There are approximately 1.38 billion people living in China. Prior to Saturday, not a single one of them had been crowned a UFC champion. It took just 42 seconds for Weili Zhang to change history when she defeated reigning Ultimate Fighting Championship women’s strawweight titleholder Jessica Andrade in the UFC Fight Night 157 main event at the Shenzhen Universiade Sports Centre in Shenzhen, China.
“My dream came true,” Zhang said on the ESPN+ post-fight show. “Nothing but the beginning for me and a new beginning for Chinese MMA.”
Though Zhang improved her professional record to an impressive 20-1, including 4-0 inside the Octagon, “Magnum” was overlooked by many prognosticators, with many having claimed that she only received her title shot because the UFC wanted a Chinese fighter to headline its return to the Middle Kingdom. With the historic win, it is expected that Zhang will spark some new interest in the sport. Despite the UFC possibly having a new star, it appears as though her first title defense may not come in front of her hometown crowd.
“I want to bring Weili to the United States,” UFC President Dana White said. “Have her fight in the states, then we will come back to China again with her. We will be back here soon. Weili will not be back here very soon but soon enough.”
While the Black Tiger Fight Club representative might not be a household name in the Western Hemisphere yet, she does appear to have an American sport icon as a supporter. Six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady congratulated the fighter on his Instagram account Saturday afternoon.
“Woke up in the morning to receive the idol’s blessing,” Zhang responded to Brady on Instagram. “I feel so happy. Thank you for your @Tombrady.”
Zhang received other congratulatory messages from top American stars, including current UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, former UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey and World Wrestling Entertainment superstar turned actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. White, who grew up in New England and continues to support the local sports teams there, appears to love Zhang’s affection for a man widely regarded as the greatest quarterback in NFL history.
“Just when you think she can’t be any more perfect,” he said, “she is a Tom Brady fan.”
Zhang was not the only Chinese fighter to find success on the card. In fact, five out of the six Chinese fighters got their hand raised.
“I think tonight is very surprising for many because it was a Fight Night in Shenzhen, and China is a new market,” said Jingliang Li, who stopped Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos with punches in the third round of their welterweight co-main event. “Tonight, we proved a lot. After tonight, I think new opportunities will come. Tonight, we proved our power and spirit.”
Li is one of the most experienced Chinese fighters currently on the roster. He made his 12th appearance under the UFC banner, improving to 9-3 with his third-round stoppage of Zaleski dos Santos.
“I believe in the future Chinese athletes will take a great part in MMA,” Li said. “China will be a very big market in MMA. Tonight is historical, but it is just the beginning.”
UFC Fight Night 157 was not just filled with Asian talent. One of the most anticipated fights saw Kai Kara-France take on Mark De La Rosa in a flyweight scrap on the main card. Kara-France cruised to a unanimous decision over De La Rosa, as the City Kickboxing standout extended his winning streak to eight fights and led to his calling for a rematch.
“Pretty much everyone in front of me [in the rankings] I have eyes on,” Kara-France said. “You know what fight really speaks out to me is Alexandre Pantoja. We fought on ‘The Ultimate Fighter.’ He’s coming off a loss right now. I don’t think he has a fight booked. If he is not injured, I would love to have a quick turnaround in five weeks in Melbourne, [Australia]. We are completely different fighters now. He obviously has done well in his career. I have a little momentum [with an] eight-fight winning streak, [including] three in a row in the UFC.”
Kara-France and Pantoja battled in the quarterfinals of Season 24 of “The Ultimate Fighter” back in 2016. The Brazilian won by unanimous decision.
“[With] those kind of fights, it is hard to show your true potential because you’re on ‘The Ultimate Fighter,’” Kara-France said. “You don’t have your coaches; you don’t have your team; and you are cutting weight back to back. You’re depleted, [so] you’re not going to be fighting like yourself, and it was a close fight.”
White was asked about a quick turnaround for the flyweight on the UFC 243 card in Melbourne.
“I don’t know. If he is healthy, anything is possible,” White said. “I know that card is loaded up. You know how that goes. People fall off left and right. I love the fact that he wants to fight there. We will see what happens.”
Kara-France might have accidentally broken some news while being interviewed on the ESPN+ post-fight show when he announced teammate Alexander Volkanovski’s return, which has not yet been made public.
“I see Alex Volkanovski fighting Max Holloway in [Las] Vegas,” Kara-France said. “If that Melbourne fight doesn’t happen, maybe we can do it in Vegas. If that Melbourne fight isn’t happening, it could happen in Vegas. I would love to be part of that card, as well.”