Days earlier than the bout to defend her championship title, Zhang Weili, China’s most well-known blended martial arts fighter, sensed that her opponent was making an attempt to get beneath her pores and skin.
The opponent, the Lithuanian-American fighter Rose Namajunas, had framed their clash for the Final Combating Championship’s 115-pound title as at least an ideological contest between freedom and Communism. “Higher useless than pink,” Ms. Namajunas stated, utilizing a McCarthy period anti-Communist slogan.
However Ms. Zhang, 30, a strawweight who has misplaced solely one among her 22 skilled fights, wasn’t about to take the bait.
“We’re simply athletes,” Ms. Zhang stated in an interview from Jacksonville, Fla., the place on Saturday she is going to face Ms. Namajunas in entrance of a sold-out crowd.
“Don’t child your self into pondering you’re so vital,” she added.
Ms. Zhang is perhaps modest about her personal significance, however for her tens of millions of followers she is not only one of many world’s biggest feminine fighters. Standing 5-foot-3, Ms. Zhang has change into an actual, if reluctant, image of girls’s rights and a nationwide hero.
To spectators (and opponents) exterior her dwelling nation, she is the hard-hitting face of a contemporary, assertive China and its Communist Get together. To her authorities, she is the pleasure of the nation and a propaganda boon. To her feminine followers, she is a job mannequin whose defiance of gender stereotypes has pushed the boundaries of what it means to be a Chinese language lady.
To Ms. Zhang, although, such speak is little greater than a distraction. The fighter would possibly readily drape China’s flag round her shoulders after a win, however she hardly ever talks about politics in public. She has little to say about ladies’s rights and doesn’t see herself as a feminist. “What does that time period even imply?” she requested, seeming genuinely puzzled.
When she’s not battering opponents with highly effective punches and spin kicks, Ms. Zhang is self-deprecating and goofy, even. She loves a superb selfie filter and perks up any time the dialog turns to meals.
However colleagues say that beneath her sunny exterior is a thoughts targeted solely on successful. That depth, they are saying, has propelled Ms. Zhang, a coal employee’s daughter, to the highest of the U.F.C.’s international rankings.
“Regardless of what number of belts she wins, she doesn’t change,” stated Cai Xuejun, Ms. Zhang’s coach since 2013. “We’re already on the peak, and he or she remains to be fascinated about easy methods to enhance.”
The battle on Saturday will probably be Ms. Zhang’s first since March of final yr, when she efficiently defended her title in an epic five-round battle in Las Vegas towards the Polish fighter Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
On the time, China was still trying to bring the coronavirus under control and america had not but gone into lockdown. Weeks earlier than the bout, Ms. Jedrzejczyk posted a photoshopped poster of herself in a gasoline masks subsequent to Ms. Zhang. She later apologized for making gentle of the virus.
“My nation is ravaged by the epidemic,” an emotional Ms. Zhang, her face barely recognizable from the swelling, stated after the battle. “I hope China will win the battle; the epidemic is a standard enemy of humankind.”
Although such patriotic rhetoric would possibly recommend in any other case, Ms. Zhang was educated exterior the state-controlled sports activities machine that grooms China’s Olympians. As a substitute, the champion identified to followers as “Magnum” found a love of combating on her personal.
Rising up within the northern province of Hebei, Ms. Zhang was an lively little one. She fought steadily along with her two older brothers and was as soon as caught making an attempt to flee her kindergarten by scaling the partitions. To maintain her occupied, her mom dug holes within the floor out of which the 5-year-old would follow leaping. Over time, the holes turned deeper.
“My mom was very supportive,” Ms. Zhang recalled. “She at all times informed me that ladies must be impartial and never weak.”
When she was 13, Ms. Zhang enrolled in a martial arts academy in Handan, a metropolis with a deep-rooted combating custom.
The varsity, which targeted on sanda, a type of kickboxing developed by the Chinese language navy, instilled in her a way of self-discipline.
Of its 500 college students, Ms. Zhang was one among solely about 30 ladies.
“Once I was a child, earlier than I began coaching in martial arts, I’d get in plenty of fights,” she stated. “Later, I finished in search of my very own fights — I simply fought on behalf of different individuals.”
Regardless of successful a provincial sanda championship, a recurring again damage compelled Ms. Zhang to give up the game on the age of 17. Her mother and father advised that she go to magnificence college to change into a hairstylist.
No means, Ms. Zhang recalled pondering. “I wished to seek out my very own path,” she stated. She purchased a one-way ticket to Beijing.
For the subsequent six years, Ms. Zhang drifted across the capital and labored odd jobs, together with as a resort receptionist, a kindergarten instructor and a safety guard.
Ms. Zhang was working at a gymnasium within the early 2010s when she first started working towards blended martial arts. She appreciated how M.M.A. included a number of combating kinds, in distinction to conventional kinds like kung fu.
She made the leap to skilled combating in 2013, and in 2018 she signed with the U.F.C. The following yr, she knocked out the Brazilian fighter Jessica Andrade in simply 42 seconds, taking the ladies’s strawweight title and changing into the primary Chinese language champion in U.F.C. historical past.
Since then, Ms. Zhang has change into a nationwide star. State-run information retailers have referred to as her “essentially the most succesful feminine fighter in China” and the “lady warrior of the East.”
Following her win final yr in Las Vegas, she was enlisted by the Communist Youth League to make a video encouraging younger Chinese language to “dedicate your greatest youth to the one that you love motherland.” Across the similar time, the American cosmetics firm Estée Lauder named her its brand ambassador in China.
On Chinese language social media, Ms. Zhang usually posts movies about her coaching periods and her schnauzer, Miu, for her 5.5 million followers. Her followers write steadily about being impressed by her rejection of conventional notions of how a girl ought to look and behave. Some individuals additionally speculate about her love life — she says she is single — and joke about whether or not anybody would dare so far her given her violent occupation.
“These individuals don’t perceive me. They solely see who I’m contained in the octagon,” Ms. Zhang stated, referring to the eight-sided ring through which U.F.C. fights happen.
From her U.F.C. winnings alone, Ms. Zhang has earned round $1 million, based on her agent. Regardless of that success, she stated, little about her life has modified. She nonetheless rents a home on the outskirts of Beijing with seven different individuals, together with her coach and one among her brothers. She nonetheless trains 5 hours a day on the close by Black Tiger Struggle Membership.
Ms. Zhang’s fame in China has been a windfall for the U.F.C., which has been actively increasing its presence within the nation, together with opening a $13 million coaching facility in Shanghai.
“She’s been the tide that lifts all boats,” stated Kevin Chang, U.F.C.’s senior vice-president for the Asia-Pacific area.
Days earlier than her showdown on Saturday with Ms. Namajunas, Ms. Zhang stated she was feeling good. She had already begun to torture herself by photographs of the meals she hoped to eat after the battle. (Ice cream and steamed buns are amongst her favorites, she stated.)
Had she thought of what would she say within the octagon if she gained? Would there be one other impassioned plea about humankind?
She wasn’t positive, however simply in case, she had in her again pocket a signature line in English that she has typically used after a win.
“My identify is Zhang Weili!” she yells triumphantly. “I’m from China — bear in mind me!”