Zhang Weili - Who is this Champion?

In her last fight, UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion Zhang Weili successfully defended her title at UFC 248 against high-output striker Joanna Jedrzejczyk in what has been called the best women's fight in UFC history.

Zhang is relatively unknown compared to most UFC champions – in part because she only recently became champion in just her fourth UFC fight, and in part because no one in the U.S. saw her win the belt. Her championship victory was broadcast from China at 6 am, ET on August 31, 2019 – a Saturday on Labor Day weekend when most MMA fans, including yours truly, were drooling into their pillows.

After rubbing the sleep out of my eyes and turning on my phone to check the fight stats, I was surprised to learn that Zhang had not only defeated UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion Jessica Andrade, who was a two-to-one favorite to win, but also convincingly TKO’d Andrade after only 42 seconds of the first round.

Who is this new champion?  

Weili “Magnum” Zhang is an adaptable, determined athlete born August 13, 1989 in Handan, Hebei, China. She is the first ever Chinese and East Asian champion in the UFC. At age six, she began studying with a kung fu master who taught children. She developed strength and endurance by swimming, running, and competing in track-and-field events. As a young girl, Zhang loved super heroes; Spider-Man was her favorite, even though he didn’t wear a cape, which she was fond of wearing as a child.

Similar to a superhero, Zhang had a reputation for being kind, brave, and tough, and she would defend her friends from bullies – boy or girl bullies – it didn’t matter. She watched movies and saw kung fu masters leaping from tree to tree, and she wanted to fly like they did. Her mother often played with her by digging a hole in the ground, and then Zhang would jump up and out of the hole, as though she could fly. And then her mother would dig the hole deeper, so Zhang could further test her abilities by leaping out of it again and again.

At age eight, Zhang asked her parents if she could attend a martial arts boarding school, instead of a school with a regular curriculum. Her typically supportive parents said she was too young, but at age 12 they allowed her to attend the school, where she studied Sanda (Chinese kickboxing) and Suai Jiao (wrestling).

At age 17, Zhang incurred a back injury. At the time – 2006 – few people were making a living at martial arts; UFC did not broadcast its first women’s fight until 2013. Zhang’s injury prompted her caring parents to realize a future occupation in martial arts was unlikely. Because she had missed too much regular curriculum due to her martial arts training, they enrolled their daughter, who always wore short hair and pants and never wore a dress, into beauty and hairstylist school.

Zhang detested the idea, but she was confident in her ability to adapt to any situation. She persuaded her parents to allow her to move to Beijing, where she could live close to her brother, instead of going to beauty school. She got a job as a hotel clerk in Beijing, working 12-hour night shifts, sleeping during the day, and training – lifting weights and running – in the afternoon.

Zhang was determined to work her way back to martial arts, so she found a job working in the reception office of a gym. She literally lived at the gym for two years, sleeping in a room behind it and “learning to fly” (her words), as she ran, trained, and hit the heavy bags. Although Zhang describes herself as “shy outside the ring,” she was so enthusiastic about the gym that she took on a role as a salesperson and was very successful at it.  

On February 23, 2013, Zhang watched the first ever UFC women’s fight on TV, as Ronda Rousey defended her title against Liz Carmouche at UFC 157. In June, 2013, Zhang posted a comment on Weibo (Chinese social media platform) that read: “As long as I don’t give up, I will stand in the UFC ring one day.”

Zhang left her job at the gym, so she could dedicate herself to full-time MMA training. Shortly afterward she encountered more adversity. She lost her first MMA fight and then, after her second fight, she injured her waist during training. The pain was so severe and enduring that she could not walk straight or sleep, and she had to completely end her training. In order to continue learning, Zhang watched other fighters train while she cried in pain from the corner. She entered rehabilitation, but it did not help.

Zhang was unable to train for more than six months before fate intervened. The manager of her old gym unexpectedly called her; he was able to introduce her to better doctors, who put her on the path to recovery. While Zhang was still recuperating, she and her former gym manager worked together to demolish and rebuild an old boxing gym. Zhang viewed the teardown and reconstruction project as a metaphor for her own renovation.

By 2015, Zhang was ready to fight again. For the next two years, Zhang fought more often than once every two months – 13 fights – and won convincingly every time with 12 finishes (92%); nine by KO/TKO and three by submission. During the two-year stretch, she won three Chinese MMA titles and caught the eye of the UFC.  

On August 4, 2018, more than five years after Zhang’s prediction, she stood in the UFC octagon for the first time.

It was a bumpy road to her first UFC match. She was scheduled to fight Danielle Taylor in Los Angeles, but the visas of her entire coaching team were denied. Zhang was barely able to speak any English and she had to travel to L.A. and prepare for her first UFC fight by herself. She ate nothing on the day of the fight, drinking only a single cup of coffee. Although her first UFC fight “wasn’t pretty” (her words), somehow Zhang managed to win by unanimous decision.

Zhang won her next two UFC fights, defeating Jessica Aguilar and Tecia Torres, before taking the belt from Jessica Andrade. In her first four UFC fights, Zhang out-struck her opponents 214 to 77 with a takedown count of 4 to 0. Since losing her first professional fight nearly seven years ago, Zhang has amassed 20 consecutive wins, finishing 17 of them (85%) and winning championship titles in four professional leagues.

In an article Zhang wrote for The Players Tribune, entitled Be Water, My Friend, she said:

People often ask why I am so aggressive in the ring. Everything I have I worked so hard for, everything I have fought to overcome — the injuries, the rehab, the pain, the tears — comes down to those few minutes in the ring. So once you are there you do not want to just run around. You want to fight, to show who you are, to silence the doubters. You want to repay those who believe in you.

Zhang is blessed with three gifts that have enabled her to overcome adversity in her journey to becoming champion. One is external – the love and support of her family and friends – and two are intrinsic to who she is: her adaptability and determination.  

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