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Lessons Of A Champion: Zhang Weili & Henry Cejudo Team Up

Former Strawweight Champion Zhang Weili Teams Up With Former Two-Division UFC Champion Henry Cejudo In Preparation For Her Title Fight Rematch Against Rose Namajunas At UFC 268

When Zhang Weili made her promotional debut at UFC 227 in August of 2018, there was no way for her to know that the outcome of the co-main event rematch for the UFC flyweight championship would end up being a source of inspiration for her later in her career.

But now, more than three years later and a matter of hours away from her rematch against UFC strawweight champion Rose Namajunas, where she will attempt to reclaim the title she lost in April, Zhang’s approach has changed for the better thanks to that fateful night at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

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“I came to the United States in advance this time, to have the fight camp at Fight Ready,” Zhang said in an interview with a handful of weeks out from UFC 268: Usman vs Covington 2. “I learned a lot of wrestling techniques with my good friend Henry Cejudo, as well as distance control, mind game, and something about mental toughness. I think it all makes me stronger.

Henry Cejudo Highlights Training Zhang Weili For Rematch | UFC 268
Henry Cejudo Highlights Training Zhang Weili For Rematch | UFC 268

“We know each other from a long time ago. He kept inviting me here to train, and he’s an outstanding guy; a two-division UFC champion and he’s also an Olympic champion. His understanding of this game, his understanding of this sport really impressed me, so I came here.”

Initially, it seemed like a random pairing, but after visiting Fight Ready MMA and Fitness in Scottsdale, Arizona and seeing the former two-division champion work alongside China’s first-ever UFC champion, it all started to make sense.

“Being able to teach and coach is something I’ve never really done before,” Cejudo said. "When it comes to the highest levels, I feel like that’s my calling. To train with the one-percenters. I feel like I can use those tweaks and turns in order to create a whole ‘nother animal — because that happened with me.

“The first time I lost to Demetrious Johnson, I knew that I had to make a bunch of tweaks and turns in my own career. I made those adjustments, but I continue to see athletes at this high level that haven’t made those adjustments yet. So that’s been something I’ve been able to share with Weili.”

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Despite Cejudo’s retirement from competition more than a year ago and the hefty language barrier, the two former champions work together beautifully, focusing on both the physical and mental side of rematches.

“I can relate to her. I was knocked out, pretty much in the first round. She was knocked out by Rose in the first round,” Cejudo said, referencing his first title shot against Demetrious Jonhson in 2016. “I told her, ‘Listen, we have to accept this. We made a mistake or something happened, but whatever it is, we have to accept this loss.’ So that’s key number one. Then, we also have to make some adjustments, because whatever got us there didn’t work. True adversity is what reveals and builds character. I told her that this world championship will be more special after you’ve defeated the person that defeated you.”

Zhang Weili and Henry Cejudo Join Forces | UFC 268
Zhang Weili and Henry Cejudo Join Forces | UFC 268

78 seconds was all that came from the first meeting between “Magnum” and “Thug” Rose Namajunas. Scheduled for a full 25 minutes, Namajunas ended the fight with a flurry of blows after a head kick knocked Zhang to the ground.

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“I think people are looking forward to seeing how you stand up when you fall down,” Zhang said. “Of course, I also look forward to that. In the last fight, I felt like it was over before it even started. In fact, in terms of techniques, no one has really demonstrated it. I hope this time we can show some real techniques. I think this rematch will definitely be an exciting fight; it will definitely display techniques in the form of being more comprehensive and complete.”

So Zhang has spent the past eight weeks training in Arizona, honing her physical and mental capacities, and acclimating to an environment similar to the one she’ll be competing in on Saturday. But regardless of which time zone or region of the world she’s in, the 32-year-old always brings the same level of drive, focus and determination.

“What I’ve seen with Weili and her competitive mentality is that she really is a machine. It’s almost like she’s the type of athlete that you want to slow down,” Cejudo said. “She’s the epitome of what every coach wants: a dedicated, consistent and humble athlete. And I’m just honored by the fact that she’s here.”

Cejudo said the biggest lesson of this phase of Zhang’s career is in proving the power that can be harnessed from the pain of loss — a lesson passed down from one former champion to another.

“She’s hurt by this, but she’s motivated by that hurt,” Cejudo said of the first loss faced by Zhang in nearly eight years. “I think when you have the right competitor who has the right chip on their shoulder, they can be unstoppable.”

Don't miss a single strike of UFC 268: Usman vs Covington 2, live from Madison Square Garden in New York City on ESPN+ on November 6, 2021. Prelims begin at 6pm ET/3pm PT, main card starts at 10pm ET/7pm PT.