Days earlier than the bout to defend her championship title, Zhang Weili, China’s most well-known combined martial arts fighter, sensed her opponent was making an attempt to get underneath her pores and skin.
The opponent, the Lithuanian-American fighter Rose Namajunas, had framed their conflict for the Final Combating Championship’s 115-pound title as at least an ideological contest between freedom and Communism. “Higher lifeless than purple,” Ms. Namajunas stated, utilizing a McCarthy period anti-Communist slogan.
However Ms. Zhang, 30, a strawweight who has misplaced solely certainly one of 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 necessary,” she added.
Ms. Zhang is perhaps modest about her personal significance, however for her hundreds of thousands of followers she isn’t just one of many world’s biggest feminine fighters. Standing 5-foot-3, Ms. Zhang has turn out to be an actual, if reluctant, image of ladies’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 girl.
To Ms. Zhang, although, such discuss is little greater than a distraction. The fighter would possibly readily drape China’s flag round her shoulders after a win, however she not often 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 very good 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 she or he continues to be desirous about methods to enhance.”
The combat on Saturday might 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 in opposition to the Polish fighter Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
On the time, China was nonetheless making an attempt to convey the coronavirus underneath management 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 combat. “I hope China will win the battle; the epidemic is a typical enemy of humankind.”
Although such patriotic rhetoric would possibly recommend in any other case, Ms. Zhang was educated exterior of the state-controlled sports activities machine that grooms China’s Olympians. As an alternative, the champion recognized to followers as “Magnum” found a love of preventing on her personal.
Rising up within the northern province of Hebei, Ms. Zhang was an lively little one. She fought incessantly 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 grew to become deeper.
“My mom was very supportive,” Ms. Zhang recalled. “She all the time instructed me that women 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 preventing custom.
The varsity, which targeted on sanda, a type of kickboxing developed by the Chinese language army, instilled in her a way of self-discipline.
Of its 500 college students, Ms. Zhang was certainly one of solely about 30 women.
“Once I was a child, earlier than I began coaching in martial arts, I’d get in a whole lot of fights,” she stated. “Later, I ended searching for 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 stop the game on the age of 17. Her mother and father prompt that she go to magnificence faculty to turn out to be a hairstylist.
No manner, Ms. Zhang recalled pondering. “I needed to search 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 lodge receptionist, a kindergarten trainer and a safety guard.
Ms. Zhang was working at a gymnasium within the early 2010s when she first started practising combined martial arts. She favored how M.M.A. integrated a number of preventing kinds, in distinction to conventional types like kung fu.
She made the leap to skilled preventing 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 turning into the primary Chinese language champion in U.F.C. historical past.
Since then, Ms. Zhang has turn out to be a nationwide star. State-run information retailers have referred to as her “probably the most succesful feminine fighter in China” and the “girl 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 you love motherland.” Across the similar time, the American cosmetics firm Estée Lauder named her its model ambassador in China.
On Chinese language social media, Ms. Zhang usually posts movies about her coaching classes and her schnauzer, Miu, for her 5.5 million followers. Her followers write incessantly 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 thus 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 during which U.F.C. fights happen.
From her U.F.C. winnings alone, Ms. Zhang has earned round $1 million, in accordance with 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 certainly one of her brothers. She nonetheless trains 5 hours a day on the close by Black Tiger Battle 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 pictures of the meals she hoped to eat after the combat. (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 certain, however simply in case, she had in her again pocket a signature line in English that she has typically used after a win.
“My title is Zhang Weili!” she yells triumphantly. “I’m from China — bear in mind me!”