China’s First UFC Champion: The Keys to Zhang Weili’s Success and What It Means

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By: Matthew Lee

Written March 9th, 2020

“‘The Chinese are warlike and we have a very good tradition of practicing martial arts…If traditional kung fu can demonstrate this ability on the world’s highest stage, it can still win the championship and that’s what all Chinese would like to see.  That’s 1.3 billion Chinese people that want to see this.  That would be a big following, and whoever this champion is, is going to be very proud and very fortunate.  If I had the chance, I’d take it.  The key is the combination.  It needs to combine Chinese kung fu with modern fighting.  That’s what me and my coaching staff have been after.’” —Zhang Weili, Mixed Martial Artist and UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion

Abstract: Zhang Weili has recently successfully defended her UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) Women’s Strawweight Championship title.  A mixed martial artist with a Sanda and Shuai Jiao background, Zhang was previously crowned as China’s first UFC Champion, something that is unprecedented in UFC’s history.  She is also at the forefront of promoting Chinese martial arts and culture as its most successful and popular representative in MMA today.  This write-up will serve as a breakdown of her most recent fight, an analysis of the keys to the success, and what her success means, including the implications for Chinese martial arts.

On Saturday, March 7th, 2020, China’s first UFC Champion, Zhang “Magnum” Weili made her first title defense against former champion Joanna Jerdrzejczyk in UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) 248: Adesanya vs. Romero.  The event took place at the T-Mobile Arena in Paradise, Nevada.  Around a week ago, I was asked to provide my analysis on this fight.  Of course, I did think it would be a good idea, and I have many thoughts based on what I saw that night, so here it goes.

Unlike the last few times where I was writing about a UFC event, I am happy to say that I did actually watch this event live, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t emotionally invested throughout the length of the fight.  In the end, I was happy to see that Zhang Weili retained her belt (although I was disappointed to see Li Jingliang lose and had mixed feelings about the main event of Israel Adesanya vs. Yoel Romero, although Israel did win and I was rooting for him).  When Zhang won the title in her previous fight against the then-current champion Jessica Andrade, she made history by becoming the first Chinese fighter to win a UFC title.  With China having such a strong history and culture steeped in martial arts, so much so that it has been stereotyped in its popular and mainstream representation, it was a sadly ironic reality that there was no Chinese UFC Champion, let alone any Chinese fighter having consistent success in combat sports in general.  Progress was gradually made over the last decade, with the first Chinese fighters officially coming into the UFC, but having limited success, then with future fighters having solid victories; but Zhang’s success and being crowned the UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion was unprecedented, and silenced many doubters, including myself, who had become cynical after being disappointed time and time again by Chinese fighters failing to rise up to the challenge and against higher level competition.  More interestingly, Zhang’s success had many supporters from the Chinese martial arts community, both from the traditional gongfu and Wushu communities alike, rooting for her to win over Joanna.  Indeed, Zhang’s win would serve as a moral victory, given her Chinese ethnicity and nationality, her training background in Sanda (散打; sàndǎ, free fighting), also known as Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand), as well as Shuai Jiao (摔跤; shuāijiāo, traditional Chinese folk wrestling), and especially given Joanna’s Instagram post (which has now been deleted, but we know that doesn’t magically make mistakes like that disappear) poking fun at the coronavirus at the expense of the Chinese people and trash talking, and on the eve of International Women’s Day no less—this is the stuff that kung fu movies are made of (had I written the write-up “Women of Wushu”, I absolutely would have considered including Zhang Weili in that write-up—all that would be left is for Zhang to plug the upcoming Disney live-action remake of Mulan).  This write-up will attempt to break down the reasons for Zhang Weili’s success, and what exactly this means in terms of representation for the Chinese martial arts.

