Zhang's reinvention set for tough test

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China's mixed martial arts star Zhang Weili is ready to showcase her total evolution as a fighter when she takes on UFC strawweight queen Carla Esparza this weekend.

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.

Zhang's ferocious striking helped her reign in the division from 2019-21, but now she hopes her development into a more complete MMA fighter can see her wrest the Ultimate Fighting Championship's 115-pound (52 kilogram) belt from veteran grappler Esparza of the United States in New York on Saturday.

Pre-fight betting for the five-round bout, a co-main event on UFC 281, has Zhang as the favorite to leave Madison Square Garden with the strap around her waist again, despite Esparza's finesse and renowned ground skills.

"I'd like her to take the fight to the ground. I am expecting her to do that and I hope to battle it out with her on the ground as well," Zhang said.

"I've trained hard for so long to face an athlete of that style. I am treating this fight as a test of my improvement in wrestling and ground control. I am quite confident that I am now a more all-around MMA athlete than before," said Zhang, a 33-year-old native of Hebei province who was developed in the sanda, or Chinese kickboxing, system.

Zhang, who owns a career winloss record of 22-3, earned a second title shot by knocking out the strawweight division's longest reigning champ Joanna Jedrzejczyk of Poland with a spinning back fist in the second round of their rematch at UFC 275 in June.

Known as the "Magnum" in the Octagon for her relentless punching, Zhang shot to fame by becoming the UFC strawweight champion with victory over Brazil's Jessica Andrade in August 2019, but lost it in just her second defense to American striker Rose Namajunas in April 2021.

A second straight loss to "Thug "Rose, via split decision, a year ago also at MSG exposed Zhang's lack of experience in the grappling elements of her arsenal, as well as a conditioning issue caused by an over-aggressive strategy to pre-fight weight control.

Zhang's fight preparations over the past four months in Thailand have, therefore, emphasized ground training with quality sparring partners, while also adopting a healthier weight-loss method.

She returns to the Big Apple as a much more competitive challenger.

"I think I won't let the fight proceed into the fifth round. I will end it as early as I can, and not let the judges decide the winner," said Zhang, who has secured half of her 22 career wins via knockouts.

Should she succeed on Sunday morning (Beijing time), Zhang will join Esparza, Namajunas and Brazilian pro Amanda Nunes to become the fourth woman in UFC history to be a multiple title winner.

Esparza unfazed

Despite still holding the division's crown at the age of 35, Esparza, who goes by the ring moniker "Cookie Monster", is battling against the notion that she's merely keeping the throne warm for better fighters to take over.

"It is funny," Esparza told MMA Fighting. "Before, I would say early in my career it would kind of bum me out like 'hey, I'm a good fighter!' But now it just makes me smile and laugh."

"But I don't need to talk about it. That's been the style of my coach and my team since I've been there. Do your talking in the cage. I don't need to tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to show you," said Esparza, who lost her title the first time in March 2015 to Jedrzejczyk.

Now on a six-bout winning streak, the veteran feels she still has plenty left in the locker to prove the cynics wrong.

"I have done my studying and I have seen holes and things I can take advantage of," Esparza said of Zhang.

"But at the end of the day, at this level and being a former champ, everyone's going to be really good. I think it's because she's so dangerous and she comes out really strong that she has had these explosive first-round finishes.

"But I'm pretty strong myself or else I wouldn't be here at this point. It's the hurt business. I go in there and prepare the best I can and let the cards fall where they may," added Esparza, who owns a 19-6 record.

The five-rounder between Zhang and Esparza will precede the welterweight championship bout between Nigerian star Israel Adesanya and Brazilian challenger Alex Pereira.

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