Weili Zhang aims to elevate interest in MMA in China
Weili Zhang started training in the hugely underappreciated Sanda at age 9, developing fearsome skills. She started BJJ after she saw it being taught at a gym where she worked as a fitness instructor, and six years ago, had her first MMA fight. Like Cris Cyborg, and a number of other great MMA fighters, Zhang lost her debut. However, she then won 16 fights in a row.
Moving up to the UFC having never fought out of Asia, her monster streak continued. Zhang decisioned Danielle Taylor in her debut, armbarred Ricardo Liborio brown belt Jessica Aguilar in her second UFC outing, and then decisioned Tecia Torres.
In the main event of UFC on ESPN+ 15 on 8/31 in Shenzhen, China, Zhang will challenge champ Jessica Andrade for the strawweight belt. That's a monumental task, but 'Magnum' is showing the same grace that characterizes her fighting style.
"I think I might be too relaxed," she said to Wu Qin for Xinhua. "I don't feel stressed or tense right now. Maybe my coaches are more strained than I am. I want to feel the nerves for the fight, but I can hardly have that feeling right now."
"That feeling will come out as soon as I arrive at the ring. That feeling is not just nerves, but excitement. Every time when I take part in a fight, I get that feeling when I enter the arena and hear the entrance music. If I could become the first UFC world champion, it means that I finally realized my dream. Meanwhile, it means that MMA will become more recognized and known to more Chinese people, and it can get more people involved in this kind of sports. In this sense, I think what I'm doing is very meaningful."
"My first goal is to win the championship on August 31. If I could win, more people will start to have an interest in this sport. Just like famous Chinese athletes Yao Ming and Li Na, they promoted the development of a sport after they achieved outstanding results. I will also follow their steps to spread MMA in China.
"In recent years, more and more Chinese people are getting involved in MMA. I have seen many fighting and boxing clubs open in China, and more Chinese children started to take up MMA training. There are many more TV programs and films spreading the idea of mixed martial arts.
"UFC has opened a Performance Institute in Shanghai, which is helping to develop more Chinese and Asian talents. Many top athletes joined this project. I believe that there will be more MMA talents that will appear in the coming years, and MMA in China will improve continuously."
When the reported showed up, Zhang was the only woman in the gym, another thing she intends to change.
"I think girls are equal to boys," said Zhang. "Girls can achieve what boys can. Girls have many possibilities. You should not be simply defined as gentle or weak, you can also be brave, hardworking, persistent and independent. Never let those 'titles' define or limit you."
The most famous female fighter in MMA history, Ronda Rousey, is impressed by 'Magnum'.
"I feel like a proud mama watching how women's MMA has grown," posted Rousey on her social network. "Women from all walks of life, from all over the world are rising to the challenge and showing the world what it means to fight like a girl. Weili Zhang is a prime example of overcoming adversity - fighting not just through the ranks but to also get noticed and stand out. I've definitely taken notice, and so should you. Best of luck to the ladies fighting August 31 on UFC Fight Night 157."
Zhang was touched by the gesture.
"I really appreciate what she did," said Zhang, "She's my role model. Her performance in the Octagon refreshed my view on women. I started to realize that women can also show their strength in the Octagon, and women could do better than men. I saw her fight in UFC in 2013 and that inspired me to be determined and work hard to be someone like her.
"When she mentioned me on Instagram, I felt very surprised and excited. For me, she seems like an idol that unapproachable for me, but she made me feel like she is a close friend."
Zhang closed with inspiring words for young women looking to make their way in the world.
"If you have a dream, try hard to make it come true. Every dream is reachable," said Zhang. "Don't be afraid of having big dreams, make your big goal into smaller ones, and achieve them one by one, you will get close to your big goal. I did it; I believe you can do too."