TORONTO — After being drafted by the B.C. Lions, Paul (Typhoon) Cheng remembers being on the field at B.C. Place and looking up high into the stands at the $10 seats he used to occupy as fan.
"Hard work does pay off," Cheng remembers thinking. "It (pro football) didn’t last very long but it’s a memory I’ll always remember for the rest of my life."
Now the 34-year-old from Coquitlam, B.C., is looking at another sporting journey. The former defensive tackle has signed a six-fight exclusive contract with the Asia-based One Fighting Championship.
Cheng (3-1) is a fledgling MMA fighter but he has great appeal to One FC. Raised in Taiwan — he came to Canada when he was nine — he speaks fluent Mandarin.
Plus he is a heavyweight, adding to a One FC weight class that currently consists of former UFC champions Andrei Arlovski and Tim (Maine-iac) Sylvia and jiu-jitsu star Rolles Gracie and former King of the Cage cruiserweight champion Tony Bonello.
Cheng, who expects to make his One FC debut this summer, recalls watching Arlovski and Sylvia fight for the UFC title back in 2006.
"There’s a distinct possibility that I might be getting onto the cage with one of those guys pretty soon," he said with wonder in his voice.
Coach Sal Ram says Cheng has the tools to impress.
"What makes him special is he’s a gentle giant," said Ram, who runs Clinch MMA in Burnaby B.C.
"He’s a very nice guy. He’s such a respectful person, a very humble person," Ram continued. "But when it comes down to it, he’s got this switch which he can just turn on and boom, he just becomes a caged animal. That’s a really rare commodity in an athlete."
Going from football to MMA was a tougher transition than Cheng thought. In football, you hit high gear for 20 seconds then get a rest.
"MMA wasn’t that way. I had to rebuild my whole training system," he said.
He took up running, "and being a defensive lineman we don’t like to run," he said with a laugh.
As a defensive lineman, the six-foot-three Cheng weighed 285 pounds. As an MMA fighter, he has slimmed down to 256.
Cheng is still new to MMA, using his savings to finance full-time training the last two years. A former financial consultant, he saw it as an investment in himself.
In addition to Ram, Cheng has former UFC and Pride fighter Denis Kang on his side. Born in Saint Pierre & Miquelon to a Korean father and French mother, Kang went on to fight around the world including South Korea.
"He’s been taking me under his wing. I’m very grateful," said Cheng.
While Cheng only has four fights under his belt, he says none were gimmes. And the last two took him to enemy territory.
He knocked out Ryan Hunter last November at AFC 12: Domination in Calgary. And he stopped Eric Barrak in May 2012 at Ringside MMA 13: The St. Patrick’s Day Beatdown in Montreal.
Cheng, who says his face has a tendency to swell when hit, showed he can take a punch against Hunter. His right eye was almost closed when he wobbled the Calgary fighter with a right to the chin and then put him away on the ground.
"Playing football I’ve been hit all my life," Cheng said.
Cheng’s one loss was at AFC 7 in November 2011 when he was submitted via arm-triangle choke by Peter Nolan. It was a loss that convinced him to get serious about jiu-jitsu.
After arriving from Taiwan, Cheng attended Chaminade College School in Toronto. He recalls turning on the TV and watching the Buffalo Bills, falling in love with football.
"In Asia there was no such game," he said. "I was fortunate to move to Canada."
Cheng wrestled and played football at Simon Fraser University, picking up a degree in economics along the way.
At SFU, he was a NAIA All-American in his final year before being drafted sixth overall by B.C. in the 2002 CFL draft.
It had been his dream to play pro football. But it wasn’t an easy road.
"Like my Mom told me when I was a kid, ‘Watch the TV. Have you ever seen a Chinese kid on the field?"’
Cheng did not catch on with the Lions, who put him on the practice roster three-quarters of the way through the 2002 season. The next season, he went to training camp in Calgary where he was cut after a new coach brought in new linemen.
He dabbled with the Canadian bobsled team before stints with the Arena Football League’s Colorado Crush and the Alouettes.
He was cut in camp by Montreal before the first pre-season game in 2005.
"As an athlete you lose your confidence," he said. "I was like 24, 25 years old and I just had it. I couldn’t find a home, just going team to team, place to place. I never felt like I fit in."
"I got a shot. That’s all I can ask for," he concluded.
The football failure rankled.
"For a long time in my life, because I was a first-round draft pick, it’s hard to live with yourself in terms of you were a good athlete and all of a sudden you’re what they might call a bust."
Still he says he has no regrets. The CFL provided him with "a lot of life experience" and exposed him to competition at a high level.
That experience, he says, has helped him deal with the pressures of climbing into a cage to fight.
After football, he got a day job working at the Royal Bank as a financial consultant.
"I found office work wasn’t for me," he explained.
Cheng ended up getting work as a stuntman, appearing in the two "Night at the Museum" films.
Asian stuntmen encouraged him to get into martial arts.
His journey into combat sports involved Ram, who now serves as Cheng’s coach. Cheng used to watch him fight and occasionally joined Ram in his boxing training.
At the time, Cheng wasn’t taken by jiu-jitsu — "I didn’t really like rolling around with sweaty guys."
He started boxing in 2006, eventually going 3-1 as a pro. But he says while he enjoyed the ring he realized that it was a sport that required starting young.
"I just wanted to find something where I could make to a high-level quickly and MMA was what I found," he said.
Ram says Cheng spends long hours at his gym, honing his skills. But he finds time to participate in a weekly MMA outreach program for troubled youth in the Vancouver area.
There is a fellow Canadian at One FC in CEO Victor Cui.
The organization, which debuted in September 2011, has held shows in Indonesia, Kuala Lumpur, the Philippines and Singapore.
The next card, titled Rise to Power, is set for May 31 in Manila.
The most recent show, April 5 in Singapore featured fighters from Australia, Brazil, France, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Thailand and the U.S.