There are 1.4 billion people in China. If they hadn’t heard of Beijing’s Zhang Weili six months ago, it’s likely that they know her now as she’s going to be the first Chinese fighter to challenge for a UFC world championship when she faces Jessica Andrade this Saturday in Shenzhen.
“My media friends told me that this was the first time that a Chinese fighter has made such a challenge for the title, so I understand that this has made history, which proves the Chinese potential in this sport of MMA,” said Zhang through a translator. “For me, personally, winning this battle was an important phase of my goal, which meant my career took on a new dimension.”
A new dimension may be an understatement, as Zhang has gone from being a talented newcomer in the UFC to the face of Chinese MMA in the space of three fights and less than 13 months. That’s a rapid rise any way you slice it, and while it’s key to point out that the 30-year-old is 19-1 as a pro with a 19-fight winning streak and hasn’t dropped out of the sky into this position, the lead-up to this historic bout has to be a bit overwhelming. Zhang disagrees.
“I feel happy in the face of the fan and media attention,: she said. “The success of MMA in China needs our joint efforts to grow and take root. In fact, an athlete needs a cool mindset in the face of growing social awareness. Everyone wants to see me in action, so I will also concentrate on training and fighting and always be grateful to myself that there is a long way to go. When your aim is clear and you crave a decisive result, it is not control or resistance to your emotions, but compliance with your actual needs.”
This cool in the eye in the storm mimics Zhang’s performances in the Octagon thus far, as she’s looked dominant in a trio of victories over Danielle Taylor, Jessica Aguilar and Tecia Torres, making the announcement of this title fight against Andrade a logical one. What was surprising, though, was that Brazil’s “Bate Estaca” agreed to make her first 115-pound title defense in Zhang’s backyard of China. Again, Zhang wasn’t surprised.
“My coach and my team and I are not surprised,” she said. “Our friends and I are familiar with this as a matter of course and have been preparing for it for a long time. Friends who may not know the game may be surprised to learn this, and I hope I will bring them more surprises.”
Those who haven’t followed Zhang’s career may consider a victory by “Magnum” to be a stunning upset, but it really wouldn’t be, as Zhang is a legitimate contender with the kind of style that could give Andrade trouble. But the Brazilian has been defying the odds for years, and when it’s fight night, she more often than not finds a second gear of aggression that is tough to hold off. Zhang intends on playing matador to Andrade’s bull, but there is still nothing but respect between the two strawweights.
“I respect every one of my opponents,” said Zhang. “Jessica is a real champion and in many ways she is the best in the industry.”
It’s a title Zhang could have to herself by Sunday morning, and then everything will change. That’s quite a heady prospect for anyone, to change their life and career in 25 minutes or less. To do it with the world watching is even harder to take in. But Zhang Weili is taking it all in and she’s focused on nothing but the fight in front of her on Saturday night.
As for Sunday…
“September 1 will be a happy Sunday,” she said. “I will sleep until I wake up naturally.”