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Zhang Weili's historic win to boost women’s MMA in China

By Li Zhenyu (People's Daily Online)    17:58, April 06, 2020

Zhang Weili’s stunning recent victory in the UFC women’s strawweight division has left a mark in the history books, but her influence in China's women’s Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) runs far deeper.

Zhang Weili (21-1), the first UFC champion from China, defended her UFC strawweight title earlier in March by defeating the powerful former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk (16-4) in an epic battle that was considered by many to be one of the greatest fights in women’s MMA history.

It was a close fight that saw Zhang Weili emerge victorious with a split decision. Two of the judges scored it 48-47 in favor of Zhang, while the other scored it 48-47 for Jedrzejczyk.

It was Zhang Weili's first defense of her strawweight title and her 21st win in a row. She has not lost a single fight since 2013.

Zhang had claimed the UFC title in August 31, 2019 in her last fight against Jessica Andrade, defeating her Brazilian opponent in just under a minute via technical knockout. In just 42 seconds, Zhang had become China's first UFC champion.

But her adversary this time was very different. Jedrzejczyk was known as the queen of the strawweight division, had held the title for two and a half years and defended it five times. She was regarded as one of the greatest women’s champions in UFC history.

Strong foes make for spectacular fights

"I'd have to say the best women's fight I've ever seen, and one of the best fights I've ever seen," said UFC President Dana White.

"We both put on one hell of a performance," said Jedrzejczyk. "She did great."

Associated Press called it "one of the most spectacular title fights in recent mixed martial arts history" as well as "one of the most viscerally entertaining bouts in recent UFC history".

Sports Illustrated wrote in an article titled "Zhang Weili Wins Most Compelling Women's Title Fight in MMA History" that the match "will stand the test of time as one of the most remarkable fights in UFC history".

ESPN.com called it "a contender for fight of the year".

Yahoo published an article titled "Zhang Weili edges Joanna Jedrzejczyk in one of the best UFC title fights in history". The war between Zhang and Jedrzejczyk was "one of the greatest championship fights, if not one of the great fights period, in UFC history,” the article wrote.

Highway to stardom

The fight has elevated Zhang Weili to superstar status in women’s MMA, a view echoed by UFC President Dana White, who said, "She's going to be a massive star".

"She is humble, brave, diligent, and hasn't changed her lifestyle after being famous. This is the mindset of a true champion," said Vaughn Anderson, a Canadian former fighter who has been involved in China's MMA for several years.

MMA is as much a part of the entertainment industry as it is the sports industry, and aims to maximize its economic profits and social effects. It needs superstars to help grow the business.

Zhang Weili has the potential to be a global star, and is a critical part of the UFC's desire for growth in China, where MMA is on the rise.

MMA exploded in popularity in North America a decade ago and has virtually become a mainstream sport in the region.

It is highly commercialised in North America, where the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is an established global brand for mixed martial arts.

But in China, MMA is far from realizing its full potential.

With a population of more than 1.4 billion, China has a massive market for Kung Fu, or martial arts in Chinese.

Kung Fu has thousands of years of tradition, putting down deep roots in Chinese culture. Kung Fu literature and movies have had a profound and far-reaching influence, and popular Kung Fu novelists are household names in China.

Although Chinese martial arts has a large following, it has never been a major sport in China, where Western sports such as soccer, basketball and tennis have tended to dominate the domestic market.

Some insiders believe that the sorry state of Chinese martial arts is partly due to the industry's low level of commercialization and lack of platforms for events.

This is despite the fact that China has adopted the concept of professional sport from the West and brought in league systems more than 30 years ago.

A sports industry built entirely upon the free market economy system is still far from fully developed in China.

This means China's Kung Fu market has tremendous untapped potential.

Will Zhang open the door for future female MMA stars?

Yao Ming's stardom played a significant role in getting Chinese fans to truly engage with basketball. The Chinese giant had an outstanding career on the international stage, which helped fuel Chinese people's passion for the sport.

Zhang Weili looks set to be travelling the same path. Her historic triumph over the mighty Joanna Jedrzejczyk is arguably a watershed moment in Chinese MMA.

From a business perspective, Zhang Weili is a valuable asset for brands seeking to build their name in the world's most populous nation. And for the UFC, she is the key to its hopes of making inroads into China's vast and lucrative market.

In return, the American brand will help elevate the overall competitiveness of female Chinese fighters to a level where they can compete with the best fighters in the world.

By the same token, Zhang Weili's journey to superstardom is part of China's journey to realizing its potential in women’s MMA.

As the new MMA star once put it: "As a Chinese person, I feel so proud. China is equally proud of its first UFC champion."

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Hongyu, Bianji)

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