Zhang Weili: If I win strawweight title at MSG, I will be 'Zhang Weili of the world'

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Zhang Weili of China poses on the scale during the UFC 281 ceremonial weigh-in at Radio City Music Hall on November 11, 2022 in New York City. [Photo/VCG]

China's mixed martial arts (MMA) athlete Zhang Weili will challenge Carla Esparza of the U.S. for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Women's Strawweight title at Madison Square Garden (MSG) in New York City, New York, on Saturday night.

If Zhang wins, she will become the third one in UFC history to regain the women's strawweight championship after Esparza and Rose Namajunas of the U.S.

"I'm excited and glad for the fight, just like I was when I won the belt the first time," Zhang said in an interview with Xinhua News Agency. "The first time I won it, I did it in China and many began to know me as 'Zhang Weili of China.' If I win it again in New York this time, I will be known as 'Zhang Weili of the world.'"

Zhang became the first UFC world champion when she won the strawweight belt in Shenzhen, south China's Guangdong Province, in 2019. She defended her title in 2020 with a victory over Joanna Jedrzejczyk of Poland but lost it to Namajunas in April 2021. Zhang fought Namajunas again at MSG in November 2021 but lost again.

In May, Esparza beat Namajunas by a split decision in Phoenix, Arizona, to secure the strawweight championship in May, One month later, Zhang defeated Jedrzejczyk by knockout (KO) in Singapore to claim the right to challenge Esparza again.

"Carla is a good fighter. She got the belt back after eight years. I respect her a lot," Zhang said, but she is confident in herself. "I think the opponents Carla beat before fell into her rhythm. I won't. I will make her follow my rhythm."

Having arrived in Las Vegas to prepare six weeks ago, Zhang wanted people to see a different her this time as she grew much more confident than she was last year. "I'm on a completely different mindset this time. I don't think I was mentally ready last time, which mattered a lot. I won't be distracted by outside voices but focus on myself," she told Xinhua.

Though Zhang was not fighting at home, she felt the love and support from Chinese fans every day and experienced the same from fans in the U.S. That's why she wants to make the battle with Esparza "fight of the year."

Having begun to train as an MMA fighter in 2013, Zhang said the sport helped her a lot both as an athlete and as a human. "Every fight is meaningful. They are part of my life experience, whether I win or not. I have gone through so much. Now I feel I have a steadier and stronger mindset. I'm more confident in dealing with everything and don't give up easily," Zhang said.

Zhang considers MMA as an open sport that can blend various moves, including traditional Chinese martial arts. She plans to build a school in the future to develop more Chinese MMA fighters who can combine Chinese traditional culture with the MMA movement. "I hope children will grow stronger and have bigger hearts," she said.

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