frustrated, decided to give the persistent man a number he thought would end the conversation and allow him to start preparing for his flight home.

“$10,000 a week.”

En Bo titled his head and raised one of his jet black eyebrows. “Done.”

“Honestly, I could have asked for three, probably four, times what I asked for,” said May when recounting his story to Bloody Elbow. “He didn’t even bat an eye.”

Things moved quickly after May agreed to stay put. In doing so, he had accepted the role of coach at En Bo’s gym. “He brought me out to his personal hotel, that he actually lives at when he’s away from his family on business, and I had access to a driver,” said May.

The drivers took May wherever he wanted, in style. “His drivers don’t drive cheap cars,” he recounted. May claimed En Bo had a fleet of Rolls Royce vehicles, and a suped-up limo-truck that cost around $400,000. Most the trips he was taken on were hour long rides, in nightmarish Chinese traffic, to a former cold storage facility that housed dozens of kids.

Jeremy May / Instagram

EnBo Fight Club is a four story building, with two boxing rings and a 15,000 square foot mat room, surrounded by gym equipment. Close to the entrance, the building contains a fighting cage. Bleachers are situated around and above the cage to give prime views of the canvas. May later learned the original plan was to host actual fights at the gym, but that never panned out.

“It was a wonderful training facility,” said May. “It wasn’t like some hole in the wall or anything cheap. It’s very well put together. If I ever build a gym here in the United States, I would like it to be near that gym he has there in Chengdu.”

On a separate floor the building has class rooms with glass walls. The rooms provide a clear view of the gym floor below and vice versa.

Beyond the main building, by about 80 yards, is a separate structure. It also used to be a cold storage building, but this one has been converted into apartments. That’s where the 50 or so children who May trained were living at the time.

“They were not cramped,” said May of the boys’ dormitories. According to him, pairs of older boys (in their mid to late teens) would share apartments, while the younger children would be split into fours. “The living quarters were way better than a lot of what I saw backpacking around most of Asia,” remarked May.

A post shared by Jeremy May (@jeremymaymma) on

May’s days as a coach at EnBo Fight Club began at 7:00am. That’s when he would go down to the hotel lobby to meet his driver. Once they arrived at the gym he would lead the boys in warm-ups and strength and conditioning training. After that, he would lead a two-to-three hour training session, with a lot of focus put on Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Then it was lunch time. Lunch was provided by a full-time in-house chef who – assisted by two part-time cooks – would produce meals May called some of the best he’s ever eaten. After their meal, everyone usually took a nap. May would sometimes head over to the boys’ dorms to nap and hang out, before heading back to the gym for more training.

During those afternoon training sessions, May said it was common for boys to be pulled out so they could study and do homework. There were tutors who came in and out of the gym to check on boys and set them work. If a boy was slacking with his studies, he was prevented from training.

In the evening, after more food was provided, traditional martial arts instructors came to the club to teach the boys how to use things like nunchaku or swords. These classes weren’t mandatory and a lot of the boys had little interest in kung fu. May said there were also some children who didn’t train in MMA either, they just watched (and ate the free food).

The boys had a curfew of 9:00pm. At the dorms there were always at least three staff members around to supervise the residents. According to May most of, if not all, the boys had cellphones. On Fridays the boys would only train half the day, before loading onto a bus for their regular weekend shopping trips.

“Weekends they got brought into town on a bus,” said May. “[En Bo] had two buses go and pick them up and bring them to his hotel. They would all stay in the hotel and they would all get to go to the mall. [En Bo] would give them money to spend there. They would buy whatever personal items they wanted for the week, that’s when they would go do their shopping. Then first thing Monday morning they were back at the dorms.”

A post shared by Jeremy May (@jeremymaymma) on

“The kids were very well taken care of,” reinforced May; who says he was also taken very good care of by En Bo. The gym leader would often send May out on sightseeing journeys across Sichuan Province and Tibet (where En Bo is from).

While working at EnBo, May trained kids who were mostly between 10 and 17-years-old. However, there were some boys at the club who were younger. “Typically the staff at that gym, they would work with [the younger ones] on the basics. They weren’t working out, they didn’t train as often as the older kids.”

While May was working there, he remembers at least ten new children showing up at the club. “I would get their stories second hand,” he said. “Like, so and so’s mum died in a car accident or work incident. Plus there were kids who would get brought there throughout the week by family members who could not afford to take care of them. They would get fed all week long and train and then they’d go and spend the weekend with their parents.”

“There were also uncles and aunts and relatives, people who would hear about En Bo and drop their kid off. They’d say, ‘He’s doing terrible in school, we can’t watch him anymore, his parents are dead, can you please help us?’ En Bo never turned anyone down.”

