Just In Weili Zhang surprised at UFC Shenzhen title shot, but ready to show world who she is MMA Life

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When Weili Zhang got the call to fight Jessica Andrade, many were surprised – including Zhang herself.

She will challenge Andrade for the women’s strawweight title on Aug. 31 in the main event of UFC on ESPN+ 15 in Shenzhen, China, in front of her home crowd.

With only three UFC fights, Zhang (19-1 MMA, 3-0 UFC) still is relatively unknown to the general public. But she hopes to introduce herself to the world with a championship-winning performance in her home country.

“I think I am a new fighter – (fans) don’t know me,” Zhang told MMA Junkie. “But everything in the octagon is based on strength and facts. They will see that and I have to show that they will like the new champion.”

With the recent growth of MMA in China, and the UFC recently opening a Performance Institute in Shanghai, it seems like all the doors are starting to open for young athletes coming out of the country.

And with Zhang’s opportunity to wrap gold around her waist, she hopes to inspire the Chinese youth, helping the sport to continue to grow there.

“China’s MMA development is relatively late,” Zhang said. “All the people who are involved in MMA have been working hard. We are all waiting for an opportunity. Now that the opportunity is coming, I will do my best to make the most of it – to realize my dreams of many years.

“If I succeed this time, this will inspire more athletes who practice MMA and make all those who train MMA more confident. It’ll show them that we can do better in the octagon.”

Zhang is coming off a unanimous decision win over Tecia Torres at UFC 235 and is on a remarkable 19 fight winning streak. She hasn’t lost since dropping her pro MMA debut, and has finished 16 of her 19 pro wins.

It’s been hard for Zhang to find opponents. Since beating Torres in March, she had been looking for a top-ranked opponent. She was hoping to land either former strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk or Claudia Gadelha, but Zhang said they both turned her down.

“When I finished my fight at UFC 235, I felt very good physically,” Zhang said. “So I quickly received news of being able to fight again. After my fight at UFC 235, I was ranked at No. 7 (in the UFC rankings). Ahead of me in the rankings, only two people at the time were the ones who did not have fights – fifth-ranked Gadelha, and second-ranked Joanna. I was very excited at the time, but both of them turned down a fight with me before and after.”

Zhang could do nothing but stay ready and continue to train. After a third opponent turned her down, she was advised by her manager, Brian Butler, to divert her attention to the winner of the Alexa Grasso and Karolina Kowalkiewicz fight, which took place at UFC 238 and ended with a Grasso win.

Zhang explained how it all went down.

“After the two rejections, my mentality was still very peaceful and I felt that there was no problem,” Zhang said. “Later, there was another seventh-ranked one who refused a fight with me. So three people turned me down, which made me feel a little lost. I felt that I lost my goal in training and preparation. This situation happened before I signed with the UFC. At that time, my manager said, ‘It’s not easy to find an opponent for Weili. Is this happening again?’ During this time, I kept urging my manager to call. I even texted (UFC president) Dana (White). Now I think it was all really crazy.

“After the three opponents turned me down, my manager, Mr. Brian, told me again that I needed to fight the winner of Grasso and Karolina. At that time, I was in a very bad state. My coaching team deliberately gave me a week off and I waited for the fight between the two of them to end. When the fight was over, I immediately began to prepare for the fight.”

And while preparing for the eventual winner, Grasso, whom she projected she would fight next, she got the call to fight for the title – a call that Zhang and her team were elated to receive.

“On the third day, I started preparing for the battle and I received the news that shocked me,” Zhang said. “All members of our team were surprised. We feel that it is indeed a bit fast – and the experience of all the big ups and downs that got me here makes me ecstatic.”

Newly crowned champion Andrade (20-6 MMA, 11-4 UFC) is coming off a second-round slam knockout of Rose Namajunas at UFC 237, a fight she was behind in on the scorecards. The Brazilian powerhouse showcased her strength to get the win, and Zhang knows that this is a game of inches.

“It was an amazing fight,” Zhang said. “At the beginning of the fight, both of them showed their skills. They were able to successfully apply their own technical and physical traits. I think Rose Namajunas made a mistake and Jessica Andrade seized the opportunity. Fights in the UFC are like this. The fighters here are all monsters, and there are no weak ones.”

Come Aug. 31, Zhang said she knows she’s in for a war.

“She relies heavily on her wrestling skills, and her power is enormous” Zhang said. “Her fists are also very heavy and she’s also a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I know this is not an easy fight. She likes to wrestle and she hits very hard.”

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