Firstly, I will begin with a summarization of what I saw in the fight.  The beginning of the first round started with a couple light exchanges, with Joanna mainly out-striking Zhang, then Zhang returning some punches and side kicks, both with the lead side and turning, and Joanna landing an unintentional punch after the end of the round.  Zhang started out slightly more aggressive in the second round with more punches, but Joanna still continued to land more combinations ending with low leg/thigh kicks, and Zhang having one unsuccessful takedown attempt ending in a clinch against the cage, with knees from Joanna and elbows from Zhang, and Zhang ending with more crosses, side kicks, combinations, and a trip off a clinch and beginning to catch kicks.  The third round had another aggressive start with more boxing exchanges, Joanna continuing to out-strike Zhang, two trips from Zhang off a clinch and a successful kick catch off of Joanna’s teep/push kick to a takedown at the center of the Octagon.  The fourth round started with predominantly boxing exchanges again, with Zhang finally landing more punches, kicks and knees in the clinch by Joanna and another elbow from Zhang; by the end of this round, the hematoma began to swell up and expand Joanna’s forehead.  The fifth and final round began with a hug from both fighters, starting once again with more boxing, Zhang getting more aggressive and landing with more punches, Joanna landing a backfist and Zhang ending with another kick catch off another of Joanna’s teep/push kick followed by a last punch, and ending in a split decision.

Of course, this goes without saying, congratulations to Zhang.  She went the distance against a very game and high-level opponent, even showing some signature traits and techniques of Sanda with some success and showed why she deserved to be a champion.  There are currently talks of this not only being one of the best fights in women’s MMA, but one of the best MMA fights ever in history.  Nobody will ever take that away from her.  With that being said, the fight did end in a split decision, meaning that one judge scored the fight in favor of Joanna, and with good reason too.  Joanna was herself a former champion in this division, having defended the belt five times, and as an experienced Muay Thai champion, she showed her pedigree with her out-striking Zhang.  And for her part, Joanna seemed to take the loss humbly, which objectively shows a great degree of maturity in contrast to her previous reactions to losses, where she previously placed blame on others after getting knocked out in her first loss to Rose Namajunas (interestingly enough, Rose is herself coached by Pat Barry, a former Sanda fighter and silver medalist at the 7th World Wushu Championships).  If you want me to be completely honest, this fight was very hard to call, and it really depends on what you value for sport and competition (I absolutely do not envy the position of being a judge for events like this).  If you value volume and purely scoring points, then the fight would naturally go to Joanna.  But if you value more significant strikes, meaning those that deal more damage, a strong argument can be made for Zhang.  It honestly would not have surprised me if this fight ended in a draw, it was that close.  However, Zhang did win, meaning that she is successfully continuing her winning streak.  And with that, let’s look at the keys to her success, and what her representation implies for Chinese martial arts.

Her Athleticism

To understand Zhang Weili’s success, we must first take a look at her MMA training, which began with Vincent Soberano, Filipino Muay Thai champion, owner and head coach of Black Tiger Fight Club where Zhang Weili trains under, and filmmaker (who has directed and costarred in the movie The Trigonal: Fight for Justice with his wife, former US Wushu Team member and one of my Wushu seniors, Sarah Chang).  As the primary coach leading the forefront of Chinese MMA, Vincent Soberano has coached China Top Team talent from its founder, the first Chinese UFC fighter Zhang Tiequan, to Wu Haotian, to Shuai Jiao fighter Yao Honggang, to current Chinese UFC Welterweight Li Jingliang.  In an interview “The Rise of Chinese MMA” by Humans of Fighting, where Vincent spoke about Zhang Weili’s newly earned title and victory over Jessica Andrade at the time, Vincent says, “Chinese fighters…they kind of remind me of Brazilian fighters…Their backs are up against the wall…They’re a dime a dozen, there’s like…hundreds of thousands of Wushu and Sanda fighters in China, and a lot of them, you know, they….have no future past…the sport.  They have to transition somewhere else.”  It’s no secret that the majority of the Chinese MMA fighters fighting in the UFC now, who were all coached by Vincent, were originally Wushu Sanda athletes, the first batch of which included Zhang Tiequan, Wu Haotian, Li Jingliang and of course Zhang Weili, who was one of the first Chinese female fighters being brought up in MMA.  And as someone who brought up the first prominent generation of successful Chinese Sanda-turned-MMA fighters, Vincent has firsthand experience and knowledge on what was lacking and needed for MMA training in China.  “What they needed when I first came to China, what they needed that they didn’t have, that the Americans have, is the strength and conditioning.  So, they needed to learn how to…train properly.  You know…Winning fights, especially at the level of UFC isn’t about kicking each other’s head off all the way till the day before the fight.  You know, you have to have the right diet, you have to have the right weight management.  None of those techniques were available in China back then.  But coming from the US, coming from the MMA background in the states, I knew all that.  So I was able to impart that stuff.  I put my fighters through weight training, through strength training.  A lot of Chinese coaches back then were like going, ‘Why are you lifting weights?  That’s bad, you know, you’re gonna get stiff!  You know, you’re gonna be stiff and slow!’  You know, so the…old misconceptions…So strength and conditioning was never a part of their regiment, but it was a part of mine, it was 50% of my regiment, was strength and conditioning.  Technique is just technique.  If you can’t apply it because you’re tired or you have no strength to do it…A lot of the techniques now are only applicable if you’re strong enough to apply them.”  Based on Vincent’s analysis, it is evident that what was lacking at the time of his involvement in coaching Chinese MMA fighters, was modern sports science, a historically notorious problem especially in Wushu training.

