UFC champion Zhang seeks a second belt

Even though Zhang Weili wore a disposable protective suit, face shield and N95 mask as she made her way back to China after a successful UFC strawweight title defence in March, fans still recognised her.
Even though Zhang Weili wore a disposable protective suit, face shield and N95 mask as she made her way back to China after a successful UFC strawweight title defence in March, fans still recognised her. PHOTO: ZHANG WEILI/WEIBO

Having retained strawweight title, Chinese fighter wants to take on flyweight champion

Even with a face shield, N95 mask and protective suit on, there is little hope for Zhang Weili to go incognito these days.

Such has been the mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter's meteoric rise in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) over the last nine months, which has seen her catapulting to super stardom in the sport's biggest organisation.

"When I came back to China last month, I was recognised by fans in the (Tianjin) airport, which was amazing because I was wrapped in a protective suit," Zhang said in a media conference call on Thursday.

"Now even when I go running outside, I am recognised as well. I feel very good about this and I am glad to see more and more people get to know me and the sport of MMA."

The 30-year-old was speaking to the press for the first time since completing a 14-day quarantine upon returning to Tianjin after her acclaimed UFC women's strawweight title defence over former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk at the UFC 248 event in Las Vegas on March 7.

The bout, which was hailed by many observers as the greatest in women's MMA, enhanced Zhang's reputation, which was already on an upward trajectory following her title win over Jessica Andrade at the UFC Fight Night 157 event in Shenzhen last August. That victory over the Brazilian had made her the first Chinese champion in the UFC.

At the UFC 248 post-event press conference, UFC president Dana White even tipped Zhang for the very top of the sport, saying: "When you're trying to build somebody into a star there's a pattern to what you do. We did it with Conor McGregor, we did it with Ronda (Rousey), we've done it with all the greats. And we're gonna do it with her."

While the UFC is thrilled with its newly minted Chinese star as it continues to expand its footprint in Asia, the Hebei-born fighter herself has already set her sights on an even bigger goal - becoming a double champion.

When asked what her next targets are, Zhang said she wanted to defend her title "forever" and inspire more children to take up MMA, adding: "If possible, I also want to challenge in the next weight (division) up and fight with that champion (flyweight title holder Valentina Shevchenko)."

In the UFC's 26-year history, only four fighters have held two belts simultaneously: McGregor, Daniel Cormier, Henry Cejudo and Amanda Nunes.

The seeds have already been sown for a potential fight between Zhang and Shevchenko, with the Kyrgyzstan fighter saying she was unimpressed by Zhang's split decision win at UFC 248 and claiming that while she is a "good fighter... it's not enough for the high, elite competition".

NEW-FOUND FAME

Now even when I go running outside, I am recognised as well... I am glad to see more and more people get to know me and the sport of MMA.

ZHANG WEILI, on her higher profile since becoming China's first UFC champion.

Trash talk, however, does little to rattle Zhang, who was taunted by Jedrzejczyk ahead of their fight as the Polish fighter posted a photo-shopped picture of herself on Instagram wearing a face mask with laughing emojis while standing beside Zhang, in reference to the Covid-19 outbreak, which originated in Wuhan.

At their pre-fight face-off, Zhang, who speaks little English, silenced her opponent - notorious for her insults and mind games before fights - with just two words, "shut up".

After UFC 248 in March, Zhang spent six weeks in Las Vegas - she was unable to go back to China immediately because of coronavirus travel restrictions - brushing up on her English as she knows fluency will help in her attempt to scale the MMA mountain.

The daughter of a miner has been accompanied by a translator for post-fight interviews in the octagon so far, and while that may change, her fans will not mind one bit as long as she lets her fists do the talking.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2020, with the headline 'UFC champion Zhang seeks a second belt'. Print Edition | Subscribe