Zhang's modern mastery rooted in tradition

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Zhang Weili celebrates defeating Carla Esparza to reclaim the UFC strawweight belt in New York on Nov 12.

Back on the throne with the belt in her hands again, China's MMA superstar Zhang Weili is determined to tap into the rich depths of traditional Chinese martial arts to consolidate her reign.

Born and raised in North China's Hebei province, a celebrated birthplace of ancient tai chi practice, Zhang always takes pride in her upbringing influenced by traditional Chinese martial arts, which she credits for helping her develop into a champion.

After reclaiming the Ultimate Fighting Championship's strawweight title last week, Zhang is embracing her second reign in the division as an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the profound philosophy and delicate technique of Chinese martial arts.

"We'll never forget where we come from as we fight to the top of the world," said Zhang, who recaptured the strawweight belt in New York on Nov 12 via a second-round submission of former champion Carla Esparza of the United States.

"Traditional Chinese martial arts, as our roots and culture, have a lot more to offer than many people realize for developing prowess in the modern sport of mixed martial arts.

"During my pre-fight camp, I learned a lot from practicing traditional Chinese wrestling and tai chi moves. The shift of bodyweight, composure, finesse and balance embodied in those routines helped me become a better MMA athlete."

Fighting out of the traditional sanda, or Chinese kickboxing, system, the "Magnum" Zhang has cemented her status as one of the division's fiercest strikers.

She first claimed the UFC title against Brazilian Jessica Andrade in August 2019, followed by an all-out punching war in her first successful defense against Poland's Joanna Jedrzejczyk seven months later.

Last week's victory, secured by a rear-naked choke over veteran wrestler Esparza, has proven Zhang's development into a more versatile fighter in the Octagon. She says that evolution is an ongoing process.

"I still have a lot from traditional martial arts that I want to incorporate into my training, such as the flexible yet powerful striking of tong bei quan, which is known for the penetrating power in its whipping punches," Zhang said of the kung fu style, which also originated in Hebei.

Tong bei quan, a martial arts school dating back to the 17th century, features the exertion of power from back to fist by swinging arms to attack. By practicing the routine, Zhang hopes to unleash faster, more precise punches.

"I will also keep working on the fundamentals to improve my strength conditioning, my power and speed, and the transition connecting stand-up striking and ground control," she said.

Asked where she is eyeing further improvements, Zhang said she wants to diversify her arsenal by incorporating the trademark moves of current and former UFC champions.

"Just too many," Zhang said of the techniques she admires the most.

"For example, the ground control of Khabib (Nurmagomedov), the grappling of Carla and the striking range of Joanna … I'd like to take them all if possible," she added.

Home-fight hope

After bringing the belt back home, Zhang is hoping to bring a pay-per-view UFC event to China.

"If it is possible I'd like to defend my title next year in China. That would be a wonderful experience to defend my belt at home for the first time in my career," she said.

Despite the challenges in logistics and international travel caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, UFC remains bullish on the future of MMA in the Chinese market, with Zhang's return to the top generating more momentum.

After witnessing her crowd-pleasing win at Madison Square Garden in New York, UFC president Dana White described Zhang as an anchor for the organization's ambitions in China.

"What you have to have to ignite a market is a bad-ass fighter from that region … and she is helping to blow the thing up in China," White said at the post-fight news conference.

Since Zhang's first championship win in 2019, the Las Vegas-based UFC has been making steady inroads into the Chinese market. It opened its second Performance Institute in Shanghai in the same year and has developed a competitive roster of local fighters, such as fifth-ranked strawweight challenger Yan Xiaonan, men's welterweight striker Li Jingliang and bantamweight contender Song Yadong.

"I think since I won the belt the first time there are more and more young Chinese people, more girls, starting to participate in this sport," Zhang said.

"MMA has developed very fast in China. I also want to say thanks to UFC. They give all the fighters and this sport massive support, like the UFC PI in Shanghai."

Fear no one

Scheduled to fly back to China on Wednesday, Zhang said she will take a break to spend some quality time with her parents during Spring Festival before considering her next move.

Whoever she faces in her next defense, Zhang is unfazed.

"There are so many great fighters in this division at the moment. I don't have a particular name that I want to fight for now. I will wait for the call from UFC to decide which one is more appealing. I am all in," she said.

Among the possible challengers, Zhang said she's expecting a third bout against former champ Rose Namajunas, who snatched the belt from Zhang in April 2021 and won a rematch a year ago. However, she is now more interested in testing herself against a fresh face, or even competing in the next division.

Brazilian veteran Amanda Lemos, winner of the recent main event at UFC Vegas 64, is likely to be the next one lined up to challenge Zhang from the strawweight (115-pound or 52-kilogram) class, while a cross-division clash against the heavier flyweight (125-pound) queen Valentina Shevchenko is particularly intriguing, said Zhang.

"I think it would be a great fight. It's one I've considered before," she said. "She is a very versatile fighter with a complete package. I hope it can be arranged whenever UFC sees fit."

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