Days before the fight to defend her league title, Zhang Weili, China’s most famous mixed martial arts fighter, felt her opponent trying to get under her skin.
The opponent, the Lithuanian-American fighter Rose Namajunas, had framed their confrontation for the 115-pound title of the Ultimate Fighting Championship as nothing less than an ideological fight between freedom and communism. “Better dead than red,” Ms. Namajunas said, using a McCarthy-era anti-Communist slogan.
But Ms. Zhang, 30, a straw who lost only one of her 22 professional fights, was not about to take the bait.
“We’re just athletes,” Ms. Zhang said in an interview in Jacksonville, Fla., Where she will face Ms. Namajunas in front of a sold-out crowd on Saturday.
“Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are so important,” she added.
Ms. Zhang may be modest about her own importance, but to her millions of fans, she is not only one of the greatest fighters in the world. Standing 5 feet 3 inches tall, Ms. Zhang has become a true, albeit reluctant, symbol of women’s rights and a national hero.
To viewers (and opponents) outside of her home country, she is the impactful face of a modern and assertive China and its Communist Party. For her government, she is the pride of the nation and a godsend for propaganda. To her female fans, she is a role model whose disregard for gender stereotypes has pushed the boundaries of what it means to be a Chinese woman.
For Ms. Zhang, however, such a speech is little more than a distraction. The fighter could easily wrap the Chinese flag around her shoulders after a victory, but she rarely speaks politics in public. She doesn’t have much to say about women’s rights and doesn’t consider herself a feminist. “What does this term even mean?” She asked, looking genuinely puzzled.
When not beating her opponents with powerful punches and kicks, Ms. Zhang belittles herself and is even goofy. She loves a good selfie filter and straightens up whenever the conversation turns into food.
But his colleagues say that beneath its sunny exterior hides a spirit focused solely on winning. This intensity, they say, propelled Ms. Zhang, the daughter of a coal worker, to the top of the UFC world rankings.
“No matter how many belts she wins, she doesn’t change,” said Cai Xuejun, Ms. Zhang’s coach since 2013. “We’re already at the top and she’s always thinking about how to improve.
Saturday’s fight will be Ms. Zhang’s first since March of last year, when she successfully defended her title in an epic five-round battle in Las Vegas against Polish fighter Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
At the time, China was still trying to bring the coronavirus under control and the United States was not yet stuck. Weeks before the fight, Ms. Jedrzejczyk posted a poster photographed of herself in a gas mask next to Ms. Zhang. She later apologized for shedding light on the virus.
“My country is ravaged by the epidemic,” said Ms. Zhang, moved, with her face barely recognizable by the swelling, after the fight. “I hope China wins the battle; the epidemic is a common enemy of humanity. “
While such patriotic rhetoric might suggest otherwise, Ms. Zhang was trained outside the state-controlled sports machine that grooms Chinese Olympians. Instead, the champion known to fans as “Magnum” discovered the love of fighting on her own.
Growing up in Northern Hebei Province, Ms. Zhang was an energetic child. She frequently fought with her two older brothers and was once caught trying to escape her kindergarten by climbing the walls. To keep her busy, her mother dug holes in the ground for the 5-year-old to practice jumping. Over time, the holes got deeper.
“My mother was very supportive of me,” Ms. Zhang recalls. “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 the sanda, a form of kickboxing developed by the Chinese military, instilled in him a sense of discipline.
Of her 500 students, Ms. Zhang was only one of 30 girls.
“When I was a kid, before I started training in martial arts, I did a lot of fighting,” she said. “Later, I stopped looking for my own fights – I just fought on behalf of other people.”
Although she won 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 hairdresser.
No way, Ms. Zhang remembers thinking. “I wanted to find my own way,” she says. She bought a one-way ticket to Beijing.
For the next six years, Ms. Zhang drifted to the capital and worked odd jobs, including as a hotel receptionist, kindergarten teacher, and security guard.
Ms. Zhang was working in a gymnasium in the early 2010s when she started to practice mixed martial arts. She liked the way MMA incorporated multiple styles of fighting, unlike traditional forms like kung fu.
She made the leap to professional fighting in 2013, and in 2018 she signed with the UFC The following year, she knocked out Brazilian fighter Jessica Andrade in just 42 seconds, winning the women’s strawweight title and becoming the first Chinese champion in UFC history.
Ms. Zhang has since become a national star. State-run news organizations called her “China’s most capable fighter” and “woman warrior in the East.”
After her victory last year in Las Vegas, she was drafted by the Communist Youth League to make a video encouraging young Chinese people to “dedicate their best youth to your beloved homeland.” Around the same time, the American cosmetics company Estée Lauder named it its brand ambassador in China.
On Chinese social media, Ms. Zhang often posts videos about her training sessions and her schnauzer, Miu, for her 5.5 million subscribers. Her fans frequently write on the inspiration of her rejection of traditional notions of how a woman should look and behave. Some people also speculate on her love life – she says she’s single – and joke that someone would dare date her given her violent occupation.
“These 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 UFC fights take place.
From her UFC earnings alone, Ms. Zhang has earned around $ 1 million, according to her agent. Despite this success, she said, not much in her life has changed. She still rents a house on the outskirts of Beijing with seven other people, including her trainer 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 boon to the UFC, which has actively expanded its presence in the country, including opening a $ 13 million training center in Shanghai.
“She’s been the tide that lifts all boats,” said Kevin Chang, UFC senior vice president for the Asia-Pacific region.
A few days before her confrontation with Ms. Namajunas on Saturday, Ms. Zhang said she felt good. She had already started torturing herself looking at pictures of the foods she hoped to eat after the fight. (Ice cream and steamed buns are some of her favorites, she said.)
Had she thought about what she would say in the octagon if she won? Could there be another passionate plea for humanity?
She wasn’t sure, but just in case she had an English signature line in her back pocket that she sometimes used after a win.
“My name is Zhang Weili!” she cries triumphantly. “I am from China – remember me!”