Of today’s most successful businesspeople, Mark Zuckerberg stands out as one who invests time, energy and resources to pursue a personal sport. In July, the chief executive of Meta earned his blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, drawing celebration from fans who follow his journey as an athlete.
Helping Zuckerberg achieve success, however, are athletes charting their own paths in martial arts. His lead trainer, Khai “The Shadow” Wu, is set to debut in the Professional Fighters League (PFL) in November.
Wu recently sat down with NextShark to share a bit about himself, what training Zuckerberg is like and how he is prepping for the next chapter of his professional life — while looking back at those who have supported him in his journey as an Asian American fighter.
The making of a fighter
Wu was born in San Jose, California, to Taiwanese immigrant parents. He started developing an interest in martial arts at the age of 9 and turned to the sport to help him improve his confidence.
“I wasn’t very confident. I got bullied [in middle school] a little bit,” Wu, now 28, tells NextShark. “I decided that if I learned martial arts, it would help me with my confidence.”
Wu’s brother-in-law, Dave Camarillo — who is also Zuckerberg’s coach — served as his first jiu-jitsu instructor. Wu briefly attended college before realizing that it was not for him.
“I envy a lot of people who are able to complete college, because it was tough for me,” he admits. “I wasn’t always book smart. It just wasn’t for me. Then I drifted into MMA somehow, some way.”
Wu’s professional career began in his ancestral home of Taiwan in 2014. He earned his nickname, “The Shadow,” from a spectator after his first Muay Thai fight.
“Someone came up to me and they’re like, ‘It’s like you’re there, but you’re not, and then every single thing your opponent does, you do it back to him, but he can’t hit you with it. It’s almost like you’re a shadow.’”
A huge fan of comic books, Wu seemed to consider his favorite superhero — Batman — for a nickname. But he knew he could not give himself his own alias, so “The Shadow” made the perfect fit.
“I said it in Mandarin, and then in English, and I sat on it for five minutes. And I was like, ‘Man, that’s the one.’ So it stuck and it fits my fighting style very well.”
With a current record of 7-4, Wu says his proudest accomplishment thus far is being able to help grow Taiwan’s MMA scene. There, he has appeared on posters, given a TED talk and delivered speeches at TED companies. He gets recognized when he’s out, and some fans have even treated him to boba.
“I’ve never made my parents very proud. But when I go back now and I have a fight and then we’re going out to eat dinner, sometimes I get recognized. And it’s not like I feel I’m a star or anything, because I’m not very egotistical in that sense. But it’s [a] proud [moment] for me when I go to a boba shop, and my dad’s next to me and they’re [fans] like, ‘Here’s some free boba. I love your son. He’s a great fighter.’ This and that. My dad’s just shocked. He’s like, ‘Never would I have thought.’ Those moments make me proud and that all stems from me competing and fighting.”
Training Mark Zuckerberg
Aside from his own professional path, Wu is known for being Zuckerberg’s lead MMA trainer. The Meta founder and CEO first introduced Wu as his training partner last September.
When asked about their first encounter, Wu jokes that he just slid into Zuckerberg’s DMs. The reality, however, is that he was picked to train the tech mogul, and it was all a group effort.
“The truth is he [Zuckerberg] actually was probably seeking martial arts training,” Wu recalls. “I ended up getting picked to train him because I think we just worked really well together. It was a group effort. And he’s just like a regular student, a regular client, like anyone who wants to do martial arts.”
Wu says he has trained Zuckerberg in just about everything, including jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai and MMA. He describes a typical training session as “very basic,” with him showing up and teaching from the curriculum at Guerrilla Jiu-Jitsu, their training academy.
When asked what he finds most interesting about Zuckerberg, Wu says it’s that the tech mogul always tries to learn something new. He also lauds Zuckerberg for “training hard” and being “super nice.”
“He [Zuckerberg] still chose to learn something new and even competed in martial arts. I’m sure he’s super busy and has a company to run, but he still makes time. That’s probably what makes him so successful. Always learning new skills.”
Like the rest of social media, Wu has caught wind of the widely reported, hypothetical cage match between Zuckerberg and fellow tech billionaire Elon Musk. He says he believes it’s not happening, “but if Mark were to fight, I’d be there ready to get him ready for anything.”
As a trainer, Wu says the most fulfilling part is being able to watch his clients grow and get better. He also learns from teaching and finds inspiration from his students’ motivation.
“Training with Mark, in particular, is very motivating to me, because even with how busy he is, he finds time,” Wu says. “I catch myself sometimes thinking ‘I’m too busy,’ but then I remember he makes the time, so I should too.”
For now, Wu and Zuckerberg’s training has been paused as Wu prepares for his debut in the Professional Fighters League (PFL). He is set to fight in November.
