However, nobody would’ve guessed that a women’s strawweight competitor would lead the way, as former UFC champion Weili Zhang has undoubtedly put her native country on the map.
The excitement of Chinese fight fans couldn’t be contained when Zhang obliterated her opponent Jessica Andrade inside the Shenzhen Universiade Sports Centre Arena to become the first Chinese born UFC champion. Success for Zhang resulted in the world’s most reputable MMA organization crowning the first-ever Chinese fighter as a champion whilst inspiring a plethora of up-and-coming Chinese athletes to realize the dream is possible.
Zhang isn’t the first Chinese fighter to compete for the UFC, but there’s no denying that her influence has been the most significant. The most talented handicappers couldn’t have predicted that in 42-seconds, Zhang would take Andrade’s title, but it was a lifelong dedication to the sport of martial arts that led her into this position. When looking at the odds it is easy to see why many experts had her favored in her last fight despite losing to her opponent recently. Many believed she just had an off night and got caught. An expression used in fighting to indicate the opponent got lucky. One should always check the sports picks before and of Zhang’s fight as she is still considered on the women’s top fighters in her weight class. Zhang’s tenure amongst the elite of MMA began in 2013 when making her professional debut, but life as a martial artist began years prior.
Zhang Weili made history when she became the first Chinese champion in UFC history!— UFC on BT Sport (@btsportufc) April 21, 2021
Her 42 second KO of Jessica Andrade nearly took the roof at the arena! Incredible!#UFC261 | Saturday | BT Sport 1 HD pic.twitter.com/kWg8rtxxS5
Born in north China’s Hebei Province, Zhang’s interest in martial arts shouldn’t come as a surprise when considering her hometown of Handan City is the epicentre of the Yang Family Taichi – a popular version of Chinese Kung Fu.
At the tender age of 12-years-old, Zhang was initially introduced to Sanda (Wushu Sanshou), the Chinese adaptation of kickboxing. Her involvement in full-contact Chinese self-defence soon became her goal to achieve a world-renowned reputation as a master in her craft.
“I trained traditional Chinese martial arts and Sandra when I was a child for as long as I can remember,” Zhang told Fighters Only during an interview.
“It was my parents who introduced martial arts to me and encouraged me to learn how to defend myself. I was born in Hebei, Handan, a place famous for Taichi. Still, I loved Sanda, a Chinese form of kickboxing that combines traditional kickboxing techniques with wrestling, takedowns, throws, sweeps, and kick catches. In some competitions, even elbow and knee strikes.
“I competed in Sanda for a long time, but then I suffered a serious back injury and retired. I then started working in a gym in Beijing and got to know the first generation of MMA fighters in China. Watching them train every day made me realize that I still had the fire to become a professional fighter, so I then started to train MMA after work.”
Zhang was fortunate that her main support system was her parents, as those around her weren’t always supportive. Many believed, as a girl, she was destined to be quiet instead of taking part in “violent” sports.
“If you have a dream, you should pursue it,” Zhang said.
This perspective paid off in the end; following countless dead-end jobs working as a cashier, a kindergarten teacher, a hotel clerk, and multiple part-time jobs, she never once steered away from believing in her MMA abilities.
Zhang trained and worked for a local gym in Beijing; thanks to inspirations such as Ronda Rousey, she eventually quit her side jobs and became a full-time martial artist.
“When I saw Ronda Rousey become UFC champion in 2013, I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” Zhang said. “I loved everything about the way she represented herself, and I realized when she won the UFC belt that this is what I wanted and that I also wanted to be UFC champion.
“Shortly after Ronda won that fight, I went and resigned from my job in the gym and became a full-time fighter,” she added. “This meant I could focus 100% on my fighting.”
China MMA was the promotion in which Zhang made her professional debut, almost twelve years of dedication had finally paid off, but this was merely the beginning of her rise to superstardom. Four years after competing on the Chinese regional scene, a UFC contract was offered.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship is the pinnacle of MMA fight promotions; founded in 1993, the UFC has boasted 70 champions, with the majority of those title winners stemming from the United States of America. No martial artists from the Asian continent had ever succeeded in winning the belt; until August 2019.
Zhang’s title-winning moment has inspired an entire nation. Unlike many who’ve followed her footsteps, Zhang prefers to adopt the Chinese philosophy that martial arts is not just a competitive sport but also an educational tool. Zhang believes the sport can teach the younger generation in overcoming general life setbacks.
“If they win, they will be more confident; if they lose, they will be encouraged to think about how to defeat their opponents next time. Martial arts can toughen your body and mind and can shape one’s personality,” she said.
Zhang’s meteoric rise in the sport has also heightened her influence on young girls, perhaps the most essential aspect of her popularity gain. “I think girls are equal to boys. Girls can achieve what boys can. Girls have many possibilities. You should not be simply defined as gentle or weak; you can also be brave, hardworking, persistent, and independent. Never let those ‘titles’ define or limit you.” Zhang added.
The odds have often been stacked against Zhang; through determination and a solid work ethic, she’s achieved the goals once deemed unobtainable for women’s mixed martial artists – a true inspiration and a history book moment for Chinese MMA.