The world’s most elite athletes of sanda put on a dazzling show in Hangzhou, China October 27-28, 2018, at the 9th Sanda World Cup, sponsored by Wubo Kungfu. Sixty athletes from 22 countries and regions battled fast and furious to cement their place on the top podium as champion. For the first time, Iran ranked first in medals – their dominant showing earned them 7 gold and 1 silver, while China closely followed with a flawless showing of 6 gold medals. Russia seized third with two gold and a bronze; Korea came in fourth, earning 1 gold, 1 silver and two bronze, while the Philippines secured fifth place with a gold, a silver and a bronze.
The stars of sanda were all here. These warrior heroes, who qualified for this Cup by medaling at the 14th World Wushu Championships in Kazan last year, brought their luster to the Lin’an Sports Center in Zhejiang Province. A Chinese audience roared with delight as the Chinese sanda team put in a flawless performance over the two-day event that ended with the mighty Xiang Ye mowing down his heavyweight opponents with unmatched power.
The event’s sponsor, Wubo Kungfu, and the Hangzhou LOC made this event glamorous with spectacular lighting and music, a regal medals ceremony, and warm hospitality. The opening ceremony welcomed the 22 teams marching in proudly with their flags. A host of VIPs looked on, and dignitaries welcomed the crowd with speeches. Speakers at the opening ceremony of the 9th Sanda World Cup included Ms. Jiya Gao, Deputy Chief of People’s Government of Lin’an District, Hangzhou City; Mr. Chunqiang Lu, Party Secretary of Lin’an District Committee, Hangzhou City; Mr. Yadong Zhang, Deputy Director of Sports Bureau of Zhejiang Province; and Mr. Qiuping Zhang, IWUF Secretary-General and President of the Chinese Wushu Association. IWUF Executive Vice President, Anthony Goh welcomed everyone on behalf of the IWUF, and declared the Cup open. A lively wushu display followed, and then – it was showtime.
Much of the significance of the Sanda World Cup lies in its pivotal placement between the biennial World Wushu Championships events. Gold medal champions defend their titles here, and confirm their primacy, but they are also challenged by their former opponents who may have a chance to turn silver into gold, or bronze into silver. The Cup also acts as a touchstone for fighters to sharpen their skills and ready themselves for the next upcoming World Championships. For spectators, because the fighters are all qualified top champions, there are fewer mismatches and with only two days of competition, mostly every fight offers high-level action.
Semi-Finals and Sanda Stars
The opening round-robin fights and semi-finals offered a handful of outstanding matchups, starting with the women’s 48kg bout between a feisty Shimeng Dai from China and the Philippines’ own hero Divine Wally. Both powerful stylists kept the rounds quite close in points. China just edged ahead to squeeze out the first round, and in round two Wally was ahead until Dai unleashed a flurry of strikes and kicks to squeak out the win.
China’s Kang Li also riveted all eyes to the leitai in his semifinal match against Korea’s Unjin Yun – it may have been the best fight of the Sanda World Cup’s first day. Both men were fast on their feet, but Kang’s splendid throws and laser-focused strikes wore down his Korean opponent, who fought with his own passionate intensity until the end, in a true never-say-die fashion.
A handful of standout semifinals helped build anticipation for the finals. And when they arrived, the stars came out to shine. They included the marvelous Mansourian sisters, Elahe and Shahrbano, who always bring their charisma and distinct fighting styles to the stage with a double shot of prodigious talent that’s helped change the direction of women’s sanda altogether over the past half-decade. They have become contemporary sport legends in Iran, and inspire a generation of female sanda athletes all over the world.
All of China’s fighters may be on the gold standard, but several really stand out — 56kg Kang Li and his heavyweight teammate 90+kg Xiang Ye are supernovas, and perennial audience favorites, with good reason. Li simply explodes with energy that he focuses with incredible intensity when vanquishing his opponents. And, he does it with a spare, economical style so that he barely looks fazed after each match. Xiang Ye has now cemented his place at the top of the super heavyweights, not only throwing his weight around, but doing so with powerful technique and a boyish grin that makes audiences simply fall in love with him. He’s not only a star in China, but also all around the wushu world, where everyone wants to take a photo with him.
