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Yan sticking to master plan

By SUN XIAOCHEN | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2020-09-10 09:06
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Yan Xiaonan has her sights firmly set on going all the way to the top of the Ultimate Fighting Championship-but that could mean needing to dethrone the world champion compatriot she counts as an inspiration.

Fighting in the strawweight division ruled by Zhang Weili, Yan's route to that possible all-Chinese title showdown has been delayed by the postponement of her next bout against Brazilian grappler Claudia Gadelha.

Originally set to take on Gadelha (18-4) in Abu Dhabi on Sept 26, Yan (12-1) now has to wait around another two months in the United States, amid COVID-19 risks, for the matchup. After landing in Las Vegas last week, Yan learned that Gadelha had sustained a left-knee injury, with the fight now scheduled for Nov 7 at an as-yet-undecided location.

Buoyed by a five-fight winning streak since signing up with UFC in August 2017, Yan expects to keep climbing the division's rankings with a win over the sixth-ranked Gadelha.

"I've kept working out through the pandemic shutdown and I am in the best possible shape I could be. I just wish the fight could happen right away," Yan, who ranks 10th in the division, told China Daily in a recent telephone interview.

"My striking versus her grappling, my advantage is my movement. I will have to keep fighting on my feet and avoid being caught up by her. I am confident that I can knock her down as early as the second round."

Known as "Fury" in the Octagon, the 31-year-old Yan is coming off the biggest wins of her career-a pair of decisions over veterans Karolina Kowalkiewicz of Poland in February and American striker Angela Hill in June last year.

The Shenyang native is unbeaten in her last 11 fights, a record which includes five appearances in various other international and domestic promotions.

A former strawweight title challenger, Gadelha, 31, has bounced back from a 2018 loss to Nina Ansaroff with back-to-back wins over Hill and Randa Markos in her last two bouts to improve her Octagon record to 7-4.

Zhang's rise to prominence has taken MMA into the sports mainstream in China.

The 31-year-old wrested the strawweight belt off Brazil's Jessica Andrade in August 2019 in Shenzhen and retained it in March after overpowering Polish veteran Joanna Jedrzejczyk via split decision in Las Vegas.

As the first Chinese woman signed by UFC, Yan acknowledges the significance of Zhang's groundbreaking title victory, but is far from in awe of her rival.

"Her success brings more attention to our sport and helps open up more opportunities for younger athletes. She is a trailblazer for MMA in China," Yan said of Zhang's impact.

"But I am going for the title as well. I will keep fighting and winning until I earn my shot at the belt. If it ends up that one day in the near future we face off against each other in a title fight, it will be the peak of Chinese MMA, which would be proof of the great progress we've achieved in our sport."

To make that clash happen, Zhang has her own challenges to deal with first after American Rose "Thug" Namajunas, a former division champion, earned a title shot against Zhang following a split-decision win over Andrade in July.

Although not officially announced yet, Zhang's title defense against Namajunas, which is expected to be held later this year in either Las Vegas or Abu Dhabi, has been touted as one of the most anticipated events since UFC returned from its COVID-19 shutdown in May.

"For Zhang's next fight, I think she could win as Rose is not as strong as Jedrzejczyk. And if I win my fight against Gadelha, I think the all-Chinese fight will happen soon," Yan said.

Since winning her last fight in Auckland against Kowalkiewicz, Yan has been training solidly with an experienced team, who have been giving her real combat tests at least three times a week to go with high-intensity striking and grappling drills.

Now stuck in the US, Yan has more concerns over the health of her team than the quality of her training.

"It's a risk that we have to take to be able to fight again. Hopefully it will prove worthwhile after my fight," she said.

With 12 active Chinese fighters signed on official contracts, the UFC has kept investing in its talent development program in China with high hopes of nursing more world champions like Zhang.

The promotion opened the UFC Performance Institute in Shanghai last year to facilitate the training of athletes selected from local MMA clubs and martial arts schools to enter its talent pipeline on scholarship programs. The state-of-the-art Shanghai venue, an 8,600-square-meter facility, is almost three times the size of the UFC's original Las Vegas PI.

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