The mixed martial artist Khai Wu is a “late bloomer” by his own admission, but he’s always done things a bit differently and it’s led to a journey full of discovery as well as setbacks.
Wu grew up between California and Taiwan, where his parents are from. As a small and unconfident kid, he was bullied at school. He was also un-athletic and uncoordinated – he dribbled a basketball with two hands.
His dad wanted his kids to go to Ivy League schools and become doctors or lawyers – three of his children went into the medical field. But while Wu tried hard at school, academic learning wasn’t for him and his grades weren’t great.
Instead, his brother-in-law brought him to try jiu-jitsu at the age of nine, and over time martial arts changed his life.
Wu had his first amateur MMA fight at the age of 21. He stood across the cage from an opponent who looked bigger and stronger than him and thought: “What am I doing here?”
As the bell rang, Wu circled his opponent, too terrified to attack. After more than a minute, something took over – Wu threw a flurry of punches and won by TKO (technical knockout).
As the victory sunk in over the following days, he realised that he was never in competition with anyone else – that his biggest problems came from within, and that he could learn to deal with them and be comfortable in uncomfortable situations.
And he saw that comparisons with other people did not lead to contentment or happiness, “that everybody is on their own journey”.
“I’m like the black sheep [of the family],” the now 28-year-old told Al Jazeera, tongue in cheek. “I ended up being a pro fighter.”
While he’s since gained prominence in unexpected ways – training Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, giving a TED talk, and going viral for the way he defused a racially charged situation – Wu hopes he can soon make more headlines with his fighting.
Wu (7-4-0) will face Phil Caracappa (9-3-0) at featherweight in his debut for the Professional Fighters League on November 24 on the undercard of PFL’s 2023 World Championship in Washington, DC.
It’s likely to be a tough fight against an experienced opponent.
“The guys that really force you to discover a part of you that you never knew existed or really level up, those are the guys that really get me anxious”, Wu said, speaking online from California. “But they get me excited, too.”
‘Martial arts correlate to life’
Wu earned the nickname of “the Shadow” due to his elusive fighting skills.
He was just 3-1-0 in amateur MMA fights when he turned professional in 2018 at the insistence of his family, who wanted him to start making money.
“As an amateur, you don’t get paid to fight and you’re still taking damage,” he said. “[But] they didn’t understand that you might have to build out your career a little bit more, then get into a better position.”
He won his first pro fight and was signed by the Bellator MMA promotion but he lost his only two fights there. Early on he was often fighting people with many more amateur bouts under their belts and his lack of experience led to some defeats – but also he learned fast.
Under various promotions, he put together a four-fight winning streak from 2019 to 2020, lost a couple during COVID-19, and won his last fight on a split decision.
In June he signed with PFL. He said the promotion’s tournament format and points system appealed to him, and he felt like they weren’t selling him an overly rosy picture.
“I’m just curious to always work with a company that’s kind of doing things a little bit differently,” he said.
His last fight was back in February but says the time since has allowed him to develop and broaden his skillset, which isn’t always possible in the grind and game plan of a fight camp dedicated to a single opponent.
“A lot of the injuries that I had from my previous fights healed up, I’m getting stronger, exploring where I’m weak and really covering those cracks or holes,” Wu said.
Meanwhile, he believes that being a trainer at Guerrilla Jiu-Jitsu gym and having a student mentality reinforces his skills.
His most famous client is the Facebook founder, Zuckerberg. When he first trained the tech billionaire, he thought it would be a one-off session – but the Meta boss kept coming back.
“He probably liked my jokes or something, I make a lot of dad jokes. And ever since then, we’ve been getting along and training.”
He said that he doesn’t think the mooted fight between Zuckerberg and fellow billionaire Elon Musk will ever happen, and that Zuckerberg will move on to something more serious (Wu spoke to Al Jazeera before Zuckerberg tore his anterior cruciate ligament while sparring).
“I think Elon realised Mark was legitimately training and a real fight sounds fun until you actually [think about] the blood and eyes getting cut open and all that stuff.”
He said he hasn’t talked to Zuckerberg about his motivation to take martial arts so seriously, but says fighting is primal and that there’s “beauty” in the fear and truth of stepping into the ring or octagon.
“Because no matter who you are, when you get in there, you’re in there by yourself,” he said. “You can claim you’re a black belt in jiu-jitsu. But if you go in there, and your skills don’t show, they don’t show – so there are no excuses in fighting.”
Wu is also an evangelist for the power of martial arts beyond the gym.
If you panic while getting choked in jiu-jitsu, the more your breathing and heart rate quickens and blood rushes to the head, the faster you’ll lose consciousness. Developing the skills to be patient and calm in stressful situations like that can help off the mat.
When he had a car accident a few years ago, Wu had the confidence and the presence of mind to stay relaxed ahead of the impact – he walked away without injuries and calmly helped the other people.
“Basically, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do all that or process it if I didn’t have the martial arts training”.
Then there was an incident in 2021 when Wu was filmed calmly talking down a man who was behaving belligerently in his local boba (bubble) tea shop in Tracy, California, at a time when anti-Asian attacks were spiking.
“That was all from martial arts training. I had the confidence to go in there and de-escalate the situation, and you know what, no one got hurt … So I think it is really important to see all the aspects of martial arts and how they correlate to life.”
I got a lot of people asking me why I blurred the guys face out. Here’s why 👇 https://t.co/ubGFVW0zU3 pic.twitter.com/rfK93019bM
— Khai “The Shadow” Wu (@khaiwu) November 3, 2021
‘The Boba King’
Wu’s Taiwanese culture and heritage are important to him, and his love of bubble “boba” tea has become legendary – to the point where he has been dubbed “the Boba King” by fans, who sometimes ask him to sign their boba tea cups.
For Wu, it reminds him of bonding with his father when he was young – when they would go and get boba tea together.
“Boba for me has always been very nostalgic,” he said.
He’s keen to grow the sport of MMA in Taiwan, perhaps by opening gyms and other ventures there, and says he’s taken a lot of inspiration from the fact that Zuckerberg is still striving to learn new skills and to produce innovative products.
“It’s very inspirational. And I lately I’ve been catching this bug to start businesses myself,” he said.
“Him being a businessman going into fighting; maybe I can reverse engineer that thought process and can make something work too.”
But foremost in his mind right now is his own fighting.
And while he aspires to win titles, he notes that most champions are often quickly forgotten and says his real aim is to fulfil his own potential and continue striving towards unattainable perfection.
“I think I’ve been fighting like 50 to 60 percent of my real potential and what I mean by that isn’t that I’m holding back, it’s that I’m a late bloomer. I haven’t found my exact stride yet but in my last couple of fights, I’m slowly putting the pieces together,” he said.
“It took it took me a while, but being a late bloomer isn’t necessarily bad, it just means you get better as time goes on.”