This Saturday’s UFC 261 event in Jacksonville will be the first in front of a full-capacity crowd since UFC 248 last March. It’s more of a coincidence that Zhang Weili was featured on both of those cards—the strawweight champion might have fought sooner if circumstances had permitted—but she’s not the least bit unhappy that she managed to duck the pandemic-induced, crowd-free events of the last year.
“I love the connection and chemistry between myself and the fans,” she explains via interpreter. “I love to fight when a lot of people are watching. I’m really excited right now.”
We’re excited, too. Without hyperbole, her last outing vs Joanna Joanna Jędrzejczyk was one of the great martial arts contests of all-time, and it’s still seared in the memory of fight fans across the globe. A wild, back-and-forth, razor-close spectacle of elite athleticism, it was a shoo-in for Fight of the Year less than three months into 2020, and it vaulted the champion into a new echelon of global stardom.
“The past 12 months I have been training consistently, but life has still been getting busier because I have a lot of promotional, commercial stuff to do,” she explains as if it’s a bit of a mixed blessing. But there is a silver lining.
“After the last fight, more people started to recognize me and get familiar with the sport. So this is a really good thing.”
It’s good not only for Zhang’s personal profile, but it also shone a light on the evolution of Chinese MMA as a whole. Three athletes from the UFC Academy Combine (Rongzhu, Liang Na and Aoriqileng) of the Performance Institute in Shanghai will make their UFC debuts Saturday. As the champion at the helm, Zhang is proud of what they represent.
Rise of Zhang Weili
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Rise of Zhang Weili
“I’m really happy those fighters are on the same card with me. It shows how China’s MMA has really developed a lot. I hope in the future there will be more young generations who come to fight in the UFC and show how great Chinese athletes are.”
Objectively, Zhang has been great over the course of her career to date. Her only loss was her professional debut in 2013, followed by 21 consecutive wins. She captured strawweight gold just four fights into her UFC career with a first-round TKO of Jessica Andrade.
“Speed, strength, the way I use my body…I’ve improved all of those abilities,” she explains of her development. “Sometimes when I would finish training, I would think that I hadn’t made any progress. But once I looked back at the training footage from years ago, I saw that I had improved a lot. I just keep the focus on myself, keep improving, keep training hard. This time you guys will definitely see a different version.”
That different version is due partly from having a year to prepare, and partly due to having her training largely in one location. Prior to UFC 248, with COVID restrictions complicating matters, Zhang was forced to move her camp from China to Thailand to Dubai en route to the fight night in Las Vegas. She was determined to avoid such instability this time around.
“Compared to the last fight, this training camp is way less stressful. I have a friend in Tallahassee, Florida that provided a place for me to train. Basically, it was like quarantine, except outside. I got back to my normal daily schedule: just train, eat and sleep.”
The training, of course, is for Rose Namajunas. The former champ knows all about how to get the belt and how to hold onto it. Given the manner in which it escaped her grasp, she’s certain to be dialed in for this opportunity. Zhang understands what she’s in for.
“Rose is a very well-rounded fighter. She has great grappling skills, great footwork, great boxing. And she’s very fast.”
In describing her opponent, Zhang could also be describing herself. Or Jędrzejczyk. Or Andrade. Given the split decision margin of her last win, Zhang fully understands that staying atop the strawweight elite is literally a game of inches.
“There’s not much difference between this fight and the last two…I believe all the fighters in the top five are very good fighters, it just depends on what your game plan is for them.”