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'Trials and Tribulations' of Gene Yu: From Green Beret to apparel entrepreneur (Pt. 3)

Few can share a story as unique as Gene Yu. The former Green Beret is the Chinese commentator for ONE FC and founder of the FLOW apparel line. In this final edition of our three-part series, Yu will talk about MMA in China, his apparel line FLOW MMA, working with ONE FC, and being more than just a Green Beret.

Gene Yu

In our first two installments on the story of Gene Yu, we learned about his time in the military, the unbelievable story of how he rescued his friend Evelyn Chang from the Aby Sayyaf, and how an incident involving Papa John's Pizza led him on a different path while training in the U.S. Special Forces.

It was there in the South Philippines where he gained the necessary experience that was crucial in saving his friend's life years after he retired from active duty.

Pt. 1: Gene Yu recalls daring mission to save family friend from Abu Sayyaf.

Pt. 2: Gene Yu talks "unintended consequences" from infamous Papa John's Pizza run.

For part three, Yu will discuss how the unplanned fallout from saving Lynn's life has led to greater business opportunities in his career, like being the Chinese commentator for ONE FC, one of his books (Yellow-Green Beret: Stories of an Asian American stumbling around the U.S. Special Forces) becoming a Taiwanese best seller, and the continued growth of his Chinese ethnic-centric, apparel line, FLOW MMA, which has sponsored several ONE FC events.

He will also give his thoughts on MMA in Asia.

The resurgence of MMA in Asia has been ongoing the last few years, and the ONE FC promotion is the catalyst leading that movement as it continues to expand in different cities with each event. The three-year old company has put on events in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Dubai, Cambodia, and also Taiwan.

Yu has seen plenty of other organizations come on the scene, only to fall short and fold shortly afterward.

"I've been watching MMA pretty carefully here in Asia for the last five years," said Yu. "There have been a lot of promotions that have spun off and have died. There's a graveyard of MMA events out here. I think ONE FC coming to Taiwan recently was a pretty big statement in terms of how deep their pockets are. Taiwan was a non-market for MMA entirely. For them to come out here, I thought that was a big statement."

"I think that it's exciting that they have the reach and the resources to continue to push the sport out here. ONE FC is going to China and supposedly they are going to run 10 events there in the next two years. I think that will kind of be the watershed in the movement here in Asia. If they can survive and actually figure out the China nut, so to speak, that will really be turning everything on its head here in Asia."

Yu last handled the Chinese commentary duties for the ONE FC 20 event in Cambodia and he is in ongoing negotiations for future events, but he has had his finger on the pulse of the rising MMA scene in Asia for quite some time and that is one of the reasons he decided to launch FLOW MMA. Martial arts have long been a part of Chinese culture, and Yu thinks the population in China is more than ready to embrace it and make it a staple in their country.

"I think ultimately when you look at Chinese people, they love watching martial arts," he said. "Look at all the movies they watch, the TV shows, there is always some type of martial arts involved. Even if you watch some really sappy, romantic comedy, there is always some type of kung fu involved or something. It is part of the culture. Everyone watches martial arts, it just hasn't come around in the form of MMA yet. The population is primed for it, which is one of the reasons why FLOW decided to take a risk to build our brand and be first in marketing numbers. There isn't much of a market to speak of because with the belief of an organization like ONE FC or when UFC decides to turn its attention to Asia, this sport will take off here because the population is already primed to watch this stuff."

Yu revealed that Shiyan is going to be the target city in China, a second-tier city, as opposed to Beijing or Hong Kong. And he also mentioned some interesting facts about MMA inside the ancient city, mainly the Sanda coach that has formed an MMA team. Yu thinks that the Chinese fans need to "see something of their own" in order to truly get behind the sport and a Sanda fighter would make them very proud.

"Interestingly in China, Shiyan Sports University is one of the first universities to really take on the mantle of MMA," said Yu. "The Sanda coach there is a little progressive, has been trying the grassroots approach in Shiyan for the last seven years and has built his own MMA team there. They used to be based in Hong Kong that is why FLOW is incorporated there. They work very closely with Legend Fighting Championships. Those guys have invested quite a bit of money, as well."

The Green Beret never intended for the story of how he saved Chang to become as big as it has, but when they stopped at a Philippine Marine base on Jolo Island before the final stages of the rescue, the media was alerted and the story quickly reached the masses. Once he and Chang stepped off the plane in Taiwan they were both "bombarded," Yu said.

Now that the story has gotten out there, it has played nicely into his company getting a great deal of exposure.

"I hope this doesn't come off as too braggy, but one of the things that the Taiwan media was constantly asking was 'What are you doing now?'" said Yu. "I took the advantage to try to promote my clothing line. A lot of the people that never heard of MMA or BJJ or anything like that, know what that is now in Taiwan. They say 'That's Gene's thing. That's what he's doing now. His clothing line.' There has been what I hope is some positive exposure for the sport along the lines of leveraging the story into something more than just the actual incident itself."

"I had a very, very optimistic and idealistic kind of mission coming from FLOW when I started it three years ago. We really wanted to have a vehicle to communicate what I think is the spirit of MMA and the competition. Essentially what we were hoping to do is to help provide a vehicle that promotes the sport and bring it over to Asia. With ONE FC going over to China we are very excited about are partnership and a collaboration with them. Out of all the events, I am most optimistic about ONE FC because of there staying power. They have been around for more than a few years now and they are still going strong."

Yu wants to see the sport expand and grow in China and all of Asia. And he is rooting for all promotions to fare well, not just ONE FC. The more successful promotions there are, the more his apparel line will flourish.

"One nice thing about being an apparel brand is that we can be quite agnostic to all the events, all the gyms," he said. "We want everyone to succeed because as they build out the sport, we are the ones who can help -- as icing on the cake -- as support in pushing out our apparel and our fight gear. Pushing out another medium to try to access the market and promote the sport."

The former Special Forces captain never second guesses walking away from a lifelong career in the military. It helped shape who he is as a person, it helped him save peoples lives, and it took him to places all over the globe. But had he stayed, he would've always wondered about what else was out there for him to be a part of.

Since walking away from donning a uniform on the daily, he has garnered a ton of new experiences with starting his apparel line, worked as a trader for Credit Suisse, one of the biggest investment banks in the world. And he is the vice president of corporate development for Migme, a social entertainment platform with a focus in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. All these new opportunities and adventures have made him see the world in a new light, teach him new lessons and made him realize that his time in the military was only a "very short time in the whole grand scheme of life." He was great at what he did as a Green Beret, but that doesn't define who he is as a person.

"I've gone through a lot of trials and tribulations along those lines of trying to build a company from scratch in an industry I had no idea about," said Yu. "Traveling on these shitty little trains and going to factories. I got ripped off by this factory that I took an order sample from and I went out to visit them and there was no factory. It was just a blank address. These experiences on the apparel side. All these different experiences have helped me develop and grow much more than if I would've stayed in the military."

"It was an amazing experience and foundation to stand upon, but life has so much more to offer with experiences and different aspects and right now when I think about having been a Special Forces guy and having been a Green Beret and all that stuff, it's more that was something that was part of my life that for sure will always be part of me, but it's not who I am. I don't represent U.S. Army Special Forces Regiment. I don't represent that. All I am is a Green Beret."

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