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The Ultimate Fighting Championship women’s strawweight throne suits Weili Zhang just fine.
As the calendar flips to 2021, the reigning 115-pound champion finds herself on a 21-fight winning streak and in a position of prominence as a pound-for-pound standout. Zhang emerged as a prospect in the Chinese regional scene, mostly under the Kunlun Fight banner, before joining the UFC roster two-plus years ago. From there, the 31-year-old has enjoyed a sure-handed climb to the top of the strawweight division.
While Zhang awaits word on her next assignment, here is a look at five of the moments that have come to define her:
1. Sour Taste
Zhang suffered her only career defeat in her first professional appearance, as she dropped a two-round unanimous decision to Meng Bo at a China MMA League event on Nov. 9, 2013. Bo utilized an effective sprawl, opportunistic ground-and-pound and relentless pressure across their 10-minute encounter. Zhang appeared to tire noticeably midway through the first round, where her output dwindled and her footing became more and more unsure. She showed flashes of her future brilliance—including the ferocious punching combinations and active kicking game for which she has become known—but her inability to answer Bo’s aggression proved costly on the scorecards. Zhang clearly learned from the experience, as she has since rattled off 21 consecutive victories, 17 of them finishes.
2. Strong Start
In what was an impressive introduction to a wider audience, Zhang made a successful Octagon debut on the UFC 227 undercard and laid claim to a unanimous decision over former King of the Cage champion Danielle Taylor on Aug. 4, 2018 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. All three cageside judges scored it 29-28 for the highly touted Chinese prospect. Zhang outstruck the sheriff’s deputy by wide margins in all three rounds and limited her offense to a few powerful but inconsequential right hands. Operating behind four-inch height and three-inch reach advantages, Zhang mixed punching combinations to the head with a devastating diet of leg kicks to control the vast majority of the exchanges and establish her foothold in the UFC.
3. Within Arm’s Reach
The surging Zhang submitted former World Series of Fighting champion Jessica Aguilar with an armbar in the first round of their UFC Fight Night 141 preliminary pairing on Nov. 24, 2018 at the Cadillac Arena in Beijing. Aguilar surrendered 3:41 into Round 1, as she was finished for the first time in more than a decade. Zhang cut the American Top Team product on the left side of the forehead with a clinch elbow, executed a takedown and grinded away from side control. She then locked up a triangle choke, battered the bloodied Aguilar with slashing elbows from the bottom and transitioned to the armbar, eliciting the tapout.
4. Midas Touch
Zhang needed less than a minute to ensure she would be remembered forever. The Black Tiger Fight Club star carved up Jessica Andrade with punches, knees and elbows, as she captured the undisputed women’s strawweight title in the UFC Fight Night 157 headliner on Aug. 31, 2019 at Shenzhen Universiade Sports Centre in Shenzhen, China. Zhang drew the curtain 42 seconds into Round 1, recording her 20th consecutive victory and becoming the first Chinese champion in UFC history. Andrade engaged the challenger at close range and walked into an ambush. Zhang clipped her with a right hook, invited her into the clinch and cut loose with standing elbows and rapid-fire knee strikes. Andrade stumbled backward, ate more punches and collapsed at the base of the cage, leaving referee Leon Roberts no choice but to intervene on her behalf.
5. Epic Encounter
Zhang retained the undisputed women’s strawweight championship in the five-round UFC 248 co-main event, as she outlasted former titleholder Joanna Jedrzejczyk in Sherdog’s “Fight of the Year” on March 7, 2020 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. After champion and challenger brought remarkable savagery and skill to their epic 25-minute battle, Zhang emerged with a split decision—48-47, 47-48, 48-47—and walked away with her 21st straight win. The two women combined to land 366 total strikes, 351 of which were deemed significant. Jedrzejczyk exited the cage with a massive hematoma that stretched from one side of her forehead to the other, the damage the result of multiple blows from her heavy-handed adversary.
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