In the modern era of mixed martial arts, there are many different reasons one could find themselves attracted to this sport that is the purest form of combat.
For every different country, every different person, what it is that piques their interest compared to another might not be identical which just goes to show the great depth that the sport can provide whether as a viewer, participant, or both.
We all look to be entertained, that could be through talk and drama fueled scenarios, wild brawls, or grappling masterclasses. The options are not limited.
When telling the story of MMA’s history, it cannot be told without going through Asia. As the arts have developed over the years, many countries provided crucial building blocks to MMA’s foundation. Ranging from locations like Japan to Korea.
However, in the modern era, some Asian countries have had fighters leave their marks with others still in the process of doing so right before our very eyes.
In the country of China, there is currently one clear face of their fighting nation and her name is Weili Zhang.
Hailing from China’s capital city of Beijing in the province of Hebei, the 29-year old Zhang has already put together a stellar career prior to her arrival in the UFC.
With a phenomenal record of 18-1, Zhang has finished her opponents in all but two of her victories. Having had her finishes come in the fashion of seven submissions and nine KO/TKOs, Zhang’s record is just one of the many testaments to her versatility and skill set.
As repetitious as a saying as it is, it remains true more often than not. In the world of MMA, losses are learned from much more than wins are. And for Zhang, her biggest learning lesson came in her professional debut.
It’s been smooth sailing ever since.
“After I lost my first fight [is when] I truly started,” Zhang told BJPenn.com when looking back to the start of her career. “I fought like an amateur and after the fight, I felt very angry. This is where I really started training MMA.
“I’m a boxer-type fighter, I spent two years fighting a total of 16 fights in 2017, I fought 11 fights a year, which I would like to thank my first tournament platform, Kunlun Fights [for]. They gave me the opportunity. Of course, I was very happy. I’m really lucky, the fight experience is very important, technique and tactics were honed in the game, it was very important.”
For the burgeoning 115-pound strawweight contender, she began her career in 2013. It wouldn’t be until 2015 where she found herself in the aforementioned Kunlun Fights promotion where she really established herself as someone to keep an eye on.
As great of a platform as Kunlun Fights was for Zhang, as they helped her grow into the fighter she is today, it wasn’t the end all be all and she was well aware of that.
“UFC is very professional,” Zhang said. “This is the world all MMA athletes aspire to reach as a platform. Like how all basketball players want to play in the NBA, for me it’s the same [with the UFC]. My coach, the team and I, everything is ready.”
Fast forward to August 2018 and China’s finest was set to make their debut inside a new cage.
UFC 227 will forever be a special event for Weili Zhang as it’s the one she made her UFC debut at when she squared off with Danielle Taylor.
In typical unpredictable MMA fashion, the biggest moment of her career wouldn’t go without some struggles that forced adaptation in unknown territory.
“It was very unfortunate that for my first UFC show I did not have my coach and my team when I came to America, my trainer’s Visa was denied four times in a month,” Zhang shared as she reflected on her UFC debut. “Eventually, they did not get to the fight, which really was a very big challenge for me as for the first time in my life to be on such a big event platform fight for the first time in the United States, the first time away from home so far…
“Fortunately there were friends to help me. I’m a woman standing in an octagonal cage, I looked back and could not see a familiar face, cannot hear the familiar voice. To be honest, my state of mind changed, I just want to get [a] smooth victory, win it, I chose the most basic requirements to win on the line.
“Luckily I did,” Zhang continued. “Of course, my second UFC fight is completely different. Fighting in Beijing, China, this is my home. I was very confident to win the fight. I did it. I played to a real strength. This is me.”
Zhang would end up earning a unanimous decision over Taylor which was only the second of her career. Obviously, by her standards, we didn’t get to see the very best athlete come out and show the potential we all knew she had. Not until she got to go back home, that is.
In Zhang’s sophomore UFC appearance, she was scheduled to fight in her home of Beijing where she would take on the savvy veteran and former World Series of Fighting champion, Jessica Aguilar who was at one time argued as the No. 1 strawweight in the world. Something that might not have been believable if all you had seen was this fight…
Aguilar was surprisingly dominated from the first moment the two engaged in the clinch shortly after the fight started. A nice power takedown led to Zhang controlling the wrestler in Aguilar until she would search for the triangle choke which was eventually transitioned into an armbar.
Zhang would feed Aguilar a healthy serving of elbows throughout the whole process before forcing the former champion to submit. The Chinese takeover was only just beginning.
When it comes to the current MMA scene, specifically in North America, the general public commonly seems to find themselves most drawn towards the brash ‘noise makers’ more often than the silent assassins.
Despite that being somewhat of a new norm for the culture overseas from China, it’s still quite the opposite for Zhang who approaches the sport like a scientific encounter that pits two Shaolin warriors against one another.
“I respect each of my opponents, I think this is a basic attitude,” Zhang stated. “When the fight is finalized, me and my coaching team, as usual, the first time [we] come together to sit down and see the opponent’s past. This is a very interesting process. Targeted research and tactical training is actually a very important part of the game, every success is not accidental, it’s like playing a chess game with their rivals, the policy enforcement in every detail of the game. The victory made me more confident, better accumulation of experience.”
Going from a platform like Kunlun Fights to the UFC, it has given Zhang the grandest opportunity for ultimate exposure for herself and her country. A well known name in China thanks to Kunlun, now it’s time to become easily recognizable in America.
