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Punching up

By SUN XIAOCHEN | China Daily | Updated: 2023-01-30 09:28
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Zhang supremacy

Las Vegas-based MMA organization the Ultimate Fighting Championship also saw Chinese fighters shine on its biggest stage in 2022, highlighted by strawweight queen Zhang Weili's return to the top of her division and a string of brave performances by Chinese men in the highly competitive Octagon.

Zhang, who first wrested the division's belt from Brazilian grappler Jessica Andrade in August 2019, reclaimed the title that she lost to American fighter Rose Namajunas in April 2021. Beating wrestling specialist Carla Esparza via a second-round submission in November at New York's Madison Square Garden, Zhang announced her return to supremacy in the division.

Esparza snatched the strawweight belt from Namajunas via a split decision in a bout in May last year, while Zhang recovered and regrouped for her second title shot.

Zhang's overwhelming win, secured with a rear-naked choke on Esparza, a veteran known for similar styles of wins in the Octagon, sparked a rousing global reaction, including from the likes of boxing legend Mike Tyson and Hollywood action star Sylvester Stallone, who watched the bout live at UFC 281 in New York.

After bringing the belt back home, Zhang is hoping to bring a pay-per-view live UFC event to China, where the hosting of international sporting events is expected to resume after the relaxing of pandemic prevention measures.

"If it is possible, I'd like to defend my title next year in China. It would be a wonderful experience to defend my belt at home for the first time in my career," said the 32-year-old Hebei native.

Despite the challenges in logistics and international travel caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, UFC remains bullish on the future of MMA in the Chinese market, with Zhang's return to the top generating more momentum for the sport.

After witnessing her crowd-pleasing win in New York, UFC president Dana White described Zhang as an anchor for the organization's ambitions in China.

"What you need to have to ignite a market is a badass fighter from that region … and she is helping to blow the thing up in China," White said at the post-fight news conference.

Since Zhang's first championship win in 2019, the UFC has been making steady inroads into the Chinese market. It opened its second Performance Institute in Shanghai in the same year and has developed a competitive roster of local fighters, such as fifth-ranked strawweight challenger Yan Xiaonan, men's welterweight striker Li Jingliang and bantamweight contender Song Yadong.

China's welterweight fighter Li Jingliang throws a punch at American opponent Daniel Rodriguez in a catchweight bout at UFC 279 in Paradise, Nevada, on Sept 10. [Photo/China Daily]

Li and Song, although having not won any titles, also delivered inspirational performances of their own in the brutally competitive competition.

Fighting in the UFC's 170-pound (77.1-kg) welterweight class, Li accepted an unfairly-matched bout on short notice against heavier opponent Daniel Rodriguez at UFC 279 in September. A major weigh-in discrepancy with main-event fighter Khamzat Chimaev forced the card to be reset, leaving Li no choice but to face Rodriguez, who was at least 10 pounds heavier than Li on the night, to save the event from collapsing.

Oversized and out-powered by Rodriguez, Li lived up to his Octagon moniker "Leech" throughout three rounds, taking on the American opponent with fierce punches and kicks, winning over fans and pundits, including UFC president White.

It was not enough for the judges, though, who scored the catchweight bout 29-28, 29-28, 28-29 in favor of Rodriguez.

"I thought Li won the fight," White said during the post-event news conference. "The judges were wrong in my opinion. It wasn't even, 'wow! That could have gone either way'. I was shocked when they said split decision."

Li, however, insists he is moving on from the controversy as he bids to punch his way back to title contention.

"The fight is over, I am not hurt and it's settled. It's time to move on, despite the disappointing result," said Li, who made his UFC debut in 2014.

"There are many things that are unfair in the world, yet I will never back down, facing whatever challenges come my way. I will keep marching forward and fighting for home. China Power! Come on!"

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