Don’t call Zhang Weili the best mixed martial artist in China.
She’s too humble and too self-aware for such hyperbole. But the 29-year-old fighter from Hebei Province may just be the mainland’s best bet to become China’s first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) world champion.
Zhang Weili is not the first Chinese fighter to compete for the UFC — she’s not even the first woman. But in the span of seven months, she’s gone from a virtual unknown in the world of mixed martial arts to a top-10 ranked fighter.
It’s a trajectory unlike that of any other Chinese MMA fighter to come before her.
Following her most recent victory — a unanimous decision win over veteran fighter Tecia Torres at UFC 235, her nineteenth straight — Zhang has now broken into the UFC’s Top 10 and is ranked seventh in the world. And as dominant as she looked at the T-Mobile Arena on March 2, cracking Torres with stiff jabs and heavy kicks, it was something else altogether that caused the Las Vegas crowd to erupt in cheers and applause as she took the microphone from commentator Joe Rogan.
“My name is Weili. I come from China. Remember me,” she yelled in English.
From this small and endearing gesture, Zhang clearly understands the long game of becoming a world champion. “I think English is a really international language, and if I’m not able to speak English, I’ll miss out on many friends because we won’t be able to speak,” she says.
It may not seem like a provocative stance on language or on international camaraderie, but the language barrier has limited Chinese fighters’ marketability in the past, and Zhang is on too hot of a run to let anything slow her down now.
Building a fighter into a world champion is no small feat. It takes the expected talent and hard work, combined with a strong support system and a whole lot of luck.
Zhang has proven her commitment to refining the first two of these attributes. She trains daily in Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, boxing, and wrestling, along with intense strength training and conditioning. But unlike many of China’s other UFC-caliber fighters, who train at major fight camps, Zhang chose to stay at the fairly small and lesser-known Black Tiger Fight Club in Beijing, where she trains under head coach Cai Xuejun and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu coach Pedro Jordao.
First taking up MMA in 2013, Zhang Weili was instantly part of a new generation of women fighters. She had been practicing Chinese martial arts, Sanda and wrestling since the age of six, but it was only after she saw American fighter Ronda Rousey — who debuted in the UFC that same year — that Zhang threw herself into MMA training full-force, determined to become a world champion herself. But whereas she had the passion and determination, she didn’t have all the skills she needed during her first professional bout in November 2013, which remains the only loss of her career to date.
It would be another year before Zhang would compete again, but with newfound skills and increased perspective on training and fighting. It was then that “Magnum,” as she became known, rattled off her first career wins. Following a pair of victories, she took another forced hiatus, and by late 2015 was ready to make a full-fledged run at mixed martial arts.
Zhang fought 14 more times in less than two years, a furious pace considering most professional fighters compete only three times per year. Still more staggering was that she managed to win every single bout — nine by knockout and four by submission.
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Her winning streak caught the attention of U.S.-based management companies, and eventually she was introduced to her now-manager Brian Butler-Au, CEO of SuckerPunch Entertainment.
Having managed a trio of UFC champions, Butler, a Hong Kong native, was quick to recognize Zhang’s potential. However, it was only after she made her UFC debut last August that he realized how well rounded she actually was.
“When we first started working with her we thought that she was basically a striker. We didn’t know that she could possess the ground game that she does. But the girl is extremely well rounded,” says Butler. “I know there’s a few Chinese fighters that are on the scene, and they’re good, but I think that Weili can actually be dominant.”
There are a few Chinese fighters on the scene, but Weili can be dominant
Impressed by Zhang’s debut, Butler travelled to Beijing for her sophomore fight, against former world champion Jessica Aguilar. In a short-but-brutal affair, Zhang slashed Aguilar with elbows on the ground, emerging victorious in just under four minutes. She demonstrated an uncanny ability to deliver a satisfying and impressive finish, while maintaining a respect and humility that perfectly encapsulates the Chinese approach to athleticism.
Butler felt that she might be exactly the type of athlete the UFC needed to further their extensive investment into China.
“They’re expanding their brand and footprint, and having a star in every region would be a good thing for them,” says Butler, adding, “I think as the sport grows, it’ll be a place where you’ll see a lot of talent come out of.”
Butler’s not the only person banking heavily on the growth of MMA in China.
The UFC is slated to open a massive 9,000-square meter Institute in Shanghai — three times bigger than their Las Vegas flagship institute — in June, with hopes for developing MMA and finding talent in China. It currently has 10 Chinese fighters on its roster, not to mention a handful of alumni, dating back to 2011 when Zhang Tiequan became the first Chinese national to compete inside the Octagon cage.
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But while men like welterweight Li Jingliang and bantamweight Song Yadong struggle to break through deep and talent-rich weight classes, Zhang has quickly propelled herself into the upper echelon of her sport’s strawweight class, catching the eye of UFC president Dana White.
“She looked damn good against Tecia tonight,” remarked White, just after UFC 235 concluded. “When you think about [it], when we went in a few years ago and did the Ultimate Fighter in [China], the level of talent was very low, but boy, it’s moving quick now.”
Having White figuratively in her corner is a major boon for Zhang. He’s a figure who can make or break careers, and being on White’s radar is essential for any athlete who wishes to one day fight for the title. But actual cornering — from coaches and mentors — has proven difficult for Zhang during her brief UFC run.
When her entire coaching staff was unable to obtain visas for her UFC debut last summer, Zhang was forced to improvise, quickly picking up a trio of US-based trainers from New Mexico. And for this most recent fight, she found herself missing an important ingredient: her Muay Thai coach.
Accompanied by head coach Cai Xuejun, BJJ coach Pedro Jordao, and a translator, Zhang flew to Las Vegas to train at the original UFC Performance Institute. It was there that she linked up with Canadian MMA veteran Matt Jelly, who took over striking duties for the remainder of her fight camp. “Everything there was taken care of for me. All I had to do was just get there and train. That was a very great experience for me,” says Zhang.
With coaches from China, Brazil, and Canada in her corner on fight night, Zhang’s team resembled many of China’s fight camps, where expatriates fly in to train up new talent. And while China and Shaolin wushu are considered the cradle of martial arts by many, mixed martial arts is truly an international collection of combat techniques, where cultures blend, sharing and exchanging the most effective methods and practices.
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Aware that her time in the US has helped her improve as an MMA fighter, Zhang now wants to encourage the outside world to come to China, and take up traditional Chinese martial arts such as wushu, which she believes can help other fighters make further strides in their careers.
“I believe every martial art has its own advantages,” she explains. “[From learning] wushu, UFC athletes can have a new understanding of the benefits of hard work and force in their MMA game.”
The fighter is also intent on changing perceptions domestically, particularly among other women. She hopes to exemplify the grace, art, and athleticism required of a sport that is often compared to a violent bloodbath.
“When I started this game, I wanted to be an example for people,” she says. “If I can do this well, and other girls can see that Weili is doing well, they’ll also want to do this sport. I want to help people understand that this is not [just] violence, but something you have to study and train for. I want to give girls an example and help their development.”
In the interim, Zhang has no plans to take it easy before her next fight. She’s already back in the gym, training hard just days after shining on the UFC’s biggest platform.
Header image: Getty Images / UFC LLC
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