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Days before the fight to defend her championship title, Zhang Weili, China’s most famous mixed martial arts fighter, felt that her opponent was trying to get under her skin.
The opponent, the Lithuanian-American fighter Rose Namajunas, had described her fight for the 115-pound title of the Ultimate Fighting Championship as nothing less than an ideological competition between freedom and communism. “Better dead than red,” said Ms. Namajunas, using an anti-communist slogan from the McCarthy era.
But Ms. Zhang, 30, a straw weight who only lost one of her 22 professional fights, refused to take the bait.
“We’re just athletes,” Ms. Zhang said in an interview from Jacksonville, Florida, where she will face Ms. Namajunas in front of a sold out crowd on Saturday.
“Don’t worry about yourself being so important,” she added.
Ms. Zhang may be humble about her own importance, but to her millions of fans, she’s not just one of the greatest female fighters in the world. Ms. Zhang is a real, if reluctant, symbol of women’s rights and a national heroine.
For viewers (and opponents) outside of her home country, she is the powerful face of a modern, self-confident China and its Communist Party. To her government, she is the nation’s pride and propaganda boon. To her female fans, she is a role model whose defiance of gender stereotypes has pushed the boundaries of what it means to be a Chinese woman.
For Ms. Zhang, however, such a conversation is little more than a distraction. The fighter could easily hang China’s flag around her shoulders after a victory, but she rarely speaks about politics in public. She has little to say about women’s rights and does not see herself as a feminist. “What does this term actually mean?” she asked, seeming really confused.
When she doesn’t hit opponents with powerful punches and spin kicks, Ms. Zhang is self-deprecating and even stupid. She loves a good selfie filter and perks up every time the conversation turns to food.
But colleagues say that beneath their sunny exteriors is a ghost focused solely on winning. This intensity, it is said, has brought Ms. Zhang, the daughter of a coal worker, to the top of the UFC’s global rankings.
“No matter how many belts she wins, it doesn’t change,” said Cai Xuejun, Ms. Zhang’s trainer since 2013. “We’re already at our peak and she’s still thinking about ways to improve.”
Saturday’s fight will be Ms. Zhang’s first since March last year, when she successfully defended her title in an epic five-round bout in Las Vegas against Polish fighter Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
At the time, China was still trying to get the coronavirus under control, and the United States had not stalled yet. Weeks before the fight, Ms. Jedrzejczyk posted a photo poster 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 an emotional Ms. Zhang, whose face was barely visible from the swelling, after the fight. “I hope China will win the battle. The epidemic is a common enemy of humanity. “
Although such patriotic rhetoric suggests otherwise, Ms. Zhang was trained outside of the state-controlled sports machine that China’s Olympians maintain. Instead, the champion, known to fans as “Magnum”, discovered the love of fighting alone.
Ms. Zhang grew up in Northern Hebei Province and was an energetic child. She often fought with her two older brothers and was once caught trying to escape from 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 out of. Over time, the holes got deeper.
“My mother was very supportive,” recalled Ms. Zhang. “She always told me 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 deeply rooted fighting tradition.
The school, which focused on Sanda, a form of kickboxing developed by the Chinese military, gave her a sense of discipline.
Of the 500 students, Ms. Zhang was one of only about 30 girls.
“When I was a kid, before I started practicing martial arts, I had a lot of fights,” she said. “Later I stopped looking for my own fights – I only fought for 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 hairdresser.
There was no way Ms. Zhang remembered the thought. “I wanted to find my own way,” she said. She bought a one-way ticket to Beijing.
For the next six years, Ms. Zhang roamed the capital and worked odd jobs, including hotel receptionist, kindergarten teacher, and security officer.
Ms. Zhang was working in a gym in the early 2010s when she started practicing mixed martial arts. She liked how MMA incorporated multiple styles of fighting as opposed to traditional forms like kung fu.
She made the leap to professional combat in 2013 and signed with the UFC in 2018. The next year, she knocked out Brazilian fighter Jessica Andrade in just 42 seconds, took the women’s strawweight title and became the first Chinese female champion in UFC history.
Since then, Ms. Zhang has become a national star. State news agencies have called her “the most skilled fighter in China” and the “warrior of the east”.
After her victory in Las Vegas last year, she was enlisted by the Communist Youth League to shoot a video encouraging young Chinese to “dedicate their best youth to their beloved motherland.” Around the same time, the American cosmetics company Estée Lauder named her brand ambassador in China.
On Chinese social media, Ms. Zhang frequently posts videos about her workouts and her Schnauzer Miu for her 5.5 million followers. Her fans often write about how she finds inspiration in her rejection of traditional ideas about what a woman should look and act like. Some people also speculate about their love life – she says she is single – and joke that given her violent preoccupation, anyone would dare to meet her.
“These people don’t understand me. You only see who I am in the octagon, ”Ms. Zhang said, referring to the eight-sided ring where UFC fights take place.
Ms. Zhang made around $ 1 million from her UFC winnings alone, according to her agent. Despite this success, little has changed in her life. 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 was a godsend for the UFC, which has actively expanded its presence in the country and opened a $ 13 million training facility in Shanghai.
“It was the tide that raised all boats,” said Kevin Chang, UFC senior vice president for Asia Pacific.
Days before her Saturday showdown with Ms. Namajunas, Ms. Zhang said she was fine. She had already started torturing herself by looking at photos of the food she hoped to eat after the fight. (Ice cream and steamed buns are among her favorites, she said.)
Had she thought about what she would say in the octagon if she won? Would there be another passionate plea for humanity?
She wasn’t sure, but just in case she had a signature line in English in her back pocket that she sometimes used after a win.
“My name is Zhang Weili!” she screams triumphantly. “I’m from China – remember me!”