Zhang Weili’s Palpable Influence On The UFC In China
Dana White must have had dollar signs for pupils after watching the stunning events of UFC 248 unfold. Heavy investment in China by the UFC over recent years can only be deemed successful if they could find a pinup athlete that could carry the sport to new heights and tap into the online masses, similarly to what McGregor and Bisping have done for the UK and Ireland, and Georges St-Pierre did for Canada. Well, it looks like they have found their fighter.
Arguably the most dangerous woman on earth and current Strawweight Champion Zhang Weili is doing serious bits for the MMA scene in China and shows no signs of slowing down.
After beating Jessica Andrade in August 2019 to become champion in her weight class, Zhang produced a scintillating display at UFC 248 in March 2020 to defend her belt against Joanna Jedrzejczyk. It was a brutal, relentless slug match that many have touted as the best women’s fight of all time. Some key points from the bout:
There were 351 significant strikes between them - the third highest in the history of UFC, male or female. Imagine getting punched in the face 175 times in 25 minutes.
In three of the five rounds, both fighters landed an identical number of shots. It was pretty even throughout, but the reason for Zhang’s win is that the judges deemed she “landed heavier high-impact shots”.
Zhang Weili has denied Jedrzejczyk a rematch - a shame for the fans but Zhang probably wants to hold onto that belt and who knows which way a rematch would go.
“That’s definitely a Hall of Fame fight. 100 percent.” - Dana White
Watch the official highlights here.
Both fighters showed incredible stamina and tenacity to go as hard as they did for five long rounds. As someone who has never been in a real fight, I can scarcely believe what I am seeing when two people can endure such physical punishment for 25 minutes and still create coherent sentences afterwards. If I stub my toe, the only words I can summon are a string of random expletives that don’t make any sense.
The fight was such a spectacle that it made Zhang Weili’s translator forget how to translate. He had a torrid time of it after the match when conveying the fighter’s heartfelt message regarding coronavirus and her country’s plight to the thousands in attendance. Hard to watch.
Both fighter’s faces were an absolute mess post-fight. The pair were given a two-month medical suspension after the fight, with Jedrzejczyk came off particularly badly; the gruesome lump on her forehead is one of the worst hematomas in MMA history and was caused by the blood vessels underneath super thin skin being continuously punched, eventually bursting open and creating the large swelling that we saw on the night.
So what impact did this fight have back home in Zhang Weili’s native province of Hubei and China in general? In a recent interview with the South China Morning Post, Zhang admitted that “she can’t even go for a run anymore without being recognised - even in a hazmat suit.”
Her popularity is growing at an exponential rate - 1.2 million followers on Weibo and 500k on Insta which is a testament to her international popularity as well as domestic. Her success has helped the official UFC account reach 5.6 million followers on Douyin (Chinese TikTok) and become the third-most followed account on WeChat, trailing only to the NBA and Manchester United.
This will all be music to Dana White’s ears. The huge new facility in Shanghai that I once tried and failed to get inside, a new online store on Alibaba’s Tmall platform, Zhang’s first title fight in Shenzhen, and names like Song Yadong and Heili Alateng following in Zhang Weili’s footsteps are all factors that are promoting the brand and reaching the Chinese online masses.
The UFC will look to emulate tactics used by the NBA when breaking into the Chinese market. Despite holding superstars like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan in almost god-like regard around the turn of the century and loving basketball as a nation, Mainland China only truly embraced the NBA when the Houston Rockets signed Yao Ming from Shanghai in 2000. Audience figures went through the roof when one of their own was involved, and the UFC will now look to Zhang Weili as an ambassador for the sport in her country.
Everyone’s favourite coronavirus COVID-19 has put a stop to any more fights being held on Chinese soil for now, but it’s only a matter of time until the UFC will look to exploit their new foothold. White, his associates, and millions of fans will be rubbing their hands together when contemplating the tantalising future of the UFC in China.
焕然一新 - to take on an entirely new look/change beyond recognition