“The Underdog” Li Kai Wen was destined to be a martial artist.
He was surrounded by the lifestyle during his childhood, as his father was a traditional martial arts instructor who passed on the family secrets to both his son, and his hometown community of Zhangjiajie, China.
“Martial arts in my family is actually ancestral. It goes back many generations,” the 22-year-old Chinese athlete says ahead of his featherweight clash at ONE: QUEST FOR GOLD on Friday, 23 February.
“Everybody from my father’s side is a martial artist. They come from a kung fu background. My father not only taught me some skills, but also little things in life, such as building relationships with other people.”
Around the time Li was eight, his parents divorced, which threw his life into turmoil. He temporarily lived with his dad, but only until he was enrolled into the Hunan Sports Vocational College, where he trained and competed in wrestling as an emotional escape.
Driven to train every single day, Li excelled at the sport, even garnering 50 wins in competition, but was picked on mercilessly by some of his elder teammates. That led to quite a few altercations, both verbal and physical.
“I was bullied by older team members and got into fights constantly,” he recalls. “There is a tradition of hazing at my school, which instigated many fights and arguments among teammates.
“I stayed and trained at my school until I turned 18. My entire childhood and adolescent years were spent there, so instead of having a ‘normal childhood’ living at home with my family, I lived among teammates. I followed the regulations of the school, and the coaches were my guardians.”
Soon after his 18th birthday, he redirected his attention from the wrestling mats to the cage. He began training under the careful eye of boxing coach Yu Yang at Tianjin Top Team, which is also home to fellow ONE talents Ma Jia Wen and “The Stalker” Xie Bin.
“I started training when I turned 18, out of the sheer love for the sport and the competitiveness of it,” he explains. “It is a complete sport, which allows me to demonstrate and showcase all aspects of being a well-rounded athlete.”
In December 2014, just six months into his training and with a few matches under his belt, Li made his ONE Championship debut as a participant in the ONE Featherweight Beijing Tournament 2014.
His undeniable talent and hard work shone through, as he won a pair of back-to-back matches to become the tournament champion.
Ever since that fateful night, he has continued to nurture his skills and build upon his success. “The Underdog” was victorious in his next two outings, but fell to reigning ONE Lightweight & Featherweight World Champion Martin “The Situ-Asian” Nguyen.
Undeterred, he rebounded with a crucial unanimous decision win over top Malaysian contender Keanu Subba in July 2016.
Li then took a break from competition to further hone his skills at various facilities all across California in the United States. The world-renowned gyms he visited to stock his arsenal includes the likes of Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, Millennia MMA in Rancho Cucamonga, and Kings MMA in Huntington Beach.
The Chinese athlete meant to showcase all that he learned in November 2017 against Ahmed Mujtaba at ONE: IMMORTAL PURSUIT, but a series of illegal blows in the first round led to his disqualification.
Li admits he committed a mistake. “I just did not have enough experience,” he explains.
But now, he has learned from his inexperience, and is prepared to show the world how much he has grown as a martial artist. “The Underdog” gets a chance to redeem himself at ONE: QUEST FOR GOLD against promotional newcomer Roel “Akiyama” Rosauro.
“I am ready, and this time, I will beat him,” Li says, determined.
“I want to show everyone I will never give up. This time, I am not taking it easy. I will beat him with the strength and the skills I have.”
At only 22 years of age, Li is developing into one of the brightest young talents in the featherweight division. He is a dangerous striker, a formidable grappler, and has lots of room to grow.
Beyond that, the Chinese athlete wants to put in the hard work and time. For him, the martial arts is much more than a career choice, but rather a lifestyle.
“Martial arts taught me the importance of discipline, respect, and determination, among many other spiritual principles which I try my best to adhere to in my everyday life, such as honesty, punctuality, persistence, and courage.”