On his trips around Sichuan, May learned from locals about what might have orphaned many of the children taken in by En Bo. In 2008, an incredibly powerful earthquake struck the province. It’s generally believed that over 87,000 people died in that quake, making it one of the deadliest earthquakes of all time. May said that in China the number of casualties has been downplayed by the government, who list the deaths at closer to 10,000.

But, he made it clear that the people around Chengdu knew the real cost of the quake. “I went to places where you could see they had dug up football field length ditches and the locals were telling me they were packed with bodies.” From conversations with En Bo and others at the club, May believes many of the orphans at the gym lost both sets of parents in that natural disaster.

“For me, it was an incredible experience,” said May of his time at the gym. “All the kids would call me coas. ‘Coas, coas!’, their accent, they can’t quite pronounce coach so I was coas. And you talk about kids that are hungry to learn and love fighting. I saw better stand-up technique out of some of the 12-year-olds there than I’ve seen from top ten UFC fighters.”

The skills May said he saw in these young boys were often put to the test. According to him, there was an MMA show around every two weeks that would feature at least a couple of En Bo’s fighters.

En Bo got his child warriors onto these shows with ease, since he acts as the de facto commissioner for all MMA in Chengdu (and possibly Sichuan Province).

“Ok, so the way MMA works in China is it’s basically, for the most part, you have to bribe different cities to get your permits,” explained May, based on what he saw happening inside the country. According to May, En Bo achieved the status of MMA commissioner for Sichuan Province after paying $60,000 to a government official. May referred to that transaction as a ‘fleecing.’

“So [En Bo] gets this title. So when he hears about an MMA show going on, he gets his little posse and they go in and they meet with [the promoters] and say, ‘Hey look, you want to put on an MMA show, you got to pay us. Not only do you have to pay us a fee, but I want some of my guys on your card.’ So he has his guys and they work the show. The M1 show I fought on, he had his guys do all the rules meeting, the reffing, all that stuff. I don’t know how certified they are. I’m pretty confident they hadn’t taken any MMA training courses, but that’s how business works across the board in China.”

“Unless you’re scratching the right backs, your show is not going to go over,” added May. “And En Bo, or whoever, if they feel like you’re not being straight up with them, depending on the city you’re in, they’ll ask you for another 50,000. And if you’re not going to pay it, you’re not going to have your show in that city.”

May said this is the reason why lots of MMA shows get canceled in China, including some put on by the Signapore-based ONE FC. The ‘posse’ May mentioned, who accompany En Bo on these shakedowns, is stocked with twenty-somethings who have come through the ranks at EnBo Fight Club.

Some EnBo graduates also work as drivers and bodyguards for En Bo. Some of these drivers and bodyguards are designated to assist VIPs who come to town to conduct business with En Bo. “The language barrier kind of held me from knowing too much of what that was,” said May. “But you could tell when he would have a higher profile business meeting. They would come, conduct meetings at his lounge there at his hotel, and he always made sure that his guys were dressed to impress and taking care of whoever he brought in.”

Other EnBo graduates are reported to have joined the police or the military. En Bo has some of those kids’ pictures hanging in the gym.

May said he believes En Bo is, “Close to, if not an actual billionaire.” He remembered one day he and Vaughn Anderson (a Bellator veteran who also coached at EnBo) decided to look up records on one of En Bo’s businesses. May said that company had grossed around $900m in 2015.

Because of En Bo’s wealth and other interests, May believes the Fight Club is a pure passion project for its owner. “He was losing money left and right on it. He was just sinking money into it for the passion and the support of the kids,” he said.

Since May believed EnBo Fight Club has had a positive experience on the orphans and left-behind-children who live, train, and fight there, he was shocked when he read about some boys being taken from the club and returned to their home counties.

“It struck me as odd when I heard about the situation, with them trying to take the kids away,” said May. “Because those kids are so taken care of. They have a full-time chef at the fighter dorms that cooks three, four meals a day, they have tutors, they were learning how to read and write. En Bo was taking care of all their needs and feeding their passion.”

Asked whether he thought the boys were better served going to school than being at EnBo Fight Club, May said that the club’s founder was, “passionate about helping these kids and giving them the opportunity to make something of themselves.” May believes this includes giving those boys a good education.

“The conversations I had with him, through translators, is that that was one thing he was very concerned with. He wanted his kids to be as educated and as smart as possible, capable of going wherever they wanted to go.”

May was also asked his opinion on whether he felt the boys were being exploited financially. May scoffed at the implication, arguing that En Bo’s wealth meant he was unlikely to be seeking monetary gains off the backs of the young fighters.

“There was nothing, nothing as far as return that he was getting outside of trophies and the smiles on the kids’ faces,” said May, referring to trophies the boys would win in fighting tournaments and give to En Bo as gifts.

