In the world of martial arts, there are certain nations with histories so deep in terms of combat that they hold a special place among any martial artist. Most recently, Brazil spearheaded by the Gracie family entered the books, prior to that Japan’s Judo and Karate spanning back to the time of Samurai. Of course, the landscape of combat sports wouldn’t be where it is today had boxing and wrestling not been introduced in the Greek Olympics in 776 B.C. However arguably the most important martial arts nation in history is China, without which Japan may never have adapted Kung Fu to their native practices and then indirectly giving Judo to Brazil to create BJJ.
China’s martial arts is vast, styles of Kung Fu, Sanda, Wushu stretch so far that it would be impossible to do an in-depth view on them in one article. However the point is, with such a prestigious place within the history of martial arts, one would expect Chinese martial artists to be one of the leading nations in MMA in modern times, and while China has brought many great prospects over the years in ONE Championship, and other more localized promotions, a Chinese champion was not crowned in the UFC for 26 years.
Zhang Weili, China’s first-ever UFC champion defeated Jessica Andrade in 2019 to crown herself the undisputed women’s flyweight champion, in a division few disputes is the most stacked division in women’s MMA. Zhang hails from Hebei province where she started Shaolin Kung Fu from a young age. At the point in life where she decided to dedicate herself to the pursuit of martial arts, she transitioned to Sanda and Shuai Jiao, the former a Chinese military art and the latter a sort of Chinese folk wrestling. In 2021, Zhang finally made the full transition to MMA by way of Black Tiger Fight Club in Beijing.
Zhang’s professional career started off rocky, losing her first bout via decision in the China MMA League. However, rather than deter, her losing debut seemingly brought all the motivation in the world, sending her on a subsequent 21-fight win streak. The majority of which played out in Kunlun Fight, a kickboxing promotion that ventured into MMA and played home to stars such as Buakaw Banchamek. This allowed Zhang to develop into a highly touted striker, a style she is famous for today.
After racking up a record of 16-1 Zhang made her way into the UFC octagon in 2018. She dispatched three opponents including contender Tecia Torres and earned herself a shot at the title. It would be contested in her home country against arguably the scariest 115 pounder in UFC history, Jessica Andrade. It took only 42 seconds for Zhang to walk away victorious. However, while her first title fight was won with ease, her second would be anything but. Joanna Jedrzejczyk is considered by most the best women’s strawweight champion of all time, and likely one of the best Muay Thai fighters to ever grace the octagon. In a five-round war that shifted momentum constantly, Zhang barely edged out a win in the fight of the year. In just two fights she showed terrifying dominance and the ability to go through adversity and war for 25 minutes. Her following fight would be quick, a knockout loss to the new champion Rose Namajunas and her first loss since her debut in 2013. Zhang’s next test will be the ability to return after a devastating defeat but let’s take a look at the technical style she will have to use to do so.
Zhang’s fighting style can be generally characterized as kickboxing heavily influenced by Sanda, and a powerful tight top grappling game. Typically she starts her fights out using her inside low leg kick as a gage in order to get her opponent’s range and timing but the predictability in this strategy has cost her before. From there if the pace is still slow she will typically graduate to the use of long kicks, namely front and sidekicks more akin to her Sanda and Kung Fu practice, which she uses to maintain her distance so as to step in with her boxing on her terms. She has an abundance of power especially for the division which she leans on in her hands, and will sometimes eat a shot to land two behind it.
Chinese martial arts have been criticized technically for the practicality in some movements. However what they unquestionably offer is the practice of balance and stability, a key element in Zhang’s game. While she may take a shot to land a shot, she is always in perfect position when exchanging, allowing her to throw fluidly without being off balance. A favorite technique of hers is to mix between ending her combinations with either left hook- right straight or the other way around.
In the clinch, she is very good at mixing up her grappling and striking, by digging for underhooks and threatening trips and throws in order to land knees and elbows, and vice versa. When establishing a good lock on the body, she usually tries to snare one leg in order to get the takedown and land at least already partially past the guard, which works best in her favor because she works tight and directly in getting to her submissions.
While we have not seen much of Zhang off of her back, the strengths she shows working in top won’t necessarily translate as she is a master of negating space rather than creating it. Therefore going forward her ability to create room and get back to her feet or work a trickier guard against high-level opponents remains to be seen.
Weili Zhang’s style is fascinating in the way that it is direct in what she looks to accomplish. She wants to read her opponent’s using traditional technique and then utilize high power boxing and clinch work. If she feels the need to hit the mat, it’s a very blunt form of top passing to dominant submission. However, while her style is so direct, it houses so many technical intricacies. As she looks to recapture her title, the further evolution of her as a fighter is something to keep an eye on.