Her trajectory is only headed in one direction, and that’s upward. With a fantastic 18 fight winning streak, how could anything else be the case?
Also realizing that there is no need to beat around the bush, the UFC has set Zhang up with the perfect setting to have a true coming out party for fans that might not know of her just yet.
In her third UFC bout, Weili Zhang will be taking on the No. 7 ranked strawweight contender Tecia Torres on the stacked UFC 235 pay-per-view main card on March 2.
But for Zhang, it’s all what she expected.
“Yes, this is a very fast pace, Chinese fans describe me like a rocket flying up,” Zhang said. “But this is also something in my plan, in fact, I did not feel too many accidents. For Tecia Torres, she’s a hard [fight], it was she and my level of active competition and former champions that we have fought, that cannot be overlooked.
“My team and I will take the fight seriously. Our goal has always been my next fight, it will only layout for later in the game. We will try hard.”
While leading the way for all Chinese MMA fighters may not have been in Weili Zhang’s initial intentions, it’s just how things worked out due to timing and China’s slow transition from other fighting aspects to MMA.
Of course, China has plenty of talented combat sports athletes. They just are more commonly known for specific arts like Wing Chun and Sanda (Sanshou) rather than the entire melting pot that is MMA.
Zhang found herself in that same boat until MMA was discovered. Now she chases her dream of being the best while helping shine the spotlight on her country and help advance the growth.
“Our national development in MMA is relatively late, I think I’m very lucky,” Zhang said of China. “Mr. Cai Xuejun, my coach, he trained China’s first MMA athlete [who] is also China’s first and second athlete to the UFC, he has a lot of experience. I also learn from their experiences a lot, which makes me accounted for a lot cheaper *laughs*
“I have been with Sanda athletes and trained in Sanda martial aspects of the system, that was until I ran into fighting under MMA rules, I feel it’s in my blood. I have been trying to prove myself in the game, MMA can really make my dream become possible, this is my favorite and this is what I needed.
“In fact, I felt that I cannot say I was a genius,” Zhang continued. “Like, the good genius’ that do not work hard will become fools, all I have to do is work and need to redouble our efforts, and I hope I can get the belt in the UFC, and I hope I can be a role model to inspire young athletes behind me.”
Whenever somebody is the first to do something for a specific group of people, it will be hard for them not be looked up to. This is exactly how role models and idols are molded.
Because of this trendsetting that someone can be found in, pressure can be built up while going through the process. It can be a lot of responsibility and the weight of an entire country on your shoulders can sometimes be slightly too heavy to bear.
Perspective is absolutely everything though. So how can pressure be a factor if in the mind it doesn’t even exist?
“Heroes in MMA are always charismatic, achieving their victory by not only technique, but also wisdom, strategy, will, character, and courage of victory,” Zhang said. “I think this is the biggest difference in MMA for UFC events or athletes, but also something that make the sport more attractive.
“I enjoy every moment in the Octagon, I cherish every time I fight. I do not feel the pressure. I was asked if my eighteen-fight win streak will give me the same pressure. I never feel pressure. I respect my every day, every battle, every opponent. We often hear the coach say that you want to be relaxed in a fight, not tense.
“I think [feeling pressure] is nonsense,” Zhang continued. “If you are making serious efforts, effectively training, and have a good grasp of how to master the techniques and tactics you shouldn’t be nervous, how can you not be relaxed? As long as you can do that, it’s bound to pay a positive result you deserve. I think so *laughs*”
In the stacked UFC strawweight division, the wave of new talent continues to flow on in from all around the world and China is making themselves heard loud and clear.
The Black Tiger Fight Club product in Zhang is definitely a key component of the talent influx at 115-pounds, but she hasn’t done it entirely alone as the effects of Chinese fighters’ progression is already showing with her fellow near flawless countrywoman, the 10-1 Yan ‘Nine’ Xiaonan.
“I know Yan Xiaonan, we meet often,” Zhang said. “She is the same very hard working, very tough fighter. Now in China, there are many new MMA fighters that are growing very fast. The level of MMA in China, the growth speed is very fast, it is very good.”
As she shoots up the rankings with others like Xiaonan, Song Yadong, and Yanan Wu following in her footsteps, Weili Zhang knows that whenever she is granted with her title opportunity that it will be the right time.
But even as the leader of MMA’s Chinese takeover, inspirations have still been drawn prior to this culmination that awaits to erupt. Goals are always being set and reached with the higher the ladder is climbed.
“Ronda [Rousey],” Zhang answered when speaking about inspirational athletes. “I respect Rousey. I could say she is my idol, her success made me want to become a professional maximum power athlete in MMA! On February 23, 2013, at UFC 157 she headlines the main event, Rousey and Liz [Carmouche]. They staged a thrilling women’s bantamweight title fight in the sold-out Honda Stadium, it is this war, it’s heralded as the official opening of the world’s largest MMA organization to combat women athletes! Since then, I hope I can stand in that remarkable arena, in which they became a leader.
“Now when it comes to a football player, Patriots quarterback, Tom Brady. His mind is clear and calm, always critical when he appears, he is also particularly handsome *laughs*”
The sky is the limit for Chinese MMA and Weili Zhang is leaving a trail of success that acts as a prime and leading example.
At UFC 235 she will not only be looking to further engrave her name onto the list of potential future champions but also to continue aid in showing that MMA is undeniably art personified.
This article first appeared on BJPenn.com on 2/18/2019