Ali Magomedov, carrying on the gold-medal legacy of his former Russian teammate, and mentor, Muslim Salikhov, is now leaving his own distinct signature on the sport of wushu. It’s always a pleasure to watch this top sanda stylist and his well-polished arsenal of elegant techniques – spinning back kicks, elegant yet lethal takedowns, sharp jabs that pierce even the best defense – Magomedov is the whole package, a page from the sanda playbook.
All fighters know that everybody loses, sometimes. It’s part of the game. But the Sanda World Cup is more about just winning a gold medal and prize money – it’s also about wushu’s exemplary sportsmanship, about sanda community, and in some ways, about taking measure of oneself and one’s opponents, and looking ahead to the next World Wushu Championships which next year will be in Shanghai. Here in Hangzhou we also enjoyed sanda performances from athletes who are celebrated stars in their own countries – like Wally Divine in the Philippines, and Pooja Kadian from India, both former World Champion gold medalists, who settled for bronze this time around but who delivered great fights for the event. Likewise, European champion Vadzim Rolich of Belarus put on a terrific fighting performance with Iranian opponent Seyedmoein Taghavi, as did Egypt’s Omar Mamdouah Aly Badyr against Iran’s Milad Arefi Magham. And it’s impossible not to admire the technical prowess and gorgeous technique on display from Iran’s celebrated five-time gold medal world champion Hamidreza Gholipour, who was overpowered by Xiang Ye despite his best strategy.
Women’s Sanda Finals
Excitement quickly built for the finals on Sunday. The six women’s divisions turned into an Iran-China shutout for gold, with a lot of thrilling action in the process. It kicked off with China’s Shimeng Dai squaring off with Indonesia’s Rosalina Simanjuntak in the 48kg category. Dai had little trouble subduing her opponent, and a variety of merciless takedowns paved her way to a tidy victory.
Next, in the 52kg division, Iran’s Elahe Mansourian had a chance to show off her mastery against Saidi Yasmin of Algeria with an arsenal highlighted by the deadly reach of her long legs’ fast kicks to the face, as well as matchless wrestling skills. Once her arm was raised by the referee in victory, all she had to do was wait to see if her sister Shahrbano would win a matching gold.
The next fight in 56kg was a bit more evenly matched, with China’s Huimin Lin versus veteran sanda athlete Thi Thu Thuy Nguyen. The Vietnamese fighter scored first and took an early lead, but Lin fired back and moved in with a takedown to edge ahead in points. Still, Nguyen resisted takedowns and her aggression kept her almost neck and neck in points both rounds, scoring some nice throws, with the last ten seconds of round 2 being quite a nail-biter. Lin scored at the last moment to push ahead, in what was one of the closest victories of the day.
The Chinese team’s domination continued in the following 60kg matchup between Yingying Cai and Tunisia’s Mariem Chaabouni. Cai clearly controlled the fight from the get go, making one clean takedown after another and completely overpowering her opponent. The Tunisian offered a valiant effort, but Cai quickly dispatched her to claim the gold medal.
All eyes were glued to the leitai when Iran’s Shahrbano Mansourian Semironi leaped up on it to take on India’s Arunpama Devi Keisham in the 65kg division. The Indian fighter was solid on her feet, and resisted a great deal of her opponent’s powerful wrestling. The Iranian shifted her strategy to rain down punches and kicks which seemed to land effortlessly, and to the cheers of her fans and teammates – and sister — swooped up the gold medal.
But the action was far from over, even as the last women’s final of 75kg was announced between Egypt’s Heba Abelkader Saleh Mohammed and Iran’s Farinaz Naziri. This was a good matchup, with both fighters landing some hard blows and the points neck and neck until Naziri edged ahead with several kicks to gain points advantage. She also had motivation on her side, as she is a national champion in Iran but this was her first international sanda competition. If this spurred her to victory, it was apparent by the smile on her face when her hand was raised in victory and she stood under her flag receiving the gold medal.
Men’s Sanda Finals
In the men’s finals, our champions emerged from Iran, China, Russia, Korea and the Philippines. In the 48kg category, China Yongjie Wong fought with Orkhan Hatamov of Azerbaijan, and took the lead early with an onslaught of great wrestling. Hatamov landed a few hard punches to his opponent’s face, and executed some nice takedowns, but the Chinese fighter got into a groove making throw after throw; all in all it was a good fight, with Wong claiming victory at the end.