In the case of Zhang Weili, her athleticism can be attributed to Ruben Payan, who Vincent openly gives credit to.  “The best MMA strength and conditioning coach in China right now is American.  This guy…Ruben Payan.  He’s the strength and conditioning coach for…Zhang Weili.  Zhang Weili didn’t win the fight because…she was faster, better striker, or better technique than…Andrade.  She won the fight ’cause she was stronger.  I mean, you saw when she landed—she got hit too, but—the reaction was different from when she hit Andrade.  When she hit Andrade, Andrade just like, fell apart, you know.  And on the ground, there’s—the strength is night and day.  We thought, wow, Andrade is so, so strong, you know.  She’s so strong and her technique is so good, and her Muay Thai is good, her wrestling is good, what can we do?  And…Zhang Weili wants to stand toe-to-toe with her.  So what her strength and conditioning coach did, Ruben did, he made her stronger.  Like literally made her stronger for that fight.  And she went in there, she came like a tank.  And Andrade…there’s nothing Andrade could do, it could have gone another round, it’ll still be the same result.  She would have just steamrolled Andrade.  Just sheer strength.”  In the interview “Queen of the Middle Kingdom: How Vincent Soberano built the striking superiority of UFC champion Zhang Weili” by Karl R. De Masa under The Fight Site, Vincent also details that although he was retired from coaching, he still makes an effort to coach his fighters through fight camps, and again attributes Zhang’s victory over Andrade to Ruben Payan.  “…We needed to build new strength for Weili.  So we worked with her strength and conditioning coach Ruben Payan, who’s the best in China and probably the best I’ve seen anywhere in Asia.  Ruben spent a lot of time with Weili to bring out her strength in a short period of time.  If it wasn’t for her S&C she would never have been able to stand up to Andrade.  Never mind toe-to-toe.  That was a very determining factor in our strategy.”  I’ll admit, when I saw Zhang Weili beat Jessica Andrade to become the new UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion, I was very surprised, albeit pleasantly surprised.  Having seen the then-previous fight live where Jessica took the title from Rose via TKO (technical knockout) by slamming Rose on her head, I saw that Jessica was a scary fighter, having garnered multiple TKO victories via aggressive punching, as well as multiple submission victories by way of chokes, showing that she was a well-rounded Brazilian MMA fighter.  But clearly Zhang’s coaches recognized this too and gave her the tools she needed to succeed most recently, which was her newly gained athleticism.

And it is this athleticism that was key to Zhang’s victory against Joanna as well.  During the fight with Joanna, Joanna’s team incorrectly assessed that Zhang was getting tired during the latter rounds.  However, Zhang was clearly able to maintain her output, not slowing down or letting up on her punches.  And the power of her punches was resounding, so much so that they made a literal impression on Jessica’s head.  If it were not for this visible effect of power in the fight, Zhang may very well have lost the title to the former champion.