Debuting in the PFL
The Professional Fighters League (PFL) is currently the world’s No. 2 MMA company, but also the fastest-growing in the field. It is the only MMA league with a sports-season format, where individual fighters compete in a regular season, playoffs and championships each year — making it a “win and advance” meritocracy like all other major sports leagues.
Wu received an invitation from the PFL after winning a certain match. After being presented with the best deal, he signed with them in June.
“At the end of the day, I would love to fight for as many promotions as possible,” Wu says. “But PFL is really unique. They’re the only MMA promotion that does a tournament format. So for me, it was very interesting.”
The PFL’s fighter roster hails from over 20 countries. A quarter of them are independently ranked in the top 25 of their weight class.
Wu is slated to debut at this year’s PFL World Championship, which will take place at The Anthem in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 24. He will face Phil “The Hitman” Caracappa, who currently holds a 10-3 record.
In terms of preparation, Wu says he is “doing things a little differently.” But he still trains with the mindset of not focusing on a singular opponent.
“I don’t want to get fixated on one style, so I’m doing my best to prepare for a really, really tough opponent that can challenge me on the feet or on the ground, striking or grappling. I’m just trying to prepare to be in the best shape of my life. That way, when I go into the fight, I don’t have to worry about getting tired.”
As an Asian American fighter, Wu says he has sacrificed a lot to get to where he is. He also describes his journey as being “very lonely.”
“I’m not necessarily gifted physically, like with speed and power,” he says. “So for me, I had to put in the extra credit to get to where I am, so it’s definitely very tough.”
He also attributes his success to perseverance:
“And I’d say the only difference between me and someone that’s more talented than me who didn’t make it was the sacrifice. I made a lot of sacrifices, and I stuck to this. After two or three years of hardship, a lot of people fall off. And regardless of whether or not you’re a religious person — which I’m not trying to push — there’s a saying in Mandarin that states: ‘When you ask the heavens for what you want, they will give you a test to see if you can accomplish it and grasp it.’ So whatever your task, whatever gifts you want, you have a test to see if you’re equipped to handle it.”
And while he now gets recognized in public and receives free boba, Wu has not let stardom get to his head.
“I don’t think I’ve changed too much from where I was back then as an amateur. I still treat the janitor the same way I would a CEO. You’ve got to treat everyone as nice as possible. What happens is a lot of people go through this journey and they get jaded, and they become different. By then they kind of lose a part of themselves… You have to stay on the right track.”
Due to COVID-19, Wu was not able to visit Taiwan for three years. However, he has returned more frequently after the easing of the pandemic, with his last fight there taking place in February.
Interestingly, Wu is not only known as “The Shadow” in Taiwan. There, he has also earned the moniker “The Boba King” for his love of bubble tea, whose history can be traced back to the island.
He cites an experience in which people lined up to give him the popular drink:
“I was just joking around once saying anyone who brings me a free boba will get a free shirt. I got like 20 boba drinks at the end of the night. It was just a joke, but people actually came into the back locker room as I was changing, and there was a line of them with boba. The worker that was in the back was like, ‘Hey Khai, are these all your family? Who are these people?’ I’m like, ‘No way people did actually take me seriously!’ But it was so cool. I gave everyone shirts.”
As an athlete, Wu understands that taking time to rest is just as important as working hard. Aside from frequenting boba shops, he enjoys having hotpot with family and friends, reading comic books, watching comedian friends and catching up on his favorite shows.
“I love Marvel, DC, ‘Star Wars.’ I definitely love picking up on my shows because when I’m not training, I’m doing a lot of recovery work on the side,” he shares. “And I’m also trying to stay healthy. I don’t go clubbing at all, I actually don’t drink at all, alcohol or anything like that. Not to say if someone drinks it, it’s bad on them. I just mean I personally don’t just because I need to put in that much more extra credit.”
As Wu prepares for his big fight, he said he wants fans to remember that he is a work in progress. He thanks all of them for their continuous support.
“I always tell people I’m a late bloomer, you know? I’m just getting started. So I get better as time goes on. There’s a lot of people who have helped me along this journey. If I didn’t have their help, I wouldn’t have gotten here. So I thank them a lot.
“I’m not the greatest fighter and the best fighter right now, but I’m going to continue to get better and evolve. So thank you for joining me in this journey and being patient with me. Whatever I get back, I’m going to try to pass it on tenfold and inspire more people. And it just means a lot to me that there’s so many people that are giving me their time to listen to me talk or ask me a couple questions. That means a lot to me, because I never would have thought I would be a person that people would want to hear talk, because I’ve always been very shy. So thank you to everyone.”
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