In the aftermath of Zhang Weili’s first loss in seven years, which ended her 21-fight winning streak and her reign as UFC strawweight champion, she posted on Instagram congratulating Rose Namajunas on her victory and vowed to bounce back. When UFC.com visited Zhang at Fight Ready MMA in Scottsdale, Arizona, Zhang cited her opponent and Georges St-Pierre as examples of champions who bounced back from defeat.
On November 6, she gets her chance to do just that in a rematch against Namajunas at UFC 268.
“I think people are looking forward to seeing how you stand up when you fall down,” Zhang told UFC.com. “Of course, I also look forward to that. Because 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.”
She’s not wrong in terms of saying the fight was over before it started. Namajunas ended things with a left high kick a little more than a minute into the fight, and so what was a highly anticipated fight between the two never got the space or time to develop. Of course, that’s fighting, but with a second crack at “Thug Rose,” Zhang is attacking the opportunity with even more fervor.
The lessons learned in that fight at UFC 261 led Zhang to bring her training to the desert. She and former two-division champion Henry Cejudo cultivated a friendly relationship over the last couple of years, and Cejudo extended an invitation to her and her team to come to Arizona and train with him, Eddie Cha and the rest of the Fight Ready squad.
“I learned a lot about wrestling here,” Zhang said. “I learned a lot of wrestling techniques with Henry, as well as distance control, mind game, and something about mental toughness. I think it all makes me stronger.”
For “Triple C,” having a hand in training Zhang was a natural progression after retiring from the sport. Few have accomplished as much as he has in combat sports, and he knows that well of knowledge is not something to just sit on and waste.
“When it comes to the highest levels, I feel like that’s my calling to train with the one-percenters because I believe I can use those tweaks and turns in order for them to create a whole ‘nother animal because that happened to me,” Cejudo said. “I told Weili and her team, ‘Listen, we have to accept this. We made a mistake, or something happened, but whatever it is, we have to accept this loss.’ That’s key number one. We have to accept it, and then we have to make those adjustments because what we thought was working that got us there, we have to be able to make those adjustments for us to be able to beat her (Namajunas), and we have to be able to see everything as a learning curve. True adversity reveals and builds character.
“She really is a machine,” Cejudo continued. “She’s the type of girl you want to slow down. She’s the type of girl you really have to slow down, and I mean that. She’s the type of girl that will pick up on things so quick. So, so quick. Like within a week. I’m just talking to captain Eric (Albarracin), and I’m like, ‘Dude, this is not normal.’”
Zhang is complimentary Cejudo’s fight IQ and heart, and the way he communicated his view on the sport left an impression on her.
The time in Arizona also gives Zhang some more time to acclimate to the country where she will try to regain her belt. She said she has some problems communicating as she continues to improve her English, and she is hopeful she can soon interact with people in the United States more.
Nothing comes before fighting, though. When Zhang lost to Namajunas, the result was first met with confusion, then disappointment. After a legendary title defense against Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 248, it seemed like she was on an inside track for a unique kind of stardom. One loss doesn’t change that, but it was a bump in the road. If she can get past that, it sets up a multitude of high-level opportunities.
It’s clear that this is not the same Zhang Weili who walked to the Octagon in April. One of the most difficult things for an elite athlete to do is break themselves down and alter their course a little bit, and it’s clear in her move to Fight Ready that she wants to retool and sharpen her extensive abilities. More than anything technical, though, she believes her mental approach is improved, and she is hoping it bears the golden fruit of the UFC belt on November 6.
“I think the biggest change is a change in my mindset,” Zhang said. “I just feel that I have to concentrate on everything. When you eat, you eat well. When you train, you train well, and when you rest, you rest well. This is my biggest gain.”