Before the bout to defend their championship title, China’s most famous mixed martial arts fighter, Jang Weili, felt that his opponent was trying to get under his skin.
The rival, Lithuanian-American fighter Rose Namajunas, had Their skirmish failed The title of 115 pounds of the Ultimate Fighting Championship is nothing short of an ideological contest between freedom and communism. “Better dead than red”, Ms. Namajunas said, using a McCarthy-era anti-communist slogan.
But Ms. Zhang, 30, a strawweight who has lost only one of her 22 professional fights, was not about to take the bait.
“We are just athletes,” Ms. Zhang said in an interview from Jacksonville, Fla., Where on Saturday she would face Ms. Namajunas in front of a sold-out crowd.
“Don’t kid yourself thinking how important you are,” she said.
Ms. Zhang may be humble about her own importance, but to her millions of fans, she is not one of the greatest female fighters in the world. Standing at 5-foot-3, Ms. Zhang has become a true, if reluctant, symbol of women’s rights and a national hero.
For audiences (and opponents) outside his country, he is the tough face of a modern, vocal China and its Communist Party. For his government, he is the pride of the country and a boon. To her female fans, she is a role model whose defiance of sexual stereotypes has pushed the boundaries of what it means to be a Chinese woman.
For Ms. Zhang, however, such discussion is little more than a distraction. Although Fighter can easily carry the flag of China on his shoulders after victory, he rarely talks about politics in public. She says little about women’s rights and does not see herself as a feminist. “What does that word mean?” He asked, seems genuinely shocked.
When she is not beating opponents with powerful punches and spin kicks, Ms. Zhang is self-inferiority and mindless. He loves a good selfie filter and turns to conversational food anytime.
But colleagues say her sunshine is entirely focused on winning the exterior. The intensity, he says, has inspired Ms. Zhang, the daughter of a coal worker, at the top of the UFC’s global rankings.
Since 2013, Kaiz Xujhun, Ms. Zhang’s coach, said, “No matter how many belts she wins, she doesn’t change.”
The fight on Saturday will be Ms. Zhang’s first since last year’s March, when she successfully defended her title against Polish fighter Joanna Zdrzewski in a five-round fight in Las Vegas.
At the time, China was still trying to get the coronavirus under control and the United States had not yet gone into lockdown. Prior to the bout, Ms. Zdrejski posted a photoshopped poster of herself in a gas mask next to Ms. Zhang. He later apologized for making light of the virus.
“My country is devastated by the epidemic,” an emotional Ms. Zhang, her face barely recognizable by the swelling, said after the fight. “I hope that China will win the battle; An epidemic is a common enemy of mankind. “
While such patriotic rhetoric might suggest otherwise, Ms. Zhang was trained outside the state-controlled sports machine that prepares China’s Olympians. Instead, fans are known as “Magnum”, who discovered his love of fighting on his own.
Growing up in the northern province of Hebei, Ms. Zhang was an energetic child. She often fought with her two older brothers and was once trying to escape her kindergarten by ripping walls. To keep him in his possession, his mother dug holes in the ground, out of which a 5-year-old child practiced jumping. Over time, the holes deepened.
“My mom was very supportive,” Ms. Zhang recalled. “He always told me that girls should be independent and not weak.”
When she was 13 years old, Ms. Zhang enrolled in a martial arts academy in Handan, a city with a deep war tradition.
The school, which focused on Sanda, is a form of kickboxing developed by the Chinese military, which instilled in her a sense of discipline.
Of her 500 students, Ms. Zhang was one of only 30 girls.
“When I was a kid, I would get into a lot of fights before I started training in martial arts,” she said. “Later, I stopped looking for my own quarrels – I just fought on behalf of other people.”
Despite winning a provincial Sanda Championship, a recurring back injury forced Ms. Zhang to leave the game at the age of 17. Her parents suggested that she go to beauty school to become a hairstylist.
No way, Ms. Zhang recalled thinking. “I wanted to find my way,” she said. He bought a one-way ticket to Beijing.
For the next six years, Ms. Zhang circled around the capital and worked oddly as a hotel receptionist, a kindergarten teacher, and a security guard.
Ms. Zhang was working in a gym in early 2010 when she first started practicing mixed martial arts. He liked how MMA incorporated many fighting styles in contrast to traditional forms such as kung fu.
He made the leap into professional fights in 2013, and in 2018 he signed with the UFC. The following year she defeated Brazilian fighter Jessica Andrade in just 42 seconds to win the women’s strawweight title and become the first ever Chinese champion in UAE history.
Since then, Ms. Zhang has become a national star. State-run news outlets have called her “China’s most capable female fighter” and “the female warrior of the east”.
After his victory in Las Vegas last year, he was encouraged by the Communist Youth League to create a video to encourage young Chinese to “dedicate their best youth to their beloved homeland”. Around the same time, the American cosmetics company Estée Lauder named her Its brand ambassador in China.
On Chinese social media, Ms. Zhang often posts videos about her training sessions and her shenuzer, Miyu, for her 5.5 million followers. Her fans have often written about how a woman should look and behave, inspired by her rejection of traditional assumptions. Some even speculate about her love life – she says she is single – and jokes about whether anyone would dare tell her about the violent business.
“Those people don’t understand me. They only see who I am inside the octagon, ”Ms. Zhang said, referring to the eight-sided ring in which the UFC fights.
According to her agent, from her UFC win alone, Ms. Zhang has earned $ 1 million. Despite that success, she said, a lot has changed about her life. She still rents a house on the outskirts of Beijing with her coach and seven of her brothers. She still trains for five hours daily at the nearby Black Tiger Fight Club.
Ms. Zhang’s fame in China has been a major challenge for the UFC, actively increasing its presence in the country, including opening a $ 13 million training facility in Shanghai.
“That’s the tide that lifts all boats,” said Kevin Chang, UFC’s senior vice president for the Asia-Pacific region.
Before her performance on Saturday with Ms. Namajunas, Ms. Zhang said that she was feeling well. He had already started torturing himself by looking at pictures of the food items he was hoping to eat after the fight. He added, “Ice cream and steamed buns are his favorites.”
If he thought what he would say in the octagon if he won? Will there be another innocent argument about mankind?
He was not sure, but just in case, he kept a signature line in English in his pocket which he has sometimes used after a win.
“My name is Zhang Weili!” She shouts victoriously. “I’m from China – miss me!”