Let this be a lesson to all martial artists concerned with fighting.  Strength and conditioning matters.  Although these are clearly not the only factors to consider in a fight, they are still important ones, and not to be overlooked.  Many martial artists, especially traditional martial artists, or traditionalists, will often lean towards the extreme of ignoring physical fitness and conditioning in their training attitudes and approach, even going so far as to criticize these aspects, and criticize sport martial arts on the same argument that there are “rules” or that they are simply “games”, and that “strength and/or conditioning doesn’t matter for martial arts.”  But if we harken back to Vincent’s earlier quote of the strength required for technique, whether for a competition, or for self-defense or on the street, these arguments do not hold too much water.  Even military branches, which arguably will have more field and actual combat experience than recreational “martial artists”, have physical fitness tests and training.

When I say strength, I do not simply mean muscular strength, although this does matter to some extent as well.  Virtually any physical technique involving power, regardless if it is for fighting in the ring or for the street, requires explosiveness; and this ability to explode requires a minimum degree of strength.  And in any training or fighting situation under pressure or resistance, especially in real fighting and self-defense situations, where there will naturally be tension, especially when one’s nervous system and mind can be stressed, it will be very natural for one to instantaneously rely on the basic strength that they need.  It then stands to reason that martial arts practitioners should maximize this aspect of their training, especially professional fighters and combat sports athletes like Zhang Weili, and therefore athleticism is important.  And this is a huge contributing factor to Zhang Weili’s current success.

Her Ability to Adapt

This one may seem like a no-brainer.  After all, in the sport of MMA, where athletes are mixing different styles to account for different aspects of fighting, let alone combat sports in general, fighters often have to have the ability to quickly analyze a tough situation and/or opponent and adapt accordingly to win.  However, many fighters will surprisingly fall into a single model, method or way of fighting, even in MMA; many fighters with overt Muay Thai, kickboxing, wrestling, BJJ (Brazilian jujutsu) or even Karate backgrounds will often primarily rely on or fall back on these backgrounds, regardless of their opponent or situation.  Chinese martial artists are also guilty of this, to a much more severe degree.  In the words of Bruce Lee, affectionately dubbed the “Father of MMA”, “style is a crystallization.”  Sticking to specific styles inevitably creates shortcomings in said styles, and there will always be a risk of becoming a one-dimensional fighter and having those flaws exploited by an opponent.  Fortunately, Zhang Weili is not like this.

Throughout her MMA career, Zhang’s fight record has some remarkably diverse wins.  She is of course most well-known for her aggressive punching and fluid kicks, and her striking is of course what got her to where she is now, and what fans recognize her for.  However, she also had various victories by submission, demonstrating that she is truly versatile and capable in her ground game as well.  In a way, she is like fellow Sanda athlete-turned-MMA fighter Zabit Magomedsharipov, who has also shown that he is well-rounded, by applying a modified kneebar against Brandon Davis to achieve his own submission victory, despite being primarily a striker (which is obvious given his Sanda background).  Many fighters like Conor McGregor, who is primarily a striker and knockout artist, or Demian Maia, who is primarily a BJJ grappler, will often fall into one style or method of fighting, which eventually makes it easy for capable opponents to formulate a game plan on how to beat them.  But this may not be so easy with Zhang, as she can clearly use and fall back on other skillsets that she has sharpened through her training and proven victories.

A huge part of this can be attributed to attitude and mentality, where one must have an open mind and, be humble and willing to learn new things, which Zhang has publicly demonstrated time and time again that she has been, since the beginning of her fight career.  When asked by Karl how Zhang was “transformed” from a Sanda (which is strangely spelled “Xanda” in the article, just like the 2004 movie produced by Tsui Hark about the same sport) “to a Muay Thai fighter with a knee and elbow game”, Vincent answered, “‘She went to sports university and majored in Wushu Xanda.  She got a lot of ring time there…Ever since I started teaching her she became converted to Muay Thai.  She had to adjust but she still does throw some of those Xanda spinning kicks.  But back then most of her instincts were geared to that mind set, but overtime since she was constantly sparring with our fighters she would always get beaten up so she was pretty much forced to adapt.  Over the years her striking system has become Muay Thai.’”  Zhang’s Muay Thai training was clear in her victory over Andrade, where she won via TKO with knees in the clinch and elbows to the head, only to finish Andrade off with punches.  This mentality and ability to adapt, despite coming from a Sanda background, shows that Zhang is a coachable fighter capable of the success she is currently experiencing.

