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Zhang rejects Yao comparisons as UFC champion high-kicks the hype

China Daily | Updated: 2020-06-18 10:01
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Zhang Weili is put through her paces by coach Ruben Payan at the UFC Performance Institute in Shanghai on Monday. The 30-year-old Zhang shot to global acclaim after becoming China's first UFC champion last August. [Photo/Agencies]

SHANGHAI-Zhang Weili retained her Ultimate Fighting Championship title in March in one of the greatest women's fights in MMA history, was then stranded in the United States for six weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic and finally flew back to China in a protective suit and visor.

But after all that, it was the sight of airport and medical staff with "welcome home" scribbled on their own protective gear to greet arriving passengers that deeply affected her.

"I was really touched and excited, I've never felt such warmth in all my life," China's first and only UFC champion told AFP in Shanghai.

The 30-year-old Zhang, who as a child was challenged by her mother to jump out of ditches to toughen her up, has enjoyed a life-changing 10 months.

Last August she thrilled a home crowd in Shenzhen with a knockout of UFC champion Jessica Andrade of Brazil in just 42 seconds to make mixed-martial-arts history.

Zhang then successfully defended the strawweight title in a brutal dust-up in Las Vegas in early March against Poland's Joanna Jedrzejczyk, despite her build-up being badly disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak.

She boasts a 21-1 MMA record and UFC president Dana White has touted her to rank alongside Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey as a global superstar of the sport.

The excitement surrounding Zhang's swift rise to prominence has reached such an extent in China that she is being mentioned in the same breath as basketball giant Yao Ming, who led the Houston Rockets to the NBA playoffs four times. However, the articulate Zhang, who hails from the northern province of Hebei, gives that lofty comparison a swift verbal jab.

"I am not Yao Ming or anyone else," she said. "I just want to be a better me."

Before the latest Beijing outbreak, the coronavirus had eased in China, allowing Zhang to conduct an open workout for the media at UFC's newly built Performance Institute in Shanghai this week.

But UFC fight nights, like most sports, are taking place behind closed doors to prevent the spread of infections among spectators.

Asked about the pandemic's impact on her daily life, Zhang replied: "My life is about training. So if it affects my training, it affects my life."

Zhang's next opponent has not been confirmed, but the prospect of defending her title with nobody there to cheer, or jeer, is not one she relishes.

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