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Flying female fists fuel interest in combat sports

THE ARTICLES ON THESE PAGES ARE PRODUCED BY CHINA DAILY, WHICH TAKES SOLE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE CONTENTS

Sun Xiaochen
Monday 04 July 2022 10:45 BST
Chinese mixed martial arts fighter Zhang Weili in training
Chinese mixed martial arts fighter Zhang Weili in training (XINHUA)

Making a strong comeback from disheartening setbacks, Chinese mixed martial arts fighter Zhang Weili has rejuvenated her career while inspiring greater interest in the combat sport in her home country.

Zhang, who won the nation’s first MMA world title in 2019, punched her way back into title contention by securing her 22nd career victory on June 12, 2022, defeating Poland’s Joanna Jedrzejczyk in a rematch of their first encounter two years ago.

The Chinese fighter is a former strawweight champion competing in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, which is based in Las Vegas.

Cheered on by enthusiastic spectators on June 12 at Singapore Indoor Stadium, Zhang ended the thrilling clash at UFC 275 by landing a spinning backfist to Jedrzejczyk’s neck in the second round, sending the crowd into a frenzy while securing a shot at redemption in the women’s 115lb division.

Zhang became China’s first world champion in a major promotion in August 2019 after wresting the strawweight belt from Brazil’s Jessica Andrade in Shenzhen, South China’s Guangdong province.

The unexpected win in just her fourth fight since signing up with UFC in 2018 awakened unprecedented awareness of MMA in a country with ancient martial arts rooted deeply in its culture. This full-contact sport, which was developed in the West, allows a wide variety of combat skills and styles in one bout.

Zhang is inspiring greater interest in the combat sport in China (XINHUA)

Known as the “Magnum” for her ferocious striking, Zhang said she takes more pride in representing Chinese women’s resilience and strength in the tough world of MMA than in earning a second title shot.

“What makes me prouder today is that I put girls’ power on full display, while proving to the doubters that we can do anything we want in whatever business we like,” said Zhang.

Although cutting a modest figure away from the Octagon, or cage, for her millions of fans at home and abroad, Zhang has become a larger-than-life role model and symbol of women’s rights.

Zhang said of the inspiration she drew from US legend Ronda Rousey, who became the first female to sign a UFC contract in 2012: “I set my goals when I saw her fight for the first time. I wanted to show that girls can be soft and gentle, but we can also be as strong as steel and as hard as rocks.”

With Zhang now spearheading UFC’s expansion in China, and a group of her younger compatriots joining up to fight across the world, MMA is making deeper inroads in the nation, where there has always been an interest in martial arts, underlined by action movies featuring kung fu stars such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.

Kevin Chang, UFC’s senior vice-president for Asia, credited Zhang for almost single-handedly opening the gate to perhaps the biggest untapped market for combat sports.

“It’s been phenomenal,” Chang said last year. “Weili is the North Star and a great inspiration to all our fighters in China. There is no question that she’s entered into the collective consciousness in Asia.”

To match Zhang’s impact, UFC has invested in an increasing number of facilities and resources to scout for and develop local talent in China, signing up 27 fighters, including some who have retired.

To anchor its talent cultivation programme in China, UFC opened its Performance Institute in Shanghai in June 2019 – an addition to a similar facility it has in Las Vegas. The Shanghai institute, which occupies 8,600 square metres, offers promising Chinese athletes a range of physical training, skills development and rehabilitation services, as well as amenities such as diet food and cryotherapy chambers for recovery.

Chang expects the talent system to help MMA find its own Yao Ming to emulate the legendary basketball star’s impact on popularising the NBA in China.

“When you have a locally relevant fighter, that’s really going to increase engagement, interest, viewership – everything, every metric. In a sense, it’s the Yao Ming effect,” Chang said in Singapore recently.

Previously published on Chinadaily.com.cn

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