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Following Jessica Andrade’s stunning slam knockout of Rose Namajunas in May, there were a number of solid contenders for her first title defense. The winner of a June bout between Tatiana Suarez and Nina Ansaroff seemed like the favorite for the spot. If Ansaroff had won, it would have been five straight Ultimate Fighting Championship wins, including a major upset of the unbeaten “Ultimate Fighter” winner. Suarez, meanwhile, has been flagged as a potential future champion pretty much from the moment she entered the sport. The world-class wrestler has made no secret she wants to fight for the title sooner rather than later.
Beyond those two top contenders, a rematch with Namajunas was also a possibility provided the former champion was interested in the fight. Namajunas is the biggest star of the bunch presently, had beaten Joanna Jedrzejczyk twice and looked great against Andrade before the sudden finish. The story of their first fight built intrigue for a rematch. If not one of those contenders, Michelle Waterson was the next-highest-profile option. “The Karate Hottie” is riding a three-fight winning streak, and those appearances were featured prominently on a Fox main card, ESPN main card and the main card of the most ordered pay-per-view in UFC history: Khabib Nurmagomedov-Conor McGregor.
Instead of any of those options, the UFC went off the board and selected Weili Zhang. Like Waterson, Zhang has three straight UFC wins. However, two of those three fights have been relegated to UFC Fight Pass. The other was at UFC 235, which was a more notable spot. However, her decision win over Tecia Torres did not stand out on a card in which Kamaru Usman captured the UFC welterweight title, Ben Askren and Robbie Lawler fought in a wild, controversial bout and Pedro Munhoz, Johnny Walker and Diego Sanchez scored impressive knockouts. Zhang does not enter the UFC Fight Night 157 main event on Saturday in Shenzhen, China, as a widely known commodity.
All of that is not to say this was bad decision. Rather, this is an intriguing play by the UFC. China is a tantalizing market for MMA. It is of course the largest population base in the world and home to an economy that has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few decades. Just as importantly, it’s a natural spot for mixed martial arts to take off. China has a rich history in the martial arts that continues to this day, and it’s not hard to imagine MMA greatly rising in popularity. The easiest path for that to happen is through the emergence of a Chinese superstar, like Yao Ming in basketball. It’s hard to become a superstar without fighting at the top level, so Zhang will be the first Chinese fighter to compete for a UFC championship.
The UFC certainly could have groomed Zhang longer for this opportunity. While she has plenty of fights and is right in her athletic prime at age 30, she hasn’t fought at the top level for all that long. She will improve as she takes on elite opponents. Of course, the flipside of that is that she could suffer setbacks in the process that would make it harder to market a future title shot. As such, the UFC is just takingits chance now and will see how Zhang rises to the occasion. Whether she wins or loses, it will likely give a good sense of how she matches up against a world-class opponent like Andrade.
Upping the stakes is the location for the fight. By holding Andrade-Zhang in Shenzhen, the UFC is targeting the fight for the Chinese market. Potential fans are more likely to notice the fight than if it were held in California or the United Arab Emirates. That means a win will stand out more, but it also means a loss will stand out more. That’s a key issue given that you don’t build up a market by showing hometown fighters taking losses. To take one example close to China, Japanese MMA thrived when Japanese fighters were doing well, and the decline in the popularity of the sport there was closely tied to the struggles of the best Japanese fighters.
Regardless of how the Andrade-Zhang main event goes, the UFC strawweight division will be just fine. There were plenty of options for challengers going into Andrade’s first title defense, and there will be plenty of options for the next challenger coming out of it. Zhang herself will also have plenty of time to work her way back to the top. Where this bout has greater consequences is when it comes to the UFC’s popularity in China. This is a long play, but the result of Andrade-Zhang could be a significant breakthrough or major setback in the development of Chinese MMA. To use the parlance of the region, it could be a great leap forward, or a Great Leap Forward.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.