Who Is Zhang Weili, the Chinese U.F.C. Champion Fighting on Saturday?


Days earlier than the bout to defend her championship title, Zhang Weili, China’s most well-known blended martial arts fighter, sensed her opponent was making an attempt to get below her pores and skin.

The opponent, the Lithuanian-American fighter Rose Namajunas, had framed their conflict for the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s 115-pound title as a minimum of an ideological contest between freedom and Communism. “Better dead than red,” Ms. Namajunas mentioned, utilizing a McCarthy period anti-Communist slogan.

But Ms. Zhang, 30, a strawweight who has misplaced solely one among her 22 skilled fights, wasn’t about to take the bait.

“We are just athletes,” Ms. Zhang mentioned in an interview from Jacksonville, Fla., the place on Saturday she is going to face Ms. Namajunas in entrance of a sold-out crowd.

“Don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re so important,” she added.

Ms. Zhang is likely to be modest about her personal significance, however for her hundreds of thousands of followers she isn’t just one among the world’s best feminine fighters. Standing 5-foot-Three, Ms. Zhang has turn into an actual, if reluctant, image of girls’s rights and a nationwide hero.

To spectators (and opponents) exterior her residence nation, she is the hard-hitting face of a contemporary, assertive China and its Communist Party. To her authorities, she is the delight of the nation and a propaganda boon. To her feminine followers, she is a job mannequin whose defiance of gender stereotypes has pushed the boundaries of what it means to be a Chinese lady.

To Ms. Zhang, although, such discuss is little greater than a distraction. The fighter may readily drape China’s flag round her shoulders after a win, however she not often talks about politics in public. She has little to say about girls’s rights and doesn’t see herself as a feminist. “What does that term even mean?” she requested, seeming genuinely puzzled.

When she’s not battering opponents with highly effective punches and spin kicks, Ms. Zhang is self-deprecating and goofy, even. She loves a superb selfie filter and perks up any time the dialog turns to meals.

But colleagues say that beneath her sunny exterior is a thoughts centered solely on profitable. That depth, they are saying, has propelled Ms. Zhang, a coal employee’s daughter, to the prime of the U.F.C.’s international rankings.

“No matter how many belts she wins, she doesn’t change,” mentioned Cai Xuejun, Ms. Zhang’s coach since 2013. “We are already at the peak, and she is still thinking about how to improve.”

The battle on Saturday can be Ms. Zhang’s first since March of final 12 months, when she efficiently defended her title in an epic five-round battle in Las Vegas towards the Polish fighter Joanna Jedrzejczyk.

At the time, China was still trying to bring the coronavirus under control and the United States had not yet gone into lockdown. Weeks before the bout, Ms. Jedrzejczyk posted a photoshopped poster of herself in a gas mask next to Ms. Zhang. She later apologized for making light of the virus.

“My country is ravaged by the epidemic,” an emotional Ms. Zhang, her face barely recognizable from the swelling, said after the fight. “I hope China will win the battle; the epidemic is a common enemy of humankind.”

Though such patriotic rhetoric might suggest otherwise, Ms. Zhang was trained outside of the state-controlled sports machine that grooms China’s Olympians. Instead, the champion known to fans as “Magnum” discovered a love of fighting on her own.

Growing up in the northern province of Hebei, Ms. Zhang was an energetic child. She fought frequently with her two older brothers and was once caught trying to escape her kindergarten by scaling the walls. To keep her occupied, her mother dug holes in the ground out of which the 5-year-old would practice jumping. Over time, the holes became deeper.

“My mother was very supportive,” Ms. Zhang recalled. “She always told me that girls should be independent and not weak.”

When she was 13, Ms. Zhang enrolled in a martial arts academy in Handan, a city with a deep-rooted fighting tradition.

The school, which focused on sanda, a form of kickboxing developed by the Chinese military, instilled in her a sense of discipline.

Of its 500 students, Ms. Zhang was one of only about 30 girls.

“When I was a kid, before I started training in martial arts, I would get in a lot of fights,” she said. “Later, I stopped looking for my own fights — I just fought on behalf of other people.”

Despite winning a provincial sanda championship, a recurring back injury forced Ms. Zhang to quit the sport at the age of 17. Her parents suggested that she go to beauty school to become a hairstylist.

On Chinese social media, Ms. Zhang often posts videos about her training sessions and her schnauzer, Miu, for her 5.5 million followers. Her fans write frequently about being inspired by her rejection of traditional notions of how a woman should look and behave. Some people also speculate about her love life — she says she is single — and joke about whether anyone would dare to date her given her violent occupation.

“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 U.F.C. fights take place.

From her U.F.C. winnings alone, Ms. Zhang has earned around $1 million, according to her agent. Despite that success, she said, little about her life has changed. She still rents a house on the outskirts of Beijing with seven other people, including her coach and one of her brothers. She still trains five hours a day at the nearby Black Tiger Fight Club.

Ms. Zhang’s fame in China has been a windfall for the U.F.C., which has been actively expanding its presence in the country, including opening a $13 million training facility in Shanghai.

“She’s been the tide that lifts all boats,” said Kevin Chang, U.F.C.’s senior vice-president for the Asia-Pacific region.

Days before her showdown on Saturday with Ms. Namajunas, Ms. Zhang said she was feeling good. She had already begun to torture herself by looking at photos of the foods she was hoping to eat after the fight. (Ice cream and steamed buns are among her favorites, she said.)

Had she thought about what would she say in the octagon if she won? Would there be another impassioned plea about humankind?

She wasn’t sure, but just in case, she had in her back pocket a signature line in English that she has sometimes used after a win.

“My name is Zhang Weili!” she yells triumphantly. “I am from China — remember me!”



Source link Nytimes.com

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