Days earlier than the bout to defend her championship title, Zhang Weili, China’s most well-known blended martial arts fighter, sensed her opponent was attempting to get underneath her pores and skin.
The opponent, the Lithuanian-American fighter Rose Namajunas, had framed their clash for the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s 115-pound title as a minimum of an ideological contest between freedom and Communism. “Better dead than red,” Ms. Namajunas mentioned, utilizing a McCarthy period anti-Communist slogan.
But Ms. Zhang, 30, a strawweight who has misplaced solely certainly one of her 22 skilled fights, wasn’t about to take the bait.
“We are just athletes,” Ms. Zhang mentioned in an interview from Jacksonville, Fla., the place on Saturday she’s going to face Ms. Namajunas in entrance of a sold-out crowd.
“Don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re so important,” she added.
Ms. Zhang is likely to be modest about her personal significance, however for her tens of millions of followers she is not only one of many world’s best feminine fighters. Standing 5-foot-3, Ms. Zhang has develop into a actual, if reluctant, image of girls’s rights and a nationwide hero.
To spectators (and opponents) outdoors her residence nation, she is the hard-hitting face of a trendy, assertive China and its Communist Party. To her authorities, she is the satisfaction of the nation and a propaganda boon. To her feminine followers, she is a position mannequin whose defiance of gender stereotypes has pushed the boundaries of what it means to be a Chinese girl.
To Ms. Zhang, although, such discuss is little greater than a distraction. The fighter would possibly readily drape China’s flag round her shoulders after a win, however she not often talks about politics in public. She has little to say about ladies’s rights and doesn’t see herself as a feminist. “What does that term even mean?” she requested, seeming genuinely puzzled.
When she’s not battering opponents with highly effective punches and spin kicks, Ms. Zhang is self-deprecating and goofy, even. She loves a good selfie filter and perks up any time the dialog turns to meals.
But colleagues say that beneath her sunny exterior is a thoughts targeted solely on successful. That depth, they are saying, has propelled Ms. Zhang, a coal employee’s daughter, to the highest of the U.F.C.’s international rankings.
“No matter how many belts she wins, she doesn’t change,” mentioned Cai Xuejun, Ms. Zhang’s coach since 2013. “We are already at the peak, and she is still thinking about how to improve.”
The struggle on Saturday might be Ms. Zhang’s first since March of final 12 months, when she efficiently defended her title in an epic five-round battle in Las Vegas towards the Polish fighter Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
At the time, China was still trying to bring the coronavirus under control and the United States had not but gone into lockdown. Weeks earlier than the bout, Ms. Jedrzejczyk posted a photoshopped poster of herself in a gasoline masks subsequent to Ms. Zhang. She later apologized for making mild of the virus.
“My country is ravaged by the epidemic,” an emotional Ms. Zhang, her face barely recognizable from the swelling, mentioned after the struggle. “I hope China will win the battle; the epidemic is a common enemy of humankind.”
Though such patriotic rhetoric would possibly counsel in any other case, Ms. Zhang was skilled outdoors of the state-controlled sports activities machine that grooms China’s Olympians. Instead, the champion recognized to followers as “Magnum” found a love of preventing on her personal.
Growing up within the northern province of Hebei, Ms. Zhang was an brisk baby. She fought regularly along with her two older brothers and was as soon as caught attempting to flee her kindergarten by scaling the partitions. To hold her occupied, her mom dug holes within the floor out of which the 5-year-old would apply leaping. Over time, the holes turned deeper.
“My mother was very supportive,” Ms. Zhang recalled. “She always told me that girls should be independent and not weak.”
When she was 13, Ms. Zhang enrolled in a martial arts academy in Handan, a metropolis with a deep-rooted preventing custom.
The college, which targeted on sanda, a type of kickboxing developed by the Chinese army, instilled in her a sense of self-discipline.
Of its 500 college students, Ms. Zhang was certainly one of solely about 30 women.
“When I was a kid, before I started training in martial arts, I would get in a lot of fights,” she mentioned. “Later, I stopped looking for my own fights — I just fought on behalf of other people.”
Despite successful a provincial sanda championship, a recurring again damage compelled Ms. Zhang to give up the game on the age of 17. Her dad and mom urged that she go to magnificence college to develop into a hairstylist.
No manner, Ms. Zhang recalled considering. “I wanted to find my own path,” she mentioned. She purchased a one-way ticket to Beijing.
For the following six years, Ms. Zhang drifted across the capital and labored odd jobs, together with as a resort receptionist, a kindergarten instructor and a safety guard.
Ms. Zhang was working at a gymnasium within the early 2010s when she first started working towards blended martial arts. She preferred how M.M.A. integrated a number of preventing types, in distinction to conventional kinds like kung fu.
She made the leap to skilled preventing in 2013, and in 2018 she signed with the U.F.C. The subsequent 12 months, she knocked out the Brazilian fighter Jessica Andrade in simply 42 seconds, taking the ladies’s strawweight title and changing into the primary Chinese champion in U.F.C. historical past.
Since then, Ms. Zhang has develop into a nationwide star. State-run information shops have known as her “the most capable female fighter in China” and the “woman warrior of the East.”
Following her win final 12 months in Las Vegas, she was enlisted by the Communist Youth League to make a video encouraging younger Chinese to “dedicate your best youth to your beloved motherland.” Around the identical time, the American cosmetics firm Estée Lauder named her its brand ambassador in China.
On Chinese social media, Ms. Zhang usually posts movies about her coaching periods and her schnauzer, Miu, for her 5.5 million followers. Her followers write regularly about being impressed by her rejection of conventional notions of how a girl ought to look and behave. Some individuals additionally speculate about her love life — she says she is single — and joke about whether or not anybody would dare to this point her given her violent occupation.
“Those people don’t understand me. They only see who I am inside the octagon,” Ms. Zhang mentioned, referring to the eight-sided ring through which U.F.C. fights happen.
From her U.F.C. winnings alone, Ms. Zhang has earned round $1 million, in keeping with her agent. Despite that success, she mentioned, little about her life has modified. She nonetheless rents a home on the outskirts of Beijing with seven different individuals, together with her coach and certainly one of her brothers. She nonetheless trains 5 hours a day on the close by Black Tiger Fight Club.
Ms. Zhang’s fame in China has been a windfall for the U.F.C., which has been actively increasing its presence within the nation, together with opening a $13 million coaching facility in Shanghai.
“She’s been the tide that lifts all boats,” mentioned Kevin Chang, U.F.C.’s senior vice-president for the Asia-Pacific area.
Days earlier than her showdown on Saturday with Ms. Namajunas, Ms. Zhang mentioned she was feeling good. She had already begun to torture herself by taking a look at photographs of the meals she hoped to eat after the struggle. (Ice cream and steamed buns are amongst her favorites, she mentioned.)
Had she considered what would she say within the octagon if she received? Would there be one other impassioned plea about humankind?
She wasn’t positive, however simply in case, she had in her again pocket a signature line in English that she has generally used after a win.
“My name is Zhang Weili!” she yells triumphantly. “I am from China — remember me!”