“I think they are more than fairly compensated,” continued May. “They’re given their cash prizes, they are given their rewards. He pays them all allowances. Their fight purses all go to them. The guy’s got a fleet of Rolls Royces, there’s nothing for him to gain from the gym, money-wise.”

The question of the children’s safety was also raised with May. He said he didn’t believe there was any dedicated medical staff members among the 10 to 12 people who worked around the club. But he said he wasn’t sure of this because he never encountered a medical emergency while at EnBo.

May was also skeptical about how dangerous fighting in actual MMA fights was for the young boys. “I understand if it was a child fighting a full grown man or something like that. There would be a little bit of concern, but you have to take into account all the factors. They’re not absorbing as much, or as hard a damage as you would coming from a larger being. So the fact that most kids are about the same size, I don’t personally see anything wrong with it.”

May reasoned that the blows a child or teen would suffer playing football in the United States would probably be more severe and likely to cause concussion than the punches or kicks he saw his students throwing. “So I don’t see an issue with it, I don’t think it’s unsafe. I’ve seen kids spar and train, I think as long as its kids versus kids I don’t have a problem with it at all.”

Even if it was as unlikely for boys at EnBo to sustain head trauma due to striking in sparring or fighting as May ascertained, the risk of concussion also exists in grappling and wrestling. Dr. Beau Hightower, of Jackson Wink MMA Academy, said some of the worst head injuries can occur on wrestling mats. And while children fighting children may mean that blows to the head aren’t as powerful, the impact of those blows may still be more severe.

Dr. Charles Tator, a neurosurgeon and concussion expert at Toronto’s Western Hospital, is on record stating that adolescent brains are at a higher risk of damage as a result of knocks to the head. The reason he outlined is that the human brain grows dramatically during teenage years. When the brain is in this growth phase, it is more fragile and vulnerable to concussion.

Based on the Pear Video documentary, there have also been concerns over the types of training boys appeared to be pressured into. That documentary included scenes where boys were stretching their limbs and joints at the behest of En Bo, who was threatening them with expulsion if they did not meet the required limit of limberness.

“Nobody was sent home for not being flexible enough,” stated May. “I mean, En Bo was big on the traditional martial arts, so that’s one thing that he encouraged them to do.”

May was also eager to shut down any accusations that there was any other abuse happening at EnBo Fight Club. “As far as any kind of abuse, there was nothing, not even the first smidgen of anything questionable while I was there.”

May said he had spent some time volunteering at an orphanage in Colombia (where his father’s family are from), which housed children whose families had been killed as a result of war and narco-terrorism. He said while he was there he witnessed an incident where a worker was caught being inappropriate with children. That worker was then promptly (and violently) removed from the facility.

“From what I’ve experienced, I saw nothing at EnBo that seemed even questionable, because I was looking out for it,” said May. “First of all, I wasn’t planning on staying in China. I have a kid, my family, my business back in the States. I didn’t need to go, but I thought it would be an amazing experience and I didn’t really want to miss out on it. But I was looking for a reason to be, ‘Ok I can’t do this,’ and I saw nothing that was questionable.”

May admitted that it would be better if there was some oversight in China when it came to screening people who worked with young children. However, he added that it’s an unrealistic expectation to have, given what he had experienced in the country. He also said he didn’t think EnBo Fight Club itself needed any additional monitoring.

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“There’s a potential for [abuse] even with government monitoring and training and whatnot,” added May. “There’s a potential for that in any church you walk into, also. I never ever experienced anything like that. Like I said, at the first sign of anything questionable, I would have been out of there.”

For May, there is seemingly nothing that needs to be altered when it comes to how EnBo Fight Club houses and treats children. But despite his endorsement of the gym and its owner, Chinese authorities – now alerted to the club – seem to be cracking down. Education officials, per the South China Morning Post, believe En Bo “Incited and used underage children in commercial fighting and made a huge profit.”

The club is currently being investigated by police. It’s unclear if any more children, since the 18 who were removed in August, have been taken from the facilities.

If EnBo Fight Club ceases to exist, May said that what he will take away from the experience are the “smiling faces” of his students. “It was an amazing experience to be able to walk in there. It was very rewarding to work there and teach them stuff. They were all super respectful. They were always like, ‘Thank you coas. Coas, we love you.’ It just a very very happy environment.

“I would love to go back.”

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About the author
Tim Bissell
Tim Bissell

Tim Bissell is a writer, editor and deputy site manager for Bloody Elbow. He has covered combat sports since 2015. Tim covers news and events and has also written longform and investigative pieces. Among Tim's specialties are the intersections between crime and combat sports. Tim has also covered head trauma, concussions and CTE in great detail.

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