After some early bumps in the road, Khai Wu (6-2) has found his stride. The 24-year-old who alternated wins and losses in his first four professional bouts is now on a four-fight win streak. As an amateur, Wu went 3-1 but had a hard time getting fights. Wu was linked to 12 other fights, but they all fell through. When an opportunity arose and with bills mounting, Wu decided it was time to go all-in.
“So I turned pro,” Wu told the Body Lock. “I fought in Asia, in Taiwan, but ever since I turned pro, I knew I was going to get one or two fights that just wasn’t going to go my way, or I was going to lose because I didn’t have enough experience. So, I was very honest with myself and as a martial artist. I knew I needed to grow, so I took every single fight I could get.”
This meant taking fights outside his natural weight class. The bantamweight fought at 135, 140, and eventually won the California Cage Wars (CCW) 145-pound belt. Jumping into the pro level so quickly also meant he would run into opponents with more ring time along the way. Wu lost to the more experienced Bellator prospect Cass Bell in just his second pro bout. He’d later fight Isaiah Batin-Gonzalez and lose a close split-decision that many, including the Bellator matchmaker, thought he should’ve won.
Wu was never deterred. Even in defeat he learned valuable lessons and says these experiences made him the ever-evolving fighter that we see today. When asked how he would describe his style, Wu likens himself to an illusionist. He often keeps his hands low or looks out of position to bait his opponents into throwing a strike or shooting on him.
Wu explained, “If you’ve seen the Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr., he said, ‘I walked into a trap knowingly, making you think I walked into your trap unknowingly, but in reality, I knew, so you fell into my trap.’”
This approach led to his moniker. After a fight, fans came up to him and said, “It’s like you were there but not there. You were like a shadow.”
Wu liked the comparison; and in a sport full of “Warriors” and “Pitbulls,” the unassuming, self-proclaimed “comic nerd” adapted the nickname “The Shadow.”
It was an easy fit. Wu had grown up idolizing comic characters. Sure, Wu shot paper balls into waste bins and said “Kobe!” like kids from any background did. He would try to mimic Michael Jordan with his tongue out on the court. Plenty of athletes influenced Wu, but he was always compared to Jackie Chan or Jet Li by his classmates. Wu didn’t mind the connections but it just reminded him that there were very few Asian athletes or role models in popular media.
He hopes to fill that role for kids going forward.
“I wanted to be a sport icon; well, not necessarily a sport icon, but I just wanted to be a figure that Asian Americans could grow up and kind of relate to. It’s like, hey we all have strict parents, or we all went through this and that. It’s just something that the community could relate to. Growing up it was just mainly Asians [he felt he could inspire], but then I realized there’s a lot more people out there that could relate to me, because I was always a late bloomer or underdog that got bullied at school.”
A hero can be anyone
Wu eventually embraced his underdog status. He was well aware that he didn’t win the genetic lottery and that his accomplishments would only come from hard work and determination.
“I’ve been playing Call of Duty lately, just because of this whole COVID-19 thing. But the example I could give you is almost like a video game character. Like it’s like a one v one. You have all your attachments, your load-outs, and everything you customize, right, and I just have a pistol. It’s basically like that. The odds have been always against me, but I’ve gotten so used to it and I’ve proved and proved myself right and the doubters wrong. I’m starting to go into this, like, mode now where I like the challenge, I want you to be better than me in all these areas just so I can beat you with what I have.
“I wasn’t gifted with these talents, but I could still beat you just purely because of this hard work. The reason why I want to do it, it’s not to brag, it’s to purely show people that if I can do it, you guys absolutely can. You might need some help. It’s going to be rough, it’s going to be tough, but if you stick to the grind, I want to be an example that you can do it.”
Tussles in Taiwan
Wu also believes he has a chance to help bring Taiwan up to speed on MMA. Taiwan, according to “The Shadow,” is more of a conservative culture in many ways. Times are changing, but the older generation was more into striking arts and didn’t have a grasp on the grappling aspects of MMA.
Much of the culture surrounding the MMA world also wasn’t a part of Taiwanese culture– the tattoos, the outlandish braggarts, fighting in a cage; but Wu sees himself as the one who can bridge the gap. He’s personable, doesn’t fit the profile of a fighter, and has garnered some respectable sponsorships.
“I don’t have any tattoos and speaking with the people, they still kind of see me as somebody that’s goofy. I don’t really look like a fighter. So I think that’s why they’re able to put me on posters. And I’m able to work with companies that have never dealt with combat sports. It’s because I guess I could fit the look. I don’t look like a fighter so that it’s not as intimidating. It’s not as much as a scary factor for them. So that’s why they’re able to slowly get around the idea of it’s not too bad.”
Checks and balances
It’s not by design that Wu fits this role. He doesn’t go out of his way to be something he’s not. Wu is being honest with himself. Before he got into the sport seriously, Wu spoke with friends about what he saw on TV. He didn’t want to be a Conor McGregor-type character just to get ahead. Wu is grateful for every fan and media member that takes the time to speak with him about his journey. Even as his popularity grows, and as he spends time with celebrities in Taiwan and gets these bigger sponsorship deals, being true to himself is the most important thing.
Wu, who learned many lessons from the comics and graphic novels he grew up reading, again references The Dark Knight when discussing how he handles day-to-day life and his brewing recognition.
“In the cartoon Doom, Batman had a contingency plan to beat every member of the Justice League. Superman confronts Batman and says, ‘well, what’s your contingency plan for yourself?’ and Batman says, ‘the Justice League.’’
“So, when I thought, ‘how am I going to keep level-headed and not get egotistical with all of this happening?’ I realized it was myself. I put these words out there so I really have to face them. I can’t go back on my word. I have to be as honest as possible; so that’s why I try to be as open as I can.”
Brandon is a long-time fan of combat sports who has covered them for various outlets since 2017.