Flying female fists fuel interest in combat sports

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Zhang takes on Jedrzejczyk in Singapore on Sunday.

Making a strong comeback from disheartening setbacks, Chinese mixed martial arts fighter Zhang Weili has rejuvenated her career while inspiring greater interest in the combat sport in her home country.

Zhang, who won the nation's first MMA world title in 2019, punched her way back into title contention on Sunday by securing her 22nd career victory, defeating Poland's Joanna Jedrzejczyk in a rematch of their first encounter two years ago.

The Chinese fighter is a former strawweight champion competing in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, which is based in Las Vegas.

Cheered on by enthusiastic spectators on Sunday at Singapore Indoor Stadium, Zhang ended the thrilling clash at UFC 275 by landing a spinning backfist to Jedrzejczyk's neck in the second round, sending the crowd into a frenzy while securing a shot at redemption in the women's 115-pound (52-kilogram) division.

By defeating the Polish veteran again after doing so via a split decision in their first meeting in March 2020, Zhang improved her career win-loss record to 22-3, earning the right to challenge the division's current world champion Carla Esparza of the United States in her next fight.

"My goal before the rematch was to demonstrate an all-out domination, and I am so excited that I delivered," a pumped-up Zhang said in a post-fight interview, calling on reigning champion Esparza to accept her challenge in the next event in Abu Dhabi in October.

However, Esparza dodged Zhang's invitation, saying she would take it up only when she feels she is ready.

"I definitely don't feel like I'm in a position where I should rush just because Weili wants a certain date," Esparza told the New York Post on Tuesday.

"I'm not trying to go on her timeline. I'm the champion, and I feel she needs to go on my timeline," said the 34-year-old, who won the UFC's inaugural strawweight title in December 2014 but lost it to Jedrzejczyk in her first defense three months later.

Jedrzejczyk, as the division's longest reigning champion, predicted an overwhelming win for Zhang in her next title challenge.

"First round for Weili. She's so strong. She really surprised me with her strength on the ground... I truly believe that Weili is going to become the champ again," said the Polish veteran, who announced her retirement from fighting after the loss to Zhang on Sunday.

National hero

Zhang became China's first world champion in a major promotion in August 2019 after wresting the strawweight belt from Brazil's Jessica Andrade in Shenzhen, Guangdong province.

The unexpected win in just her fourth fight since signing up with UFC in 2018 awakened unprecedented awareness of MMA in a country with ancient martial arts rooted deeply in its culture. This full-contact sport, which was developed in the West, allows a wide variety of combat skills and styles in one bout.

Zhang maintained her winning run by beating Jedrzejczyk in March 2020 to successfully defend the title, but her training routine and plans to fight overseas were soon disrupted by the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Without any solid preparation, Zhang experienced back-to-back losses at the hands of Rose "Thug" Namajunas of the US last year-first via a technical knockout, or TKO, in April and then by a split decision six months later, losing her belt in the process to her rival, who then surrendered it to Esparza after a split decision loss last month at UFC 274 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Known as the "Magnum" for her ferocious striking, Zhang said she takes more pride in representing Chinese women's resilience and strength in the tough world of MMA than in earning a second title shot.

"What makes me prouder today is that I put girls' power on full display, while proving to the doubters that we can do anything we want in whatever business we like," said Zhang, who cemented her status as a national hero after beating Jedrzejczyk in her first title defense more than two years ago.

Her victory gave China a much-needed morale boost at a time when the nation was severely affected by COVID-19.

Although cutting a modest figure away from the Octagon, or cage, for her millions of fans at home and abroad, Zhang has become a larger-than-life role model and symbol of women's rights.

Tan Jianxiang, a sports sociology researcher at South China Normal University, said, "Zhang, as the world's best female MMA athlete, at the very least is a hard-hitting example of modern and confident Chinese women, with her excellence in the brutally contested combat sport representing defiance of gender stereotypes not just for women in China but across Asia."

Zhang said of the inspiration she drew from US legend Ronda Rousey, who became the first female to sign a UFC contract in 2012: "I set my goals when I saw her fight for the first time. I wanted to show that girls can be soft and gentle, but we can also be as strong as steel and as hard as rocks."

