UFC Champion Zhang Hopes to Inspire Young Women

March 7, 2020
By Wang LiEditor: Wei Xuanyi

Zhang Weili became the first-ever Chinese UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) champion after scoring a technical knockout (TKO) over Brazilian Jessica Andrade — in 42 seconds – during a UFC Fight Night in Shenzhen, China, on August 31, 2019. "I am very happy, and I have worked very hard to get to this platform. I hope, through my personality, I can inspire more young women to be strong, and to follow their dreams," Zhang said.

Becoming the Best

Zhang was born in a small village in Handan, in northern China's Hebei Province, in 1990. Her parents were coal miners. When she was a child, she looked stronger than the boys her age.

At the request of Zhang, who was 12 at the time, her parents enrolled her in a local martial arts school. As one of the few girls in the school, Zhang had to overcome the tough training regimen, and the tough living conditions. It was common for her, a new arrival, to get hurt and bleed during training.

Zhang, who had thought she was good at fighting, was upset after she realized many of the other students performed better than she. However, Zhang never thought about leaving the school.

"I believe only if you can stand the hardest of hardships can you hope to become the best one," says Zhang. As a result, she trained hard, and she became one of the school's best students in sanda, a combat sport, with origins from Chinese kung fu, and which combines punching, kicking and wrestling. At the age of 14, Zhang won a competition, and became youth sanda champion, in Hebei Province.

Students of the martial arts school who make outstanding achievements in sanda usually have several options after they graduate: Join the armed police, join a professional sanda team, or attend college. Zhang in 2005 chose to join the provincial sanda team in Nanjing, in East China's Jiangsu Province.

Never Give Up

Injuries are natural enemies of athletes. In 2008, Zhang suffered a serious waist injury before she was scheduled to compete in the National Sanda Championship . She was unable to participate in training and the competition, and that injury and missed competition almost destroyed her career. Zhang's family advised her to quit fighting to ensure she recovered faster. She left the team and returned to her hometown.

After she stayed at home for a period, Zhang moved to Beijing to look for a job. She worked as a kindergarten teacher, and then as a cashier in a hotel. She felt her dream of competing in martial arts was slipping away.

"I still want to fight!" Zhang told her brother, who visited her in Beijing. "Then you should find a way to do what you like. After all, you have learned martial arts for so many years," Zhang's brother encouraged her.

In 2010, Zhang went to a gym, in Beijing, to apply for the receptionist's position. She was surprised to see a ring. She asked the manager if she could practice fighting when there were no guests. The manager said yes, and Zhang agreed to take the job, and to begin work the next day. She was so excited that she even forgot to ask about her salary.

Zhang usually began work in the afternoon. But she got up at 6 a.m. every morning, and she traveled an hour and a half on subway to get to the gym to train. She was also the last person to leave the gym at night, as she practiced late into the night.

At that time, Chinese MMA (mixed martial arts) male athletes, including Zhang Tiequan and Wu Haotian, participated in UFC competitions. Founded in 1993, the UFC is the world's premier MMA organization.

One day, Zhang was Wu's sparring partner. Cai Xuejun, one of the first group of Chinese MMA managers, watched Zhang help Wu train.

"I found that Zhang, a 1.6-meter-tall woman, was not afraid of combating with a much stronger man athlete. Her explosiveness was impressive," Cai recalls. He felt Zhang could become a promising fighter, if he could use his experience training MMA athletes to train her.

Gradually, some women's MMA mini-events were held in China. Cai got Zhang into a competition in 2013. She lost her first MMA bout, mainly because she lacked experience.

Zhang didn't lose faith in herself. She posted on Weibo, "I believe that if I don't give up, and if I learn from the failure, I can finally stand in the UFC ring."

Cai told her she must quit her job and concentrate on training if she wanted to win competitions. As a result, Zhang quit her job at the gym and became a professional MMA athlete.

Unfortunately, Zhang injured her waist during training. For nine months, Zhang couldn't run, and she couldn't jump. Cai took Zhang to his club to teach her how to do recovery training, and to prepare and eat nutritionally balanced meals.

The Championship

With Cai's help, Zhang recovered and resumed training. Once, during training, she accidentally kicked the bone above her coach's eye, which caused him to bleed. She tried to stop the training, but her coach insisted she continue. She cried, but finished the training session. Zhang said, "The people around me are working so hard. I have no reason to relax."

She signed with Kunlun Fight, a Chinese kick-boxing promotion, in 2015. Kunlun Fight debuted in 2014, and is now regarded as one of the top kick-boxing promotions in the world.

Zhang had 16 wins and two Kunlun titles — strawweight and flyweight — by the time she turned 27. Her endless efforts and unbearable pain suffered were behind her wins.

In May 2018, Zhang finally became one of UFC's signed athletes.

Zhang believes the greatest mercy is beating one's opponent as soon as possible, to reduce the risk and extent of the opponent's injuries. After she signed with UFC, Zhang won three straight fights, and in March 2019 became a top-10-ranked fighter in the UFC's strawweight division.

Even so, some famous UFC contestants didn't want to fight Zhang because they did not feel she was famous enough. They believed defeating her would not benefit them, but that losing to her would leave them humiliated.

One day, in June 2019, Cai told Zhang, "You're going to compete against UFC champion Jessica Andrade, as decided by the draw." That night, Zhang was too excited to fall asleep. She just wanted to get up and train. She had regarded Andrade, the Brazilian MMA queen, as an imaginary rival for many years. She was finally going to fight her in the ring.

During a UFC match, the players are pitted against each other in an octagon ring, which looks a lot like an octagon cage. So, the competition is also known as cage fighting.

The match was held in Shenzhen Universiade Sports Center, in Shenzhen, China. Before the match started, Andrade stared at Zhang, who was on the other side of the cage. "Cai told me I should stare at her too. Then I did. I stared at her so intensely that I could even eat her. Ha ha!" Zhang recalls.

Zhang entered that fight as the underdog; however, after a flurry of devastating knees, elbows and punches, Zhang defeated Andrade with the TKO. The fight lasted a mere 42 seconds. Zhang won the UFC World Strawweight Championship. The win was her 20th in a row. She became China's and Asia's first-ever UFC world champion.

"My name is Zhang Weili," Zhang said in her post-fight interview. "I'm from China. Remember me!"

Immediately after her victory, millions of messages from netizens, all over the world, made the unassuming Zhang a hot topic online, and many Chinese began to take an interest in the burgeoning MMA sport, and in UFC events. As a fighter, Zhang helped expand the sport's popularity in China, with a dominant 2019, and she was named the 2019 Yahoo Sports Female MMA Fighter of the Year.

Zhang has become a role model for Chinese fighters, and she has become a role model for young girls. "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," says Zhang.


(Women of China English Monthly February 2020 issue)

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