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LAS VEGAS — Zhang Weili had the look on her face that an 8-year-old gives her mom when she’s told she has to finish her spinach before she can go out to play with her friends.
Zhang walked into a room in the UFC’s new Apex facility certain of what she was about to face: Questions about the coronavirus, its impact on her country, her opponent’s jokes about it and the role it’s played in her training.
The UFC’s first Chinese champion will face former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk on Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 248 at T-Mobile Arena in the first defense of her title that she won when she mugged Jessica Andrade on Aug. 31 in Shenzhen, China.
That victory, which came in just 42 seconds, was barely mentioned. Nor was the impact she could have on the sport in her country of 1.4 billion people.
Even when UFC president Dana White expressed his love for the fight and said he regularly checks Zhang’s Instagram account.
“Have you watched her training?” White asked a small group of reporters. “They had a video of her punching the other day. And I’m telling you right now, she throws punches better than 99.9 percent of the men that I’ve ever known in my entire career.”
Normally in a situation like this, that would have led to a debate about his comments and a series of follow-up questions, but this wasn’t a normal day. The coronavirus is no longer just a Chinese problem, and fear is gripping many in the U.S., where 11 people have already died as a result of it. Water, toilet paper and antibacterial soap are flying off the shelves in big box stores as people are trying to fight what could become a pandemic.
In a strange way, Zhang finds herself at the center of it. She began her training camp for this fight in China, but when the virus broke out, she went to Thailand. She was quarantined for two weeks there, then got out and was into her regular training again when the virus reached Thailand. That moved her to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and then to the U.S.
Fighters are notorious for being creatures of habit, and any changes to their routine can throw them off. And Zhang admits that it hasn’t been simple dealing with the changes in camp, let alone everything else she’s had to face.
“Saying it didn’t affect my camp or my preparation would be a lie,” Zhang said via her striking coach, Tommy Wang, who served as her interpreter. “Definitely, I got affected a little bit, but it’s a part of life.”
Judging by her appearance, it hasn’t affected her all that much. At an open workout, she lifted her T-shirt to display an incredibly muscled abdomen. It didn’t get that way while sitting outside, texting on her phone.
It was a hassle, but that’s pretty much all it was. Her parents and her brother remain in China but she has faith in the government’s response and feels they are safe.
So as she makes final preparations for her first title defense, nothing has taken her focus off of being the best fighter she can be when the bell rings on Saturday.
“I’m not worried about them at all, because the Chinese government is doing a fantastic job … to protect us,” she said of her family.
That can be debated, but what can’t is Zhang’s determination to turn a negative into a positive. MMA is a growing sport in China, mostly popular with younger people — where have we heard that before? — and she’s the poster child for Chinese MMA.
She could be the Trojan Horse for the UFC in China, which is why a statue of her and UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya stands in the lobby of the state of the art 93,000-square foot Performance Institute in Shanghai. The UFC wants to leverage the increased interest in MMA that came as a result of Zhang’s victory and turn it into bigger events with more and better Chinese fighters.
Zhang understands that, but she also understands that the Chinese people need some good news, and that a victory on the biggest MMA show in the world against a highly respected former champion would provide that for her countrymen.
“I might not have pushed myself or prepared as hard if not for the coronavirus,” she said. “China is going through a very tough time now, but everybody is doing their job. I did my job to make this happen and I believe winning will be great motivation for my country. I’m doing this for my people.”
Zhang irked by Jedrzejczyk’s coronavirus joke
She’s also doing it for White, who has promoted fights for 20 years, been around the fight game for a dozen years before that and is strangely giddy with anticipation for this fight.
He’s always had a fondness for Jedrzejczyk because of her willingness to fight anyone and her love of doling out punishment. And he has repeatedly referred to Zhang as “a gangster,” but only with the utmost respect.
“If you look at these two right now, Joanna’s out at the beach and is living the lifestyle,” White said. “Then you watch Weili Zhang’s posts on Instagram, hard-core training, nonstop training. All she’s about is fighting. It’s fascinating. I love this fight and you can dive in deeper to the stories about this fight, too.”
The biggest was a meme that Jedrzejczyk posted on Instagram of a phony fight poster featuring herself on it wearing a gas mask standing behind Zhang. Jedrzejczyk has apologized repeatedly for the post and soon deleted it, but Zhang was bothered. There have been more than 3,100 deaths worldwide from the coronavirus, the majority of them in China.
It wasn’t a laughing matter and Zhang made a point to repeat that several times.
“She was making jokes about the outbreak and making a joke about our nation, our country,” Zhang said of Jedrzejczyk. “A lot of people died from this coronavirus. A lot of families lost their family members. There are kids who lost their parents and have become orphans. It’s a very tragic moment for the Chinese people, but not only for Chinese people; it’s [tragic] for people all around the world. That she’s making jokes about that really, really made me irritated probably because of the culture difference.
“In Chinese culture, we don’t laugh at people who are suffering. We help them. We help them up. We build them up.”
And by defeating the woman who made the joke she found so distasteful, she hopes to build up her countrymen and show them what can be done.
“Anything,” she said, flashing a rare smile, “is possible when you are determined and put in the work. Anything.”
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