Chinese fighter Zhang Weili kicks American Tecia Torres in a women’s strawweight mixed martial arts bout at UFC 235 on March 2 in Las Vegas. Photo: IC
Zhang Weili began her journey to a UFC title shot aged 6, spurred on by a mother who made her jump out of ditches to toughen her up in case she needed to fend off violent men.
Now Zhang can become China’s first UFC world champion if she beats titleholder Jessica Andrade of Brazil in their strawweight showdown at the end of the month.
For Zhang, who turned 30 on Tuesday, the fight on home turf in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen on August 31 has wider significance.
“If I succeed I can inspire more women to think that they can also do this sport and be successful,” she told AFP in Beijing, as she ramped up preparations for the biggest bout of her life.
Zhang’s daily routine involves two gruelling hours-long training sessions where she dips, kicks and boxes her way around the ring. A large Chinese flag hangs on the wall.
She puts on boxing gloves and straps over painted nails, sporting purple glitter to match her shorts, before launching a series of high kicks and terrifying punches toward a well-padded male opponent.
Being a female mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter in China still raises eyebrows, said Zhang, even though UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) is making a concerted effort to promote the sport in the country.
“Every time I tell people I’m a fighter, they ask me if I can find a boyfriend,” she said.
“Many people don’t understand or have prejudices about fighting – especially for women.
“Men feel like if they have a fighter as a girlfriend they are going to be abused.
“But in fact this is our work, we are the same as ordinary girls.”
School bully basher
Zhang was born in Hebei, a province in northern China with a strong martial arts legacy.
She grew up surrounded by kung fu and martial arts schools, and began learning from a teacher in her rural neighborhood when she was just 6 years old.
It was Zhang’s mother who insisted she learnt at an early age how to look after herself.
“Many husbands in the countryside would beat their wives and she felt that girls should protect themselves,” said Zhang.
“My parents were very supportive of me.
“They never said, ‘You cannot practise this, girls should not practise this.’
“No, they said if you like it, we’ll support you.”
Zhang’s mother used to challenge her by digging a hole in the family’s land and making her jump in and out of it.
Once she had mastered it, her mum would dig a deeper one.
By the time she finished school, Zhang had already beaten up more than half of her class.
“Not that I bullied others, but when other kids were bullied, I went to help them,” she said.
“I think practising martial arts from childhood has a great influence on encouraging you to help others.”
Power of women
Zhang started her career in Chinese kick-boxing but was inspired to take up MMA by UFC legend Ronda Rousey.
The rapid growth of MMA plus the country’s ancient traditions have fuelled predictions of a major expansion in China.
UFC has just opened what they are billing as the world’s largest MMA training and development base in Shanghai.
But Zhang says her parents still will not watch her fight despite her mum’s key role in her career.
“They won’t even watch the live broadcast, they are too nervous,” she said.
“After the fight I call and tell them if I won.”
Zhang, who boasts a record of 19 wins and just one loss – in her first MMA bout in 2013 – will be the clear underdog against the more experienced Andrade.
But she hopes that just contesting the strawweight crown will have a profound impact that stretches beyond MMA and UFC.
“I want to prove the power of our women,” she said.
“The Chinese have never before played for the golden belt.
“If I can do that, I think it’s a breakthrough that can make more people realise the power of Asian women.”