The 52kg men’s final was one of the most exciting, pitting well-matched Philippine veteran Arnel Mandal against the tenacious Vietnamese fighter Minh Duc Vu. It was a rematch of the thrilling action we saw in Kazan at the 14th World Wushu Championships, when Vu defeated Mandal in one of the hardest fought bouts. This time, Mandal was out to settle the score. The first round started with a furious energy, as the fighters danced around each other and Vu attacked to take a point lead. Darting kicks and swift punches flew from both sides, and Vu closely won the first round. In round 2, even more strikes and kicks were exchanged at a rapid pace, and the spellbound audience ate it up. Mandal landed a devastating kick to his opponent’s head and knocked him down – for another fighter it might have been all over, but the tough Vu got back to his feet and back to business. Mandal, however, gained the advantage and won round 2. Anticipation was high as the fighters touched gloves for the third time, and amazingly both looked almost as fresh as when they began the fight and the energy was electric. Each was primed to be victor. But soon the Philippine fighter edged ahead, first throwing Vu off the platform, and then executing several takedowns that widened the score gap until the buzzer rang. It was his proud moment to watch the Philippine flag rise to his national anthem.
China’s Kang Li took on Francisco Solis from the Philippines in the 56kg bout, and from his explosive and self-assured performance, it looked like the Chinese fighter was just getting warmed up in his previous semi-final. Li’s defense was seemingly indestructible, with quick footwork that both let him evade attacks, and also brought him in for the kill. In the last ten seconds of round two he let loose a barrage of his full arsenal with devastating kicks and punches raining down on Solis. The crowd roared with appreciation and excitement, and the Chinese flag rose again proudly again that night.
Shifting gears into the 60kg division brought Russia’s charismatic Ali Magomedov into the spotlight against his opponent from Indonesia, Abdul Haris Sofyan. Magomedov treated spectators to a dazzling array of his picture-perfect techniques – a spinning backfist, quick jabs to the face, iron hard kicks to the head. Against Sofyan he looked relaxed, and settled into a flow of fast takedowns, kicks and punches – one so hard that his opponent flew off the platform. The Russian also proved virtually immovable when his opponent went on the attack. Sofyan found renewed energy in the second round to take down Magomedov, but payback was quick and merciless, as he threw down the Philippine fighter again and again until the point gap was beyond repair. He hugged his opponent, and the warmth of the sanda athletes’ community and mutual respect was on fine display.
Korea’s Seungmo Park would battle Van Cao Hong next in the 65kg division. This well matched fight showed a lot of solid fighting, and also a lot of clinch between flurried exchanges. During both rounds the scoring was close, but Park managed to close the gap and edge ahead to victory.
To win the gold in the men’s 70kg division, Iran’s Mohsen Mohammadseifi proved to be an indomitable powerhouse. He is not only quick on his feet, but also solid as a rock, and virtually immoveable. His almost superhuman wrestling skills were a spectacle unto themselves – he flipped his Algerian opponent Bouabid Abdelhadi with flashy style that got the audience cheering, and then used his power to push him twice off the platform in the first round. The second round mirrored the first with two throws off the platform, and the Iranian flag would rise once more on the podium.
Next up was the 75kg match between another Iranian iron man, Yousef Sabriabibegloo, and Macau’s Fei Long Cai. The Iranian’s dominant wrestling immediately overwhelmed Cai, who was picked up and dumped down unceremoniously too many times to count, until the fight was stopped for point differential and Sabriabibegloo claimed the gold.
The 80kg spotlight was on Russian champion Arslan Bektemirov and South Korea’s Myeongjin Kim. Bektemirov, who also defeated Kim in the previous Kazan WWC final, repeated his victory in Hangzhou. As Kim was injured from a previous fight, fans only got to see Bektemirov’s sleek techniques for less than two minutes before the Korean corner threw in the towel. However in his previous bout against Kyrgastan he indeed displayed some of the dazzling Russian trademark techniques including spinning back kicks and backfists.
The 85kg battle was another heavy hitting highlight of Hangzhou, pitting the tough Belorussian Vadzim Rolich against Iran’s Seyemoein Taghavi. The fighters were well-matched, and both serious and tough as nails. Each landed strong punches and the scoring remained close; Rolich was aggressive but found it hard to penetrate the Iranian’s ironclad defense. Taghavi summoned extra strength at the end of round two to take down his opponent, thus edging ahead in points and winning the match. This one was another crowd pleaser to all, but especially to a jubilantly happy Iranian team pulling ahead in the rankings to eye first place.
