UFC Champion Zhang on coping with pressure, fighting Namajunas
Zhang Weili's reign as UFC Strawweight champion of the world has been a stop-start one. First winning the belt in August 2019 in just 42 seconds, Zhang would become the first-ever Chinese world champion in the UFC.
Six months later, Zhang defended her belt for the first time in an instant classic against Pole Joanna Jedrzejczyk. The fight of the year would propel Zhang into the UFC spotlight and into the minds of Chinese sports fans.
The fight, a bloody war over five rounds, showed to fight fans, in China and around the world, that Zhang should be taken seriously as a fighter and athlete.
For the fight fans, Zhang's story of leaving China just as the COVID-19 began to spread throughout East Asia to Thailand, where the virus was also beginning to take hold. A fortnight later, she was on the move again to Dubai as the champion desperately struggled to stay one step ahead of the virus.
By the end of February 2020, Zhang's fight was on the verge of being canceled after US authorities placed temporary COVID-19 border controls on travelers that had come from China recently.
"It was totally different. My first fight was in China, my own country, where I won the belt. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. In the second fight, however, I had to go to the US during the COVID-19 pandemic. I had to go through Thailand, Abu Dhabi and got my visa in Dubai. Then I flew to NYC and finally got to Las Vegas. It was a long trip and we ran into some difficulties. And it was a tough fight too, that I played the full five rounds," Zhang explained to Xinhua, "The second fight was much more difficult. But the more difficulties I overcame, the more joy the victory brought."
It was the story and result that made Zhang and connected with millions of new fans around the world and in her home country.
However, it has been a year since Zhang's epic against Jedrzejczyk. In that time, the world has become consumed with the same COVID-19 that Zhang had been avoiding 12 months ago. The pandemic left the 31-year-old without a realistic opportunity to defend her belt. With stringent travel restrictions in her home country and abroad, the UFC was unable to find the right card for Zhang to fight on.
"There was no fight at all in the past year. I was really frustrated now and then, especially when I saw other female mixed martial artists fight in the octagon. I was anxious and wanted to fight," revealed the champion.
"But this year, I have gained a lot and learned a lot. My skills and strength have improved. I'm more calm and relaxed."
On April 25, Zhang will defend her belt against former UFC Strawweight champion "Thug" Rose Namajunas, a tough, 28-year-old striker from Wisconsin in the United States.
"We have prepared a different style of play from Joanna, because there are no weak players in UFC. My daily training focuses more on my own weaknesses. It is like an arsenal that I have different weapons in it. I choose what weapon to use according to who my opponent is."
Rose, coming off the back of a split decision win against the former champion Jessica Andrade, could prove to be Zhang's most formidable challenge yet. Armed with an array of jabs and high kicks, it's the awkward angles of her strikes that cause problems for any foe.
However, Zhang will take some comfort because her convincing TKO Andrade that won her the belt in 2019 looks more compelling than the split decision Rose took against the Brazilian. Besides, Zhang's fierce kicks and punches should more than match the striking of the American.
Zhang's experiences traveling to fight, especially after her last fight, will also help in Las Vegas next month.
"Since the last time I successfully defended my title, I realized that people all have huge potential and it can be stimulated. So I believe everything is going to be fine when I go abroad this time.
"I think anything can happen in the octagon. Rose is a strong opponent. She respects me and I respect her. It's more like an exchange of skills between two fighters. We communicate and get to know each other through mixed martial arts. We might even become friends through the fight," predicted Zhang.
A win against Rose could cement Zhang in the pantheon of modern Chinese sports stars. The 31-year-old has already attracted the attention of the media and sponsors after the epic 12 months ago. Beyond financial and sporting attention, Zhang has become a role model in the world of Chinese MMA. Since Zhang won the world title, MMA has never been more popular in China. The growth of the sport has especially been prevalent amongst young women. It's the pressure of expectation that can break lesser people.
"Many people have asked me if I'm under tremendous pressure. I feel like I'm just too stress-free. I didn't turn this attention or expectations into pressure. I will turn it more into motivation. Stick to myself and keep training. Stay in good shape, do what I love, and fight well.
"In fact, pressure is given on one's own. If you think of it as pressure, it is pressure; If you don't think of it as pressure, it is not." Zhang explained calmly.
"I'm glad to see that girls have the courage to do what they want to do, no matter what career it is. In fact, female athletes are the same as female soldiers and doctors, just different industries. I think, as long as you have a dream, no matter boys or girls, just chase it bravely and don't be afraid of failure. If you try hard, you won't regret it. Once you have set a goal, don't give up when you encounter difficulties. I think just stick to it and never forget the goal you set in the very beginning."