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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday staged UFC Fight Night 157 at the Shenzhen Universiade Sports Centre in Shenzhen, China, where Jessica Andrade put her women’s strawweight championship on the line against Weili Zhang. With it came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: RETURN ON INVESTMENT
In the nonstop quest for self-declared global domination, the UFC was determined to develop the marketplace in China. With a reported population of nearly 1.5 billion people and a rich culture in martial arts, it seemed logical that the promotion would want to make sure its brand was popular there. It’s amazing that the MMA scene hadn’t fully developed before UFC President Dana White and Company set their sights on the country. With nearby Japan fully invested in the sport and Singapore-based One Championship determined to establish a presence in Asia, it’s strange that a land so rooted in martial arts had not yet experienced its landmark moment.
After a concerted effort from Zuffa that included a season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” several high-profile main events and a brand-new UFC Performance Institute that moment has arrived. Zhang on Saturday became the UFC’s first Chinese champion -- an event that might finally tip the scales in favor of a surge in popularity for her, the company and the sport as a whole. Her 42-second dismantling of Andrade in the UFC Fight Night 157 headliner had some crucial ingredients previous efforts in the nation lacked.
When Cung Le main evented against Rich Franklin in Macau, he was a well-established name in MMA and also known as a budding action movie star. However, being of Vietnamese descent, there was a ceiling on what he could do toward building the Chinese market. “The Ultimate Fighter China” was plagued with athletes -- including a yoga instructor without any real MMA experience -- who proved to be grossly unprepared for the complexities of a fight.
While the UFC was previously missing an elite-level Chinese fighter in a high-stakes bout, Zhang closed that gap in emphatic fashion. There was no doubt about her qualifications as a top-ranked contender at 115 pounds, as her previous wins in the UFC displayed her ability to shut down and nullify the woman in front of her. While her last win against Tecia Torres at UFC 235 wasn’t the most exciting aesthetically, neutralizing a proven veteran like “The Tiny Tornado” extended her impressive winning streak and set her up for the chance at striking gold. Although some observers thought she needed one or two more fights in hopes of seeing the finishes that were common for her in the Kunlun Fight promotion and would have favored Tatiana Suarez or Michelle Waterson as Andrade’s challenger instead, the business interests combined with Zhang’s potential to promote her as the No. 1 contender.
The gamble paid off: China now has someone to look to as the face of MMA in the country. Although White stated after the event that Zhang would next compete in the United States on a numbered pay-per-view card, perhaps the UFC should double down on committing to the Chinese market. Bringing that title back to one of the many heavily populated cities in China would only multiply the level of interest Zhang’s historic performance created.
THE BAD: BROKEN EGGS AND OMELETS
Light casts shadows, and Zhang’s glory looks like darkness to Andrade. While Zhang was slightly overlooked as a mild underdog, the story of this event centered on the expanding reach of the UFC and what this could mean for Chinese audiences. The defending champion seemed to be an afterthought.
After authoring one of the most memorable knockouts of 2019 when she snatched the strawweight belt from Rose Namajunas a few months ago, Andrade’s first and only title defense involved her traveling across the world to a different time zone, vastly different culture and added stress of dieting and weight cutting. Granted, her title-winning effort took place in her native Brazil, but at least Namajunas had one stateside defense before fighting internationally.
A similar statement can be made about Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos. While he didn’t enter the Shenzhen Universidad Sports Centre with a championship strapped to his waist, he carried a significant amount of momentum with a seven-fight winning streak. His last win over Curtis Millender finally put a ranking next to his name and began opening doors for higher-profile names that could put him on track to contention. Instead of being rewarded with one of the better-known welterweights, he was instead tapped to play the foil against the unranked Jingliang Li. Had Zaleski dos Santos nailed down another win, it would have come in another fight that had done nothing to advance him. Of course, his late TKO loss is a major setback.
Andrade and Zaleski dos Santos are by no means finished. Both suffered difficult defeats but are likely to press forward. Andrade isn’t far away from the title, depending on which opponent she sees next and what Zhang’s reign at the top looks like; and with another victory over an unranked fighter, Zaleski dos Santos may be able to pick up where he left off. Hope is not lost, but it was significantly delayed for the Brazilians.
THE UGLY: A LESSON IN APPRECIATION
This would be a perfect time to complain about having to stay up to the wee hours of the morning to watch a UFC event. I decided to prioritize my sleep instead and watched the fights with breakfast. Perhaps this would be a good chance to fuss about the ESPN app notifications spoiling the results before I could watch. However, I’ll take this chance to express my respect for the fans outside the Americas.
A fair amount of my colleagues -- including Sherdog’s hard-working and talented Jay Pettry, who soldiered on with incredible play-by-play -- elected to stay awake or wake up early to enjoy the festivities. Whether we altered our schedules or watched a replay, it was a topic of conversation. It became a big deal, and so many muttered under their breath or half joked about the inconvenience.
Then I realized something. The insane start time that required a huge sacrifice in health and routine is a reality that confronts fans overseas every week. Being an MMA fan is quite demanding. The judgment of the more civilized sports world, the nonstop parade of events and the absurd length of said events is enough to make many observers question their devotion to everything. To add planning around the middle-of-the-night marathon sessions on a regular basis seems a potential deal breaker for most. However, everyone who watches across the Atlantic one way and across the Pacific the other makes that sacrifice. I salute you all.