Mixed martial arts fighter Zhang Weili is China’s next global sports star

Zhang Weili vs Joanna Jedrzejczyk 1 1

Here’s a name you should be prepared to hear much more in the sports world: Zhāng Wěilì 张伟丽.

The 30-year-old Hebei native successfully defended her Ultimate Fighting Championship strawweight title on Saturday at UFC 248 in Las Vegas in a fight that many are calling the best ever in women’s MMA. Zhang and her opponent, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, stood face to face in the middle of a cage and for 25 minutes tried to bash each other’s face in. They both succeeded.

Each woman threw roughly 400 punches, with the odd elbow and kick mixed in. At the end of five rounds, both were bruised and bloody — Jedrzejczyk suffered a grotesque hematoma that made her forehead look literally like an alien’s — but it was Zhang who was awarded the judge’s decision. “It’s one of the best fights I’ve ever seen, period,” UFC president Dana White gushed afterward.

Before the fight, there was concern about whether Zhang would even be allowed to fly to the U.S. due to the COVID-19 epidemic. But she made it, and used the virus as motivation. “I might not have pushed myself or prepared as hard if not for the coronavirus,” she said before the fight. “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.”

When Jedrzejczyk posted a meme (since deleted) of a promotional poster showing herself wearing a gas mask, Zhang fired back on Instagram: “Say what you want about me if it makes you feel stronger but do not joke about what’s happening here. I wish you good health until March 7th.”

Zhang backed up her words — and is now being celebrated for it.

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—Anthony Tao