It wasn't enough that he was debuting in one of the premier promotions in the world, Zhang Tiequan had the weight of his entire nation on his broad shoulders going into his WEC 51 match on Versus. The first Chinese fighter to fight in North America, Zhang dealt with the pressure like a veteran and fought like one too. He looked composed on the feet and once the fight went to the ground, he took his time against Pablo Garza. Zhang (17-0) was able to score a submission victory in the first round Thursday night at WEC 51.
He's helping to potentially open the door for thousands of athletes out of a nation of 1.3 billion, but Zhang harnessed the pressure.
"I don't feel pressure. I feel like it's an encouragement, like a push," Zhang told the media gathered at the WEC 51 postfight press conference (16:30 mark). "Just knowing that it was being broadcast back home was an encouragement for me to want to step up my level, and it made me very excited."
WEC and its parent company Zuffa had a lot riding on the fight. Nothing will open the doors to China's potentially massive fanbase like one of its own succeeding at the highest level.
"It is very difficult to come over here to a foreign land like this and get in that cage with all those people watching and fight the highest level fighters in the sport," WEC GM Reed Harris (14:25 mark). "We were very happy and pleased with his performance tonight."
Now Zhang knows it's time to play catch-up.
"Mixed martial arts has had a longer development in America than it has in China, and I see there's a bit of difference in the levels right now," Zhang said (13:45 mark). "It was very exciting tonight to be able to perform in front of the American crowd and do well."
As far as his future, Zhang is probably a mid-level fighter at best. One quick correction from the AP's preview story on Zhang raises a red flag. It turns out that he's actually 32 years old, not 25 as the AP stated. One look at Zhang's receding hairline had us questioning the original report. Either way, he's broken through and hopefully this opens things up for a whole new class of fighters to emerge from China and deepen the talent pool in MMA.
WEC 51 undercard:
Zhang Tiequan def. Pablo Garza via submission (guillotine choke) – Round 1, 2:26.
Mike Brown def. Cole Province via TKO (punches) – Round 1, 1:18
Antonio Banuelos def. Chad George via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 30-27)
Chris Horodecki def. Ed Ratciff via split decision (28-29, 30-27, 30-27)
Diego Nunes def. Tyler Toner via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 30-27)
Demetrious Johnson def. Nick Pace via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27).