The UFC lightweight division is regarded with little argument as not only the deepest in the promotion, but perhaps the entire sport. A cursory glance through the top fifteen will reveal as much: elite-level fighters that have been locked in a veritable purgatory waiting for their crack at the top. It can be daunting for veterans, let alone newcomers, to swim with those sharks. But the newest entry into the competition doesn’t seem the least bit troubled by the challenge.
One of three UFC 261 fighters signed from the UFC Academy Combine from the UFC Performance Institute in Shanghai, China, he carries with him a trajectory that allows him to feel that UFC gold is the simply the next task, not an insurmountable one.
Described as a “phenom” in his native China, Rongzhu had his first pro fight just days after his 16th birthday in 2016. Now at the still-tender age of 21, he’s managed to compile at 17-3 career record, most of it under the WLF banner, and is ranked among the pound-for-pound best in his country the past three years.
"My uncle took me onto the road of fighting,” he recently told the Chinese media. “His biggest wish is to watch me fight for the UFC. Walking into the Octagon makes me feel excited, but also a little nervous. Anything can happen in the Octagon. I can't predict the outcome of this fight, but I can be sure that it will be a very exciting fight."
Even on paper, his claim that this will be an exciting fight checks out: of those 17 wins, only one of them was by decision. And while there are a handful of submissions sprinkled in for good measure, it’s Rongzhu’s quick hands and a penchant for first-round knockouts that have been his bread-and-butter to date.
He’ll need those hands against his first UFC opponent, Rodrigo Vargas. Although winless in his two Octagon visits so far, his most recent loss was a disqualification for an illegal knee vs Brok Weaver in a fight he was absolutely dominating until that mistake. At 11-4 overall, Vargas has a similar taste for knockouts and has already heard the roar of the UFC arena when he makes the walk.
Rongzhu recognizes his opponent’s seeming advantages, but is more confident in his own preparation, particularly now that he’s entrenched in the UFC PI.
"The training here is very scientific,” he says. “I feel that my physical fitness has improved a lot, my strength has increased, and my takedown defense and cage skills have also improved."
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What that improvement looks like come fight night could make for must-see TV. As it stands, Rongzhu is riding a ten-fight win streak, with nine of those coming by finish. A student of the UFC long before he entered it, he counts Jon Jones and fellow lightweight Justin Gaethje among the peers he wants to emulate inside the Octagon. Pretty solid choices, to be sure, and evidence he knows what needs to happen to get his hand raised at this level of the game.