Granted, one area of concern is Zhang’s current game plan to directly go toe-to-toe against her opponents in striking.  Like her fellow China Top Team teammate Li Jingliang, who lost his fight against Neil Magny in UFC 248: Adesanya vs. Romero, Zhang tends to charge forward with punches, and is not afraid to stand and bang.  Although this has helped her win her last two title fights against Andrade and Joanna, this strategy and mentality is not necessarily smart or healthy in the long-term and can be very one-dimensional against a more technical fighter with more diverse techniques, in terms of striking or otherwise.  After all, as established, Joanna herself was out-striking Zhang throughout most of their fight, which is why it was so close in the first place.  However, going back to Zhang’s personal history of being able to adapt, I believe that she, or at least her coaches, will help her recognize this, and help her adjust as needed for the future.  Only time will tell if this happens.

Her Representation of Chinese Martial Arts

Okay, now let us finally get to the meaty part of the discussion.  There is inevitably the debate of whether Zhang Weili is truly a Chinese martial artist, and if she should be accurately represented as such.  Most recently, she says that she is learning traditional Taijiquan (太极拳; tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist), specifically what seems to be Chen (陈; Chén) Style Taijiquan, which she claims helps supplement her training by contributing to the smoothness of her strikes.  This may be dubious, since Taijiquan is categorized as an “internal” (内家; nèijiā, literally “internal family”) in Chinese martial arts, which refers to the training of qi (气; qì, vital energy), intent, spirituality, deeper skeletal musculature and tendons closer to the bones over the larger muscle bellies, and literal internal organ health, as opposed to “external” (外家; wàijiā, literally “external family”) arts, where “external” refers to the training focused on purely physical techniques; and as an internal style of Chinese martial arts, Taijiquan arguably takes a relatively long amount of time to train, from a minimum of months to years at the most, before realizing some of these distinct benefits of internal Chinese martial arts, given the finer and more precise body mechanics of movements and techniques, which are comparatively more complicated than other styles.  Objectively, there is no question that she is a good MMA fighter, as her success and claim as the UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion shows.

First of all, Zhang Weili has gone on record to state that she has learned traditional Wushu styles, such as Shaolinquan (少林拳; Shào​línquán, Shaolin Fist), and Taolu (套路; tàolù, forms) such as Wubuquan (五步拳; wǔbùquán, Five Stances Fist), Lianhuanquan (连环拳; liánhuánquán, literally chained fist), Qixingquan (七星拳; Qīxīngquán, Seven Star Fist), having been inspired by Wuxia (武侠; wǔxiá) movies that she saw in her childhood, which has been the case for an entire generation of Chinese martial artists.  So, much like Chinese UFC Bantamweight Song Yadong, who was a former Wushu and Sanda student of School of Songjiang Wu, and learned Taijiquan as well as other Chinese Wushu forms, the fact that these Chinese UFC fighters have a background in Chinese martial arts is undeniable.  It is also verified that she is a practitioner of Shuai Jiao and Sanda, two Chinese styles and practices that are specifically geared towards active fight training.  It is worth noting that Sanda came out of a need by the Chinese to update their fighting and sparring methods, where there was little to none at the time, with the combined efforts of traditional Wushu experts and Soviet advisors, and theoretically also exists as a format to test the fighting ideas and martial techniques of Chinese martial arts in full-contact sparring today and can and has been adopted by practitioners of such various styles to do so.  Shuai Jiao is also the oldest traceable and recorded martial art in Chinese history and has influenced various Chinese martial arts and Wushu styles.  Both practices allow for the actual testing of Chinese martial arts techniques against a resisting opponent in a live environment, thus the success of these training methods implies a lot for the possibilities of Chinese martial arts.  So, the question then becomes, “Does she actually apply Chinese martial arts techniques in her fights?”  And my answer is, “Yes, albeit with limited success.”

