One of the most iconic movies in cinematic history is the 1994 film “Baby’s Day Out,” which immediately conjures up scenes of a young infant treading across a number of places where babies ideally shouldn’t be (such as heavy traffic, a gorilla cage, a revolving door and high scaffolding). UFC strawweight champion Weili Zhang recently confessed that she had done something similar in her infancy when she was four years old. Zhang escaped the confines of a kindergarten school which she considered to be “prison.” Like a true four-year-old ninja (a phrase which I never expected to use and mean in earnestness), Zhang managed to scale a wall by bouncing herself off a pillar and finding a high window, leaping off that window on to a tree, and then climbing down to the ground. If all of this sounds incredible to you, you aren’t alone. Zhang recently confessed to these actions, characterising them as actions that she was as proud of as winning gold in the UFC.
Zhang details out her childhood, one in which her inclination towards martial arts would be noteworthy. According to Zhang, her mother was extremely supportive of her young daughters unique ambition. She would dig holes in the ground and a young Weili would aim to jump out of them. Upon succeeding, her mother would increase the difficulty by digging a deeper hole for Weili to jump out of.
Zhang believes her early childhood behaviour was more than antics from an over-energetic child. She had achieved instinctively, what many martial artists from the Chinese tradition strive for. Bruce Lee, an idol to many martial artists including Weili, has immortalised the phrase “Be formless, shapeless, like water.” Zhang’s interpretation of this phrase was that it exposed the limitations of logic, the lesson learnt was that she would have to “feel things, discover it truly by oneself” and she resolved to do so.
Her parents support allowed Weili to pursue martial arts training and her natural talent allowed her to blossom. She suffered a major setback in the form of an injury at the age of 17. Her parents out of concern for her coerced her into enrolling at a beauty school. Zhang saw this as another prison, but remembered the insight from Bruce Lee and realised that she could never be truly as trapped as it looked. Eventually she would change jobs, and began working as a receptionist in a well-equipped gym. Her employer allowed her to train at the gym and eventually she would transition to a sales role where her natural enthusiasm for martial arts proved to be infectious and therefore made her very effective at her job.
Mixed martial arts would eventually surface on Zhang’s radar in 2012. Ronda Rousey’s victory over Liz Carmouche would provide Zhang with a fresh burst of inspiration and Zhang would proclaim on social media that she would one day fight in the UFC. Zhang would eventually begin training in MMA on a full time basis and her injuries would prove to be an obstacle once more. Zhang’s love for martial arts however was not diminished. She would sit silently in a corner watching other athletes train with a keen eye in the hopes of learning. Nonetheless, the emotions would get the better of her and for the first time, Zhang would feel like there was no escape. But fortunes change and Zhang would one day receive a call from her former employer. This would open new doors, as Zhang would discover better medical practitioners, who would prove to be effective in healing her injuries.
Zhang’s discipline which had never left her even in her darkest moments would eventually pay off. She would begin competing in regional MMA tournaments in China, competing as often as thirteen times in two years and winning the vast majority of her fights. Zhang would achieve her goal eventually and arrive at the UFC.
While still early in her UFC career, Weili has had a rapid ascent to the pinnacle of the sport. She made her debut at UFC 227, but may have gone unnoticed, because most of the other fights on the card were overshadowed by a classic between Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and Henry Cejudo. Her next fight against Jessica Aguilar ended in an armbar submission. It was a bloody but short lived affair between the two, with Zhang’s dangerous elbows causing damage, and expert ground control allowing her to secure the submission rapidly. Zhang has also demonstrated great skill in executing the armbar in situations outside the octagon, notably a flying armbar demonstration with the military as witness. In China’s highly competitive environment, that’s a bigger deal than what many people would automatically realise.
Zhang earned her gold in Beijing earlier this year, beating Jessica Andrade, in a 42-second victory. Going in to the fight, opinions were largely split on who would emerge victorious between the two. Andrade is a powerful 115 pounder. Known for her knockout power, Andrade started charging forward swinging her powerful club like hands, but got caught with an elbow from Zhang. That would in turn lead to a series of strikes from Zhang, which included an assortment of knees, elbows and punches that would ultimately floor Andrade. Zhang would then celebrate with an athletic body flip and claim her UFC gold. It was an impressive performance and UFC president Dana White’s eyes lit up with excitement and anticipation. White mentioned in interviews repeatedly that Zhang had been one of the most feared contenders among her competitors. Whether or not that is true, it’s certain that they will have to fight her now if they want to wrap that coveted gold around their waist. “Remember the name” she says. Fans most certainly will.