In the summer of 2017, the UFC made a historic move. It was one that many within the industry missed, but would prove to be a strategic step in the organization’s push into Asian markets. The industry-leader signed multi-time Sanda and Muay Thai champion Yan Xiaonan, making her the first Chinese woman to compete under the UFC banner. Xiaonan would go on to win her first three appearances for the promotion, competing solely in Asia. A more high-profile signing would soon follow.
While the UFC has picked up several women from the Asian continent, the biggest signing came in 2018 when they acquired former two-division Kunlun Fight champion, Weili Zhang. Zhang had been tearing it up on the Asian scene, going on a 16-fight streak before joining the UFC. She picked up wins over the likes of Simone Duarte, Marilia Santos and Emi Fujino along the way. Now with two victories inside of the octagon, the Black Tiger Fight Club star heads into the biggest fight in her career this Saturday. She looks to impress with a victory over Tecia Torres.
Weili Zhang fights Tecia Torres at UFC 235
In the middle of final preparations for Saturday’s fight, Zhang took time to speak with MMASucka.com ahead of the important strawweight affair.
“I was born in Handan; He Bei province which is a land of Kung Fu. Everyone trained some traditional Chinese martial art there. For me, martial arts attracted me from the very beginning. Like many of my peers our initial perception of martial arts came from those Kung Fu shows and movies. I even imagine that I could jump from tree to tree by training those techniques in the movies. Of course I didn’t actually jump, but this was how I got into the martial arts world.”
While many fans are familiar with striking arts such as boxing and Muay Thai, most are not as familiar with the Chinese art of Sanda. Zhang spoke a bit about the discipline, and how it differs from Muay Thai.
“Sanda originated from traditional Chinese Kung Fu. It involved a lot of those effective techniques from other Chinese Kung Fu arts. It is a well-rounded martial art focused on kicks, submissions, takedowns, and other strikes. The idea behind the system of Sanda is to use kicks for distance, strikes for contact and takedowns for grappling. While Muay Thai is more focus purely on a striking scenario. Punches, kicks, knees, and elbows are the main weapons of Muay Thai and demands ossification. I personally believe that Sanda has a faster pace and various styles of fighting.”
“Magnum” has her base in Sanda, but quickly fell in love with grappling. The BJJ purple belt spoke about her first impressions of the art.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
“The first time that I saw somebody practicing BJJ I was standing behind a glass window. I felt pretty embarrassed to see those people hugging each other and scrambling on the mat, especially with different genders. I stepped onto the mat anyway and after a few classes I was completely addicted. I think BJJ is an addictive combat sport. It demands your intelligence just like playing chess. You have to set traps and take your time to control your opponent, eventually leading to strangling them.
I eventually earned my purple belt under my professor Pedro Jordao. He is such a great coach. He has shown very solid and sound technique and strictness in training. I give him all the credit.”
Zhang captured many titles competing in both the strawweight and flyweight divisions in Asia while sharpening her tools. Training hard was important, but equally important to her development as a world-class combat sports athlete was learning how to train smart.
“Every experience in the ring was an opportunity for me to learn and improve, not only for myself but it helped me to connect with my team each time. From those fights, I learned how to analyze my opponent and prepare targeted training.”
While she captured the Kunlun Fight flyweight crown with a first round knockout victory over the previously unbeaten Simone Duarte, she moved up in weight more to challenge herself than anything else.
“I prefer to fight in the strawweight division. I competed at flyweight as an alternate. I thought it could give me a challenge. Luckily, I made it,” Zhang laughs.
Before entering into the UFC the Chinese star faced several notable opponents, with each posing a different test stylistically. Even with such an impressive resume, she views herself as her biggest challenge.
“Actually, I never felt such a way. I consider myself as my toughest opponent. For every fight I had to worked hard to surpass myself, because any flaw in my performance was a result of my mental and physical condition during the fight and the camp, not from my opponent.”
In two years the Black Tiger Fight Club product went 13-0, with 6 fights in 2016 and 7 in 2017. Keeping such an active schedule is almost unheard of in mixed martial arts. Zhang credits her training for making the schedule so manageable.
“I trained extremely hard during each camp so my fights were actually easy for me. Just like taking a nice holiday vacation. That’s why I could keep a healthy condition to challenge new opponents often.”
“Magnum” may be best known for her devastating elbows and striking attacks, but her underrated ground game is what earned her the victory over former WSOF strawweight champion Jessica Aguilar. While many were surprised at the ease Zhang submitted the seasoned veteran, the 2015 IBJJF Asian Open silver medalist knew that she was ready in every aspect of MMA.
“I am not surprised actually. I win before I fight. I made up my mind to be the champion in the most prestigious event since I decided to become a pro MMA athlete. My camp is always focused on the UFC title. Jessica is a great fighter, but I would still surpass her.”
Zhang will be entering the fight with Torres on a massive 18-fight run that includes 16 finishes, 7 submissions and 9 TKO triumphs. The fight with Torres marks the first time she will face a fighter ranked in the top 10 of the category. She hopes to take full advantage of the opportunity.
“I am ready for this great fight. I hope Tecia stayed healthy and prepared well in her camp, and comes in great condition when we meet in the octagon.” She continued “This will make history. Not a single Chinese fighter has faced such a high-ranking opponent as Tecia before. There will be fireworks. I will bring my best performance that night
At the top of the UFC’s 115-pound division is Rose Namajunas. Zhang recognizes the abilities of the current champion, but welcomes the challenge.
“Rose is a really well-rounded fighter and a dominating champion. It would require both superb physicality and great technique to stand a chance against her.”
The UFC has shown further dedication to China by announcing plans to build a performance institute in Shanghai in order to develop talent in the region. The facility is expected to be three times the size of its predecessor in Las Vegas, USA. This decision has been met with praise from many fighters, Zhang included. She believes it is the perfect time for the promotion to push further into China.
“The UFC made a brilliant move. China has thousands of years of martial arts tradition, and also has over 1.4 billion people. The market for the UFC in China would be magnificent when there is a Chinese leading athlete. China has a extremely huge population and has the vest martial arts fans. They are always expecting a distinctive leading figure. The pride and honor would boost the market rapidly.”
Zhang and her team expect nothing less than total victory Saturday night. She wanted to thank her supporters before concluding the interview.
“Me and my team have only one goal, the UFC championship belt. Defeating Tecia will get me one step closer to the title shot. I never fight without preparation. This fight will go as my previous 18 fights. I am just the executer of our team. I am not alone. This is our fight. I have to thank all of those who have supported me over the years. I will go in there and do what we planned. I will bring us a exciting victory. You will always be my strongest backup. Thank you for your support!”
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