The 90kg battle between Iran’s Milad Arefi Magham and Egypt’s Omar Mamdouh Aly Aly Badyr was an exciting follow up. They collided head on from the start; the Iranian threw Badyr to the ground, but the Egyptian soon planted himself and resisted well. He was aggressive, but when he slipped Iran edged ahead as the round was ending. Dramatically, Badyr knocked his opponent down at the bell, but it was too little too late to save the round. Round two had a slow start, and then a good exchange of throws. Badyr was fired up, but Arefi Magham was like a bull, stolid and always charging forward. The Egyptian began to tire, and his opponent threw him off the platform; with another two takedowns he locked in his victory for the whole Iranian team.
The 90+ fight is always a good closer, a spectacle of strength, power and size. To win, China’s sensational sanda hero Xiang Ye had to defeat five-time world champion Hamidreza Gholipour – a daunting task, as Gholipour is one of sanda’s finest fighters, well-versed in exemplary technique and strategy.Arguably, Gholipour’s techniques may have been more refined, but Ye was simply overpowering, knocking his opponent down, and in round two throwing him off the leitai twice to claim victory. In his now trademark celebration, Ye jumped off the leitai and lifted up his coach Genxue Zhang in jubilation, and the crowd went wild too.
At the medal ceremony athletes showed off bruises, bandages, national flags, and smiles. Former combatants hugged each other and posed for endless selfies and photos that flew around the world on social media. Besides their medals, the winners also claimed prize money – 10,000 Yuan Renminbi for a gold medal, 6,000 for silver medal, and 3,000 for a bronze medal.
Reflections on the 9th Sanda World Cup
Each athlete finds different value in his or her competition experience. Pooja Kadian, Kazan’s 75kg women’s sanda champion, was the first wushu athlete from India ever to win a gold medal at a World Wushu Championships, and she has since become a sports hero in her country. She came to fight at the Sanda World Cup even though she was injured with a torn knee ligament because of her love for the sport, and to help support her team. “I was scared to fight this time because I’m afraid my knee will be hurt badly,” she says. “I will have knee surgery when I go back to India. But I love to fight, and I’m glad I came for the experience and to get a bronze medal. I will be training very hard in the next year for the World Championships in Shanghai – I’ll be prepared — my goal is to win the gold medal again.”
Elahe Mansourian talked to us about how she and her sister Shahrbano are celebrated sports heroes in their country. Both sisters have huge Instagram followings, and wide media coverage in newspapers and television. “It’s a lot of pressure to be famous for wushu in Iran,” she notes. “We feel we always need to win the gold medal now so we don’t disappoint our fans. But I really love fighting sanda. This event is a great experience, and we are extremely proud to be part of this Iranian team.”
Russian athlete Ali Magomedov, who became Sanda World Cup champion for the second time in Hangzhou (he placed first in Xi’an two years ago also), told us, “This is a great feeling to be here and win the gold medal. I want to thank the Hangzhou organizers for this excellent event. I’m looking forward to fighting in Shanghai next year at the World Championships, and this experience has been important for that also.”
For the Iran sanda team, the collective effort to break through and become first in the rankings of the Sanda World Cup for the first time was an historical moment both to celebrate and savor. Dr. Mahdi Alinejad, President of the Iran Wushu Federation and IWUF Executive Board Member, remarked with much enthusiasm, “If I want to say one world about the 9th Sanda World Cup – that word is “incredible” — totally incredible! To win 8 medals with 8 athletes is just amazing! For the first time Iran became the top champion in Sanda World Cup by achieving 7 gold medals. Hangzhou was a huge milestone for Iran Wushu, and this will remain in all wushu enthusiasts’ memory for a long time. We worked hard and we gained our rewards. I also want to say a big xièxiè to the organizing committee of the 9th Sanda World Cup. They did a great job and organized wonderful event in collaboration with the IWUF.”
Anthony Goh, Executive Vice President of the IWUF, remarked at the closing ceremony, “This Sanda World Cup has offered us a superior and distinctive event all around. It has shown not only the high standard of the consummately skilled athletes, but also superb organization, sterling presentation, and top-notch broadcasting – everything is really first class. There was a lot of effort behind the scenes to make this all happen; the Lin’an Organizing Committee, Wubo Kungfu and the Chinese Wushu Association worked hard together to resolve all manner of organizational problems to deliver such outstanding results. I want to thank the officials, the volunteers and all participants who contributed to the exceptional success of this event.”