Zhang Weili, the first ever Chinese and East Asian champion in UFC history, succesfully defended her title after beating Joanna Jędrzejczyk a former UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion. The fight took place on March 8th Beijing time, a day in China that recognizes women’s contributions and promotes gender equality. Zhang’s victory is not only a reward for her hard work, but also an inspiration for all Chinese women who are fighting against gender stereotypes.
Zhang was born in Handan, Hebei and her childhood was full of schoolyard fights. Zhang was always a tough girl who defended her friends. Those girls relied on Zhang to protect them when boys tried to bully them. Unlike many Chinese parents who restrain their daughter’s pluckiness, Zhang’s mother often pushed her to be stronger. “My mother would dig a hole in the yard and get me to jump in and jump out. If I could jump out, she would just dig a deeper hole and make me try again.” Her mom’s original intention to train her daughter was simple: to protect little Weili from being a victim of domestic violence in the future. She did not expect that her encouragement and training opened a door to the world outside Handan for her little girl. Growing up in such an encouraging and motivating environment, Zhang became stronger both physically and mentally.
She started training sanda when she was 12. As one of few girls on the team, she was often treated unfairly by her male peers. He inherent strength motivated her to work harder, and to beat everyone who once looked down on her. Two years later, Zhang won the Hebei provincial sanda championship as a teenager. However, luck was not always on her side. She had to withdraw from competing due to injuries. In order to make a living and continue her dreams, she moved to Beijing and found a job as a gym saleswoman. This job not only provided her salary to support her life and a place to practice for free, but also introduced her to the one who led her into the world of mixed martial arts training. Cai Xuejun, the owner of the Black Tiger Fight Club, decided to give Zhang a chance because “few women were willing to practice MMA but Zhang was very determined.”
Although she successfully returned from injury, the route to UFC was not easy. Zhang lost her first MMA match to Meng Bo, who is still the only woman to beat Zhang. Zhang then decided to resign her job in the gym and became a full-time boxer. Unfortunately, right after she decided to committ to becoming a fighter, Zhang was injured again and had to stop training for over 9 months, which was the “darkest time” in her life. Although the idea of giving up once loomed, Zhang was determined to give herself another chance. Thanks to her insistence and determination she is an icon who continuously makes history and inspires a generation. Zhang started her era immediately after coming back. She became the Kunlun Fight strawweight champion in 2016 and 2017 and signed with UFC in 2018. As the largest MMA promotion company in the world, UFC has a very selective process to feature the highest-level fighters in the sport. Although Zhang was undoubtedly a queen in China, the name of Zhang Weili meant nothing as a newcomer to the league. Many top athletes rejected to compete with her. Her opponent this time, Joanna Jędrzejczyk, even once replied “Who’s that?” to a comment asking about Zhang Weili.
Fortunately, Jessica Andrade, the reigning strawweight champion accepted Zhang’s challenge. However, unfortunately for Andrade, Zhang only took 42 seconds to knock-out her and win China’s first title in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Zhang spent almost twenty years with her fists finally finding her voice in the largest stage of her field.
Before the match, Joanna, Zhang’s most recent opponent, posted on social, in which her face was masked to joke on the spreading coronavirus in China. In the pre-game press conference, Joanne approached Zhang aggressively and threatened ‘I’ll make you quit’. Responding to Jonna’s provocation, Zhang only spoke two words, “Shut up!”
Although feeling disrespected, Zhang still sent her respect and appreciation to Joanna after the game and thereby won the respect from her opponent. “I respect each of my opponents. Joanna is a very powerful martial artist.” After the fight ended, both Zhang and Joanna went to hospital for treatment. Zhang told media that “She was crying for hours. We cannot understand each other’s language and I could only repeat good job to relieve her. When she completed her treatment, she told me the future would be even harder and she wished I could defend my titles forever.” In a recent interview, different from her previously arrogant comment on Zhang, “who’s that”, Joanna claimed that she would definitely fight against Zhang again.
People treat Zhang Weili as a hero not only because she is making history, but also since she is inspiring a lot of Chinese women to say no to unfair pressures assigned onto women. Affected by convention, Chinese women have been living under anxiety related to age, marriage, fertility, and beauty standards for a long time. They are asked to get married and give birth at “an appropriate age”, to take care of family, to keep slim, to look young, and to be kind. When Zhang was asked about rumors that she is not a suitable wide, Zhang underscored marriage is not the only option for a woman and she felt it is ridiculous that some people assumed she would physically harm her future partner. “I am paid to fight. Why would I beat you if I am not paid?”
Zhang’s dramatic rise comes as Chinese feminism vows to break all those standards and welcome a more diverse and inclusive female profile. As Zhang said, “Women should not be defined. It is unfair to require women to have to be soft, to marry when people feel they should, or to take care of husbands and children. Women can have different sides. I am now working in a male-dominant field, but I have still found my position and earned people’s respect. Women can be soft, but can also be strong.”