Starting with Zhang’s fighting stance, Zhang fights out of an orthodox stance that is relatively wide and bladed (read: more sideways) with an overt bouncing rhythm on the balls of her feet, which is closer to some stances in Sanda and boxing, and is different from the stereotypical Muay Thai stance that is more square, generally flatfooted with a light front leg; although there does exist the Muay Thai substyle of “Muay Fimeu” of technical fighters that can and do have active feet, such as Saenchai, Muay Thai fighters generally stick to these aforementioned traits for their fighting stance.  While it is notable that Zhang’s use of Muay Thai knees and elbows in the clinch were crucial in her victory against Andrade, she started out the fight with lead leg/thigh kicks followed by jabs to get her there, which is very much a common Sanda attack pattern.  Many traditional martial arts, including various Chinese martial arts styles, have been accurately stereotyped as primarily using their lead side to attack, and this is a strong example of this observation.  Following this, I was wondering whether Zhang would show more Chinese martial arts techniques in her future fights, specifically Sanda or Shuai Jiao techniques.  And as established in my breakdown of her most recent fight with Joanna at the beginning, she utilized both lead side kicks and a turning side kick, also popularly termed the spinning back kick, both of which are kicks that are more heavily emphasized in Sanda training and fights than in Muay Thai, and are invariably techniques that come from traditional martial arts, including Chinese martial arts.  She was also able to successfully complete multiple trips on Joanna in the clinch, specifically what is termed dehe (得合; déhé/dégě , inner hook/hooking), essentially a parallel technique to an inside leg trip in jujutsu, judo and BJJ, from Shuai Jiao.  So, while her training under Vincent clearly gave her the common formula of Muay Thai and BJJ in MMA training, it appears that she still was able to bring out some of her Chinese Sanda and Shuai Jiao influences from her original background when she needed it.  This goes back to her ability to adapt, which she was able to do with some limited success against Joanna, when it was clear that she was losing most of the striking exchanges simply trading boxing and kickboxing combinations.  However, her lead leg/thigh kicks were for the most part empty and having no effect on Joanna, she did not land flush with her turning side kick, and she lost her balance multiple times on her kicks (if this were a Muay Thai fight, which is partially scored on aspects such as the balance and composure of a fighter, Zhang would have lost, but thankfully this is MMA, where Sanda fighters like Zhang can have more success with their techniques outside of Muay Thai).  These are aspects of Sanda which need more adaptation when crossing over into other styles/combat sports and rulesets, which again, I hope she and her coaches will recognize and adjust for the future.

Moreover, it is worth noting that Zhang openly acknowledges her Chinese martial arts roots and publicly gives respect to Chinese martial arts.  She has even stated previously that she would like to implement Chinese martial arts techniques into her fights, yet another sign of her open-mindedness and willing to learn from any source, even from Chinese martial arts, though whether she can and will actually do this is yet to be seen.  In her fight with Joanna, she walked out to a cover of the song 沧海一声笑 (Cānghǎiyīshēngxiào; Blue-green Sea Laughs), the theme song to the Wuxia movies The Swordsman (笑傲江湖; xiàoàojiānghú, Laughing Defiantly [at] Jianghu [martial underworld, literally rivers and lakes])and Swordsman II (笑傲江湖之东方不败; xiàoàojiānghúzhīdōngfāngbùbài, Laughing Defiantly [at] Jianghu [martial underworld, literally rivers and lakes]: Invincible East) starring retired Wushu champion turned actor Jet Li, performed by artist GAI on the Chinese TV show Singer (歌手; gēshǒu, which I cannot believe I didn’t recognize—I was jamming to this a solid year before people heard this at UFC 248: Adesanya vs. Romero, although I didn’t care for some of the rap parts that were added in, and like the famous Wong Fei-hung theme 男儿当自强; nánérdāngzìqiáng, Man Undertakes Self-strength, I prefer the original Cantonese version more).  I’m also happy seeing her do the Wushu bow or salute at her weigh-ins, another visual homage to her Chinese martial arts background.  Personally, I’m glad that she’s giving back to Chinese martial arts and is trying to promote it, she has explicitly done more than any other Sanda fighter.

