Zhang Weili began her journey to an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) title shot at age six, spurred on by a mother who made her jump out of ditches to toughen her up in case she needed to fend off violent men.
Now Zhang could become China’s first UFC world champion if she beats title-holder Jessica Andrade of Brazil in their strawweight showdown at the end of the month.
For Zhang, who turned 30 yesterday, the fight on home turf in Shenzhen on Aug. 31 has wider significance.
“If I succeed I can inspire more women to think that they can also do this sport and be successful,” she said.
Zhang’s daily routine involves two grueling training sessions where she dips, kicks and boxes her way around the ring.
She puts on boxing gloves and straps over painted nails, sporting purple glitter to match her shorts, before launching a series of high kicks and terrifying punches toward a well-padded male opponent.
Being a female mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter in China still raises eyebrows, Zhang said, even though UFC is making a concerted effort to promote the sport in the country.
“Every time I tell people I’m a fighter, they ask me if I can find a boyfriend,” she said. “Many people don’t understand or have prejudices about fighting — especially for women.”
“Men feel like if they have a fighter as a girlfriend they are going to be abused, but in fact, this is our work. We are the same as ordinary girls,” she said.
Zhang was born in Hebei, a province with a strong martial arts legacy.
She grew up surrounded by kung fu and martial-arts schools, and began learning from a teacher in her rural neighborhood when she was just six years old.
Many people in China hold traditional attitudes about gender roles, but it was Zhang’s mother who insisted she learned at an early age how to look after herself.
“Many husbands in the countryside would beat their wives and she felt that girls should protect themselves,” Zhang said.
“My parents were very supportive of me. They never said: ‘You cannot practice this, girls should not practice this.’ No, they said: ‘If you like it, we’ll support you,’” she added.
Zhang’s mother used to challenge her by digging a hole and making her jump in and out of it. Once she had mastered it, her mom would dig a deeper one.
By the time she finished school, Zhang had already beaten up more than half of her class.
“Not that I bullied others, but when other kids were bullied, I went to help them,” she said. “I think practicing martial arts from childhood has a great influence on encouraging you to help others.”
Zhang started her career in Chinese kickboxing, but was inspired to take up MMA by UFC legend Ronda Rousey.
The rapid growth of MMA, plus the nation’s traditions, have fueled predictions of a major expansion in China. UFC has just opened what it is billing as the world’s largest MMA training and development base in Shanghai.
However, Zhang said that her parents will still not watch her fight.
“They won’t even watch the live broadcast, they are too nervous,” she said. “After the fight I call and tell them if I won.”
Zhang, who boasts a record of 19 wins and just one loss — in her first MMA bout in 2013 — will be the clear underdog against the more experienced Andrade.
However, she hopes that just contesting the strawweight crown will have a profound effect that stretches beyond MMA and UFC.