Opinion: Weili Zhang Will be a Referendum on the UFC’s Cultural Power

By Jacob Debets Sep 5, 2019

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Forty-two seconds is all Weili Zhang needed. To prove the doubters wrong about her title opportunity and main event billing. To extend her UFC record to 4-0 and her winning streak to a mind-boggling 20. To leave Jessica Andrade, the woman who a few months ago captured the strawweight title with a soul-snatching body slam, as another face-down former champion.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s Shenzhen event didn’t feel like a big card during fight week. There was a conspicuous lack of star power beneath the championship anchor, and outside a flyweight bout between Kai Kara-France and Mark De La Rosa, the bill was built for an exclusively local audience. Given the fight was broadcast in the early hours of Saturday morning in North America, a huge portion of the MMA fanbase elected to miss the event entirely, whilst the usual throng of reporters who follow the UFC around the globe gave themselves the week off.

But when Zhang chased Andrade down with a flurry of knees and punches, closing the show with 24 minutes and 18 seconds still left on the clock, she authored what felt like a landmark moment.

We know that this is what the UFC wanted. For more than half a decade, the promotion has been attempting to make inroads in the Chinese market, starting with a one-off “The Ultimate Fighter” series in 2013 and ending with the construction of a 93,000 square foot Performance Institute in Shanghai in the present day. Its parent company is similarly occupied by Eastern opportunities, identifying China and Russia as key to its global expansion in its prospectus documents filed earlier this year. You can only expect that watching the UFC crown its first Chinese champion, after she executed one of the most vicious stoppages in women’s MMA history, tailor-made for amplification across social media, would have had Ari Immanuel and Patrick Whitesell doing cartwheels across Endeavour’s board room.

But assessing the true impact of Zhang’s performance is difficult, if only because commentary on the issue seems disproportionately hyperbolic, poorly-informed or both.

We know that Zhang is the first of her kind and that the UFC ordinarily has done well in markets where it can boast a local champion, but too often that observation overstates the cultural capital attached to the UFC title while understating the star power of individual athletes (e.g. Conor McGregor in Ireland or Anderson Silva in Brazil). She caught the attention of U.S. celebrities Dwayne Johnson, Tom Brady and Ronda Rousey, but each of these figures has connections to Endeavour (in Brady’s case, he’s a part-owner) making this a poor indicator of authentic “needle-moving.” Zhang reportedly appeared as the top search on Baidu (the Google of China) and the top trending topic on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter), but whether this can reel in and keep audiences not otherwise disposed to cage fighting remains to be seen.

One of the variables that’s also been conspicuously absent from discussions about the UFC’s expansion into China has been how historically reluctant the state has been to embrace MMA as a cultural product. Whereas contact martial arts such as kung fu and chikura developed within China’s borders many centuries ago, later to be exported and refined in places like Japan and Brazil, during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, these practices were exiled and replaced with performance-centric arts like Wushu. These and other “traditional” martial arts remain at the forefront of the CPC’s investment in sports development (to borrow the terminology from the most recent Five Year Plan), creating a backdrop of state-sponsored scepticism that will take more than 42 seconds to whittle down.

Case in point is Chinese MMA fighter Xu Xiadong, who launched a crusade to demonstrate the superiority of MMA to traditional Chinese martial arts, culminating in him brutally knocking out a tai chi master, Wei Lei, in 2017, in a video that went viral. The government responded by blocking his Weibo account and executing police raids on subsequent fights, and Xiadong was earlier this year ordered by courts to pay hundreds of thousands of yuan in damages and issue an apology to another “grandmaster” he allegedly defamed.

Of course, none of this is to say Zhang can’t be huge, or isn’t uniquely positioned to take the UFC (and Dana White’s bank account) to towering new heights. She’s is clearly a special athlete and has a backstory and presence to make a lasting impact on the sport. If her domination of Andrade is any indication, she may well rule the 115-pound division for some time to come.

But the jury is still out at the time of writing as to how just big a splash she made in Shenzhen, and the notion that Zhang is already a “global star,” as Dana White has appointed her, isn’t yet borne out by the evidence.

Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com. Advertisement
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