Is she the best representative of Sanda?  No, I believe that declaration belongs to Russian Sanda champion and UFC Welterweight Muslim Salikhov, and others such as his fellow Five Directions of the World school alumni and UFC Featherweight Zabit Magomedsharipov, as well as Team Lakay, a Filipino MMA Team specializing in training fighters with Wushu backgrounds specializing in Sanda, such as former One FC Lightweight Champion Eduard Folayang, former One FC Bantamweight Champion Kevin Belingon, former One FC Strawweight Champion Joshua Pacio and Danny Kingad, all are more indicative of Sanda style techniques as they demonstrate them much more frequently, and openly associate themselves with Wushu and Sanda.  Cung himself even successfully demonstrated kick catches and sweeps from Sanshou, as it was called at the time, throughout his own MMA career.  However, Zhang is now invariably the most well-known and popular representative of both Sanda and all Chinese martial arts because of her recent success as China’s first UFC Champion.  And given that she was China’s best chance at a UFC championship title and belt based on the level of competition in her division, this was bound to happen.

So, to bring it all together, it is Zhang Weili’s athleticism, her ability to adapt, and even to some degree, her roots in Chinese martial arts styles, specifically Sanda and Shuai Jiao, that have contributed to her success.  Most importantly, I hope that Chinese martial artists, either from traditional gongfu or Wushu, will understand these factors, look at Zhang as a successful role model, and follow her example of training athleticism and having an open-mindedness and ability to adapt, not be stuck in their own ideas and ways of training.  As an actual fighter, Zhang is an example that someone from a Chinese ethnic and martial arts background can and does succeed in MMA, and in the sport’s most famous and arguably highest league of competition, the UFC.  In a time where the reputation of Chinese martial arts has been put into question after Xu Xiaodong’s fights, and needs to prove their relevance again, we need more examples like Zhang to step up.  Unlike most traditionalists, including traditional Chinese martial arts practitioners, who talk down on other styles, make excuses as to why they “can’t fight” or when a traditionalist loses in a fight, while at the same time claiming they do the “real kung fu”, but don’t have any physical proof in fighting or sparring to back up their empty words, fighters like Zhang actually step up and represent through their actions, not just their cheap talk.  In my opinion, the era of kung fu movie actors like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Donnie Yen is in its twilight and is as good as done.  And to that I say, “Good.”  It is time to deemphasize these fictional and exaggerated portrayals of Chinese martial arts that result in people not taking them seriously and portray Chinese martial arts in a more serious and realistic light, and fighters like Zhang are the way to do it.

The most immediate question now is what is next for Zhang Weili.  Both fighters were immediately hospitalized after the event, so obviously they need time to recover before they return to fighting.  A rematch is not out of the realm of possibility, given how close this fight was (though if this happens, Zhang will definitely need to make some adjustments—she barely edged it out in this fight, and I don’t think a second fight will end in the same decision).  Other potential opponents are former champion Rose Namajunas (though this may arguably be a more difficult fight for Zhang) or even a rematch with Jessica Andrade, as both fighters have an upcoming rematch with each other, and Zhang’s next opponent may depend on the winner out of these two.  The other question that remains is how long Zhang can keep up her title defense.  In the words of former WEC (World Extreme Cagefighting) Bantamweight Champion and former UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) Bantamweight Champion Dominick Cruz on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, “…the best in the world aren’t the ones who just win, it’s the ones who win and stay on top.”  For as long her win streak will continue, many in the Chinese martial arts community, whether from traditional gongfu or Wushu, are behind Zhang Weili, and are looking forward to her continued success!  加油了!

Matt began practicing Wushu at the age of 7 under US Wushu Academy, and is a coach of the UMBC Wushu Club. He has held positions in national, international, and local modern Wushu competitions, and is currently training in Sanshou/Sanda, traditional Chen Style Taijiquan and zhanzhuang. He is a former four-time consecutive US Wushu Team member, former Pan American Champion and multiple times Pan American Championships medalist, and is continually trying to improve himself both as a competitive athlete and as a real martial artist. If you have any questions you would like to ask Matt, please email him at