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Through the Looking Glass: The paths of Zhang Weili and Meng Bo

In sports, opponents and rivals are constantly coming and going. Despite that, the full stories of each side can’t be told without the other.

MMA has seen several legends take their lumps early on in their respective careers — there’s no better learning lesson than a defeat. However, it’s not often that we see notable degrees of success pan out for each. Historically, we’ve seen it where the losers go on to become greats while the other fades into obscurity — take a look at Anderson Silva and Jose Aldo with their first losses for a prime example.

In the case of Zhang Weili and Meng Bo, lack of success is nowhere to be seen.

November 9, 2013, marked the professional MMA debuts for each woman in their home country of China. Xi’an’s Meng was just an exuberant 17 years of age with roughly four years of training experience under her belt. The Handan native in Zhang, on the other hand, began her martial arts journey as early as six years old before facing Meng when she was 24.

The bout showcased tenacious efforts from both ladies eager to get their hands raised for the first time. Zhang’s aggressive kicking attacks early on quickly led to a takedown attempt near the cage with Meng reversing the momentum to get on top — a quick armbar threat would be slammed out of by Meng.

Inexperience was evident between both yet potential still glimmered through the cracks. Lesser refined kicking techniques from Zhang often led to sloppy takedown shots easily thwarted off by her opponent.

“After I lost my first fight [is when] I truly started,” Zhang told BJPenn.com in 2019. “I fought like an amateur and after the fight, I felt very angry. This is where I really started training MMA.”

Meng’s patented aggression and powerful right hand were on display even in her teens. Overall, the strength advantage was a key in the matchup as Zhang was simply pushed off balance on multiple occasions.

“I defeated Zhang Weili and no one can change that,” Meng said to MyMMANews in February. “We were not that experienced at that time, but we were not that amateur as well because we both had professional training and skills.”

After Meng’s unanimous decision victory, the two went their separate ways despite the rather baron Chinese MMA landscape and its few promotions. The present-day 115-pound combatants each went through some odd 132-pound catchweight bouts immediately following their clash.

Zhang’s debut would act as her only shortcoming until this past April whereas Meng fell short in her two consecutive bouts after the win — both of which came against current UFC bantamweight, Wu Yanan.

“I’m a boxer-type fighter, I spent two years fighting a total of 16 fights in 2017, I fought 11 fights a year, which I would like to thank my first tournament platform, Kunlun Fights [for],” Zhang said. “They gave me the opportunity. Of course, I was very happy. I’m really lucky, the fight experience is very important, technique and tactics were honed in the game, it was very important.”

The run that led Zhang to the UFC was almost exclusive to the Kunlun Fights cage where “Magnum” picked up 13 of her 21 career victories — one of which went to the judges’ scorecards.

Progression was rapid for Zhang and it ultimately led her to the title in one of her nation’s premier organizations, if not the premier organization. Wins over the likes of Simon Duarte to capture the Kunlun crown, Karla Benitez, and the pioneer that is Emi Fujino, only helped solidify a future UFC contract.

Despite Meng’s immediate stumbles vs Wu, they didn’t spell disaster as they perhaps did with the likes of Silva and Aldo’s early kryptonites.

While Zhang was making waves in Kunlun, Meng took a different route by going through several different promotions rather than finding consistency — that instead came in the form of an eight-fight winning streak to get back on track.

Zhang-Weili
PhotoCred: CGTN (Zhang Weili at weigh-ins)

A rough patch that saw Meng go 1-3 in four outings halted her momentum but she wound up finding a temporary home in the process with Glory of Heroes.

Zhang’s grappling abilities and overall striking technique improved significantly after debuting and she worked to prove that each and every time out in her 21-fight unbeaten streak. Losses to Aline Sattelmayer, Gabby Romero, and Lilya Shakirova in that four-fight stretch showed Meng what she needed to work on. She was, and remains, a powerful striker seemingly susceptible to more of the grinding type athletes — or sneakier ones like Romero who caught her in the armbar that Zhang could not in the years prior.

Luckily, youth is still on Meng’s side and another string of great performances was quickly birthed and a trio of finishes in a four-fight span earned the 22-year old a contract with ONE Championship.

Roughly six months earlier and Zhang had reached the UFC and extended her record to 19-1 by the time Meng debuted in ONE. Both fighters had earned their spots on two of the biggest stages and showed to show out upon arrival.

The now-vicious striking and clinch acumen possessed by Zhang pulled the UFC strawweight title into her clutches when taking on Jessica Andrade in Shenzhen on August 31, 2019. Despite the loss against her teenage counterpart in 2013 and the success each went on to have, the 32-year old “Magnum” won the race to the ultimate goal. It’s clearly not too late for Meng to get to the top of the mountain — Zhang now needing to reclimb.

Meng decimated Laura Balin and Priscila Gaol to kick off her ONE career. Thus making the division painfully aware that she was the new lethal weapon in town. A third — more reserved — performance against Samara Santos followed and granted Meng a spot in ONE’s upcoming contender tournament.

Meng Bo
PhotoCred: Asian MMA

A myriad of changeups ensued for the promotion and Meng in particular as she dealt with three opponent changes after her original fight scheduling with India’s Ritu Phogat — all of which were done by ONE on a whim.

This past Friday in Singapore, Meng went toe-to-toe with her original opponent in Phogat and suffered defeat after a sensational first round that showed many new skills and defensive improvements. The superior wrestler in “The Indian Tigress” was just too much as she hung in to survive the early onslaught and gain advantageous damaging positions in the closing two rounds. A tough yet vital lesson for one of China’s finest.

As much of a stinger to the soul as it surely was for Meng, it likely pales in comparison to Zhang’s second career defeat. The epic title win at home was historic and just the beginning of a long reign in a shark-infested 115 talent pool — so it seemed.

UFC 248 in March 2020 saw Zhang and former divisional queenpin Joanna Jedrzejczyk go back and forth in one of the greatest fights you’ll ever see. The champion defended successfully and took home fight of the night and fight of the year honors in the process — two achievements that were never really up for any debate.

Fast forward to a little over a year later and the UFC granted yet another former champion with a shot at their old hardware. This time it was one of the strawweight originals in “Thug” Rose Namajunas who toppled Jedrzejczyk in 2017.

78 seconds were all that was needed for Zhang to crumble via a pinpoint Namajunas head kick in Jacksonville, Florida’s VyStar Memorial Colleseum.

Zhang Weili Meng Bo
PhotoCred: UFC / Conan Daily

Both Zhang and Meng have accomplished a great amount for themselves, and maybe more so their country, in the eight-year-long 23-fight careers they’ve had to this point. Each and every setback has only escalated them to newer and greater heights — making how they each retaliate at this time all the more intriguing.

We can only fantasize about how a rematch between the duo would go but ever since their second fights, the MMA gods made it clear they were destined for separate paths to greatness. The question now is just whether or not one can regain that glory while the other continues seeking it out to the fullest.

“Yeah, I’m pretty annoyed with everyone comparing me with Zhang Weili,” Meng expressed with a smirk in February. “But it’s an honor to me as well. Though my record is not yet as shiny as Weili’s, my name Meng Bo has been mentioned with hers all the time. And now I set up a goal for myself that one day, and I do all my best effort to make that day come soon, that I will be the next MMA superstar. So people will take my name Meng Bo and they will ask Zhang Weili the other way around.”

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