'Magnum' Zhang plans to trigger new era of dominance

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With another shot at the strawweight title only a matter of time, Chinese MMA star Zhang Weili is eyeing a new era of dominance in arguably the UFC's most competitive women's division.

Having evolved into an altogether more complete fighter, Zhang produced a stunning knockout of Joanna Jedrzejczyk on June 11 to spectacularly announce her ambition to recapture the 115-pound (52-kilogram) belt and rule the division for a much longer period than her first stint as world champion.

Former UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk announced her retirement following a brutal knockout loss to fellow former titleholder Zhang Weili at Saturday's UFC 275 event in Singapore.

"I think the time has come for me to do it (dominate the division) after the retirement of Joanna, which means the end of an era," Zhang said during an online interview on Friday, almost a week after she sent Jedrzejczyk into retirement following her KO victory at UFC 275 in Singapore.

"Technically, I've grown into an all-around fighter, but more importantly I think I am more mature mentally," Zhang said of her improvement since suffering successive defeats last year at the hands of American Rose Namajunas.

Signed by the UFC in 2018, Zhang shot to fame just a year later by wresting the strawweight belt from Brazil's Jessica Andrade in August 2019. The Chinese star then retained the title with a split-decision win over Jedrzejczyk in March 2020 before losing it to "Thug "Namajunas in April 2021.

"The two losses really gave me a chance to reflect on myself and reassess all the pros and cons of my career in the UFC after a flying start," said Zhang.

"Now I am more focused on what I want and how to achieve it. I am ready to come back stronger to create my own legend."

The next target for Zhang is a second challenge for the strawweight strap currently owned by American veteran Carla Esparza, who outlasted Namajunas via split decision after a lackluster title bout that saw both women criticized for their sluggish performances last month in Phoenix, Arizona.

Known as the "Magnum" in the Octagon for her ferocious and relentless striking, Zhang said she's ready wherever and whenever Esparza accepts the challenge.

"I've made it quite clear that I want to fight her as early as October in Abu Dhabi," said Zhang, who also called out Esparza during her post-fight interview in Singapore.

"It's up to the UFC to come up with a date and location with Carla. For me, I am going to focus on making my preparations to the best of my ability. It doesn't matter when and where, it's only a matter of time."

However, Esparza, nicknamed the "Cookie Monster", is reluctant to commit to a date.

"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 last week.

"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.

Developed in China's State-run sanda (kickboxing) training system in her native province Hebei, Zhang had relied largely on the power and volume of her punches to top the division the first time around.

However, the second loss to Namajunas in November pushed Zhang to improve her ground skills and complete her arsenal.

She trained at former two-division UFC champion Henry Cejudo's camp at Fight Ready in Arizona last year. Zhang continued to learn from Cejudo's crew-including wrestling mentor Eric Albarracin and Brazilian jujitsu coach Pedro Jordao-remotely during her buildup to the rematch against Jedrzejczyk when she was training in Phuket, Thailand.

Zhang's powerful takedowns and effective grappling skills against Jedrzejczyk showcased just how much she has evolved. She capped that performance with a devastating spinning back fist move to KO the Pole.

The world, though, has yet to witness Zhang at her absolute best in the Octagon, insists the 31-year-old.

"I still have plenty more that I want to show in the next fight. It was far from my 100 percent level in the last bout," said Zhang, whose win-loss record now stands at 22-3.

The now-retired Jedrzejczyk expects an overwhelming win for Zhang against Esparza.

"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 Jedrzejczyk, who held the strawweight title for over two years from 2015-17.

Zhang is even looking beyond a title challenge-to a blockbusting trilogy fight against old rival Namajunas.

"For sure I want to have a third fight against her, but first I will have to win the title back and then it's me against Rose to demonstrate the best version of myself," said Zhang.

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