Pathway to glory

Born to parents who were both coal mine workers in Handan, Hebei province, Zhang was sent to a sports school for training in sanda, or Chinese kickboxing, when she was 12, due to her restless nature and interest in kung fu.

Despite tough training and living conditions at the school, where there were only about 20 girls among 300 students, Zhang persevered and survived, building her physical and mental strength that saw her claim a succession of provincial titles after she turned 14.

However, the underdeveloped combat sports scene in China at the time was nowhere near the marketable business today that provides lucrative contracts and consistent fighting opportunities, with television broadcasts and livestream coverage.

The bleak prospects forced Zhang to decide on other career options when she graduated from the school in 2010. In just two years, she changed jobs from being a kindergarten teacher, to fitness trainer and even a security guard until she met her long-term mentor Cai Xuejun, founder of the Black Tiger Fighting Club in Beijing and one of the earliest MMA promoters in China.

Guided by Cai at his club, Zhang quit her job at a fitness gym to focus fully on becoming a professional MMA athlete by adding grappling, wrestling and Brazilian jiujitsu workouts to her already exceptional kickboxing skill.

After a few fights that were promoted domestically, in which she built a convincing record, in 2018, Zhang earned a contract from UFC, one of the world's biggest MMA organizations, rising to international stardom the following year and never looking back.

With Zhang now spearheading UFC's expansion in China, and a group of her younger compatriots joining up to fight across the world, MMA is making deeper inroads in the nation, where there has always been an interest in martial arts, underlined by action movies featuring kung fu stars such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.

Kevin Chang, UFC's senior vice-president for Asia, credited Zhang for almost single-handedly opening the gate to perhaps the biggest untapped market for combat sports.

"It's been phenomenal," Chang told China Daily last year. "Weili is the North Star and a great inspiration to all our fighters in China. There is no question that she's entered into the collective consciousness in Asia."

Chang told the Forbes website in another interview: "To see her come back from her last loss to Rose (Namajunas), who's the best in the world ... and then look at the improvements that Zhang Weili made to her game ... she really upped it to the level where she was right there with very best in the world.

"I think what's next for her is that she's going to work her way back. We have full faith and confidence that she'll be able to do that."

To match Zhang's impact, UFC has invested in an increasing number of facilities and resources to scout for and develop local talent in China, signing up 27 fighters, including some who have retired.

To anchor its talent cultivation program in China, UFC opened its Performance Institute in Shanghai in June 2019-an addition to a similar facility it has in Las Vegas. The Shanghai institute, which occupies 8,600 square meters, offers promising Chinese athletes a range of physical training, skills development and rehabilitation services, as well as amenities such as diet food and cryotherapy chambers for recovery.

Training expertise

Lyu Kai, a judo specialist and one of nine Chinese taking part in the Road to UFC talent selection program, said the training expertise at the Shanghai institute, which includes tailor-made plans to cater to each fighter's style, makes the facility unique.

"The biggest difference here is the abundant resources provided for each athlete, and the variety of courses compared to traditional training centers," said Lyu, who started judo training when he was 12 at a State-run junior sports school in Changning district, Shanghai.

"If you are looking for real combat skills from actual experiences in the Octagon, and want to know how to excel in MMA as a pro, then you are in the right place," he added.

Lyu's hard work in training at the Shanghai institute paid off in the first round at the Road to UFC tournament in Singapore on June 10, when he beat Indonesian opponent Angga Hans by a TKO in the second round to advance in the featherweight group.

The Road to UFC tournament was launched in Singapore before UFC 275 for all talented young fighters in four weight classes-flyweight, bantamweight, featherweight and light heavyweight-to compete for UFC contract offers in their respective divisions.

With a devastating knockout win over George "Tuco" Tokkos of England in his tournament opener, China's light heavyweight underdog Zhang Mingyang has already secured a UFC contract, while three other Chinese fighters have advanced to the next rounds.

Chang expects the talent system to help MMA find its own Yao Ming to emulate the legendary basketball star's impact on popularizing the NBA in China.

"When you have a locally relevant fighter, that's really going to increase engagement, interest, viewership-everything, every metric. In a sense, it's the Yao Ming effect," Chang said in Singapore last week.

"That's why we've made investments in the region to develop talent. That's why we've developed this pathway so that these fighters have a really clear idea of how to get in and how to go. It's of utmost importance for us."

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