SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — It’s a Saturday morning in October and Zhang Weili is in MMA gloves and her workout gear, walking to the mat at Fight Ready MMA & Fitness.
A YouTube video with the sound of fans loudly booing at a sporting event is being broadcast over the gym’s speakers. Coaches and training partners gather around and join in with the jeers, plus chants of “USA!” Henry Cejudo, the former UFC double champion and now one of Zhang’s coaches, yells for her to “go back to China!”
Zhang steps onto the mat, rolls her eyes at Cejudo and laughs. The sparring simulation — complete with a referee and a faux USADA official pantomiming a drug-test sample collection — is all part of her completely rehauled fight preparation.
On Saturday, Zhang will attempt to regain the UFC strawweight title from Rose Namajunas in the co-main event of UFC 268 in New York (ESPN+ PPV, 10 p.m. ET). Ahead of this fight, Zhang has changed just about every aspect of her training camp — the physical, the mental and even the geographical.
Zhang left her native China in early September to do her first training camp in the United States at Fight Ready. She has added wrestling to her game under the tutelage of Cejudo, a 2008 Olympic gold medalist. Eric Albarracin, Cejudo’s longtime coach, now refers to Zhang as “The Great Sprawl of China.” Perhaps most importantly, Zhang is working with mindset coach Mike Moor to tackle some internal turmoil.
Seven months ago at UFC 261, Zhang admits, she lost focus during the Namajunas fight due to the negative reaction — hearty boos — she got from the fans in Jacksonville, Florida. That loss of focus played a role in a 78-second knockout loss. In the weeks and months that followed, Zhang made some surprising changes, including parting ways with her manager, Brian Butler, cutting her long black locks into a short haircut and changing up her training camp to add new voices.
“You’ll definitely see a brand-new me in Madison Square Garden,” Zhang told ESPN through an interpreter.
Trying to simulate what could be a hostile environment for Zhang at MSG is just one aspect of this new system. Fight Ready has done similar exercises for Cejudo and “The Korean Zombie,” Chan Sung Jung, during their training camp — but not quite as intensively as this. During the presparring simulation, Fight Ready has Zhang hooked up to a heart-rate monitor, and when the boos and trash talk begin, there is absolutely no spike in Zhang’s readings, according to striking coach Eddie Cha.
“She’s cold as ice right now,” Cha said. “She’s more than ready. She’s so ready right now that it almost makes me nervous.”
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ZHANG MADE HER UFC debut at UFC 227 on Aug. 4, 2018. That same night, Cejudo pulled off a stunning upset of Demetrious Johnson to win the UFC flyweight title. Johnson had compiled a UFC-record 11 straight title defenses before Cejudo defeated him via split decision in Los Angeles.
Backstage at Staples Center that night, Cejudo and Albarracin approached Zhang and spoke with her briefly in her native language. Cejudo won his gold medal in wrestling at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and he and Albarracin had retained some Mandarin words and phrases from their time there.
“If you need anything, just let us know,” Albarracin said the message was to Zhang.
Cejudo and Zhang maintained a friendship after that via direct messages on Instagram. Cejudo would type in English and Zhang would use a translation app to decipher his words. The plan was always for them to train together at some point. Before the pandemic, Zhang said, she was planning to come to the United States at least two weeks before a scheduled fight to train at Fight Ready, but COVID-19 restrictions made that impossible.
After Zhang lost to Namajunas, Cejudo messaged her with some words of wisdom. He told her about how he had been knocked out by Johnson, one of the best fighters of all time, in 2016 and two years later came back to beat him. He said she had the ability to do the exact same thing against Namajunas.
The two started talking about Zhang doing her next training camp with Cejudo at Fight Ready. One of the most surprising things Cejudo learned in those conversations with Zhang was that she never really had trained in mixed martial arts before. She had trained in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai and wrestling, but she never had meshed them all together in an MMA practice.
“I knew that she had the skills,” Cejudo said. “I knew she was a little tank. The only thing that worried me about Weili is whether she had the science and the MMA aspect in it. These are the things I wanted to share with her.”
In the aftermath of the Namajunas loss, Zhang decided to part ways with Butler, her manager from SuckerPunch Entertainment. Butler also represents Namajunas, and Zhang said she felt like that was too “difficult” of a scenario for him.
Zhang also trimmed her long black hair into a more cropped cut. There wasn’t necessarily any symbolism behind that, she said.
“I always wanted to cut my hair, but I wasn’t brave enough to make the decision,” Zhang said. “Every time I practiced jiu-jitsu, I saw my hair falling out. I was worried about going bald and my hairline receding. After the most recent fight, I made the decision to cut my hair off and it feels great.”
Namajunas vs. Zhang 2 was made official in August for UFC 268. Zhang already had her flight booked to Arizona for the second week of September. She brought most of her team from China with her and they stayed at a large rental home in Scottsdale. Even though she’s now working with the coaches at Fight Ready, Zhang still has with her the coaches she has worked with for years, including Pedro Jordao, her Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach.
“Since MMA got a late start in China, there are very few good coaches over there,” Zhang said. “So most Chinese athletes would only train striking and ground techniques separately. That’s why I give a lot of credit to my coaches for helping me win the championship.”
MOOR ASKED ZHANG during one of their sessions in September what she did for fun. Zhang’s response was that she didn’t know. She had no real hobbies. MMA was everything in her life.
And yet Moor also learned that Zhang’s love for the sport had begun to wane. Zhang is the face of the UFC’s expansion efforts in China, and losing the title obviously was not in her plans. Moor said Zhang wasn’t necessarily feeling pressure, but that MMA had just turned into more of an obligation than a passion.
“What she did feel is she started feeling like this is a job,” Moor said. “This is something she had to do. I had to reframe that for her. It is a job, but it’s a fun job. It’s a cool job. You want to work at a cafeteria or selling insurance? Or do you want to get paid to punch [someone] in the face?”
Zhang told Moor that getting booed by the fans in Jacksonville wasn’t so much a traumatic experience as it was an unexpected one. Zhang said she had never been booed before during competition.
Namajunas had made negative comments about China leading into UFC 261, using the phrase “better dead than red” in reference to communism. Zhang has never spoken about her personal politics and at first was puzzled why this was being brought up. The timing was especially sensitive, since it was the UFC’s first show in front of a crowd since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, which began in China.
“MMA as a sport has brought people of all colors together to compete and learn from each other,” Zhang said. “Just like me being here in the U.S. training at Fight Ready, interacting with everybody else. The fight is a form of cultural exchange, as well. I think athletes should just keep it pure and simple. I didn’t understand why she was mixing politics into all of this. Only after I came out to the cage, I realized that was her move to rally the crowds.”
Zhang said she has had a “change of mind” when it comes to Namajunas. She once saw her as a “very humble and very friendly athlete,” but she was surprised when Namajunas said those things.
None of that potential distraction should be an issue leading into this weekend, Zhang said, because of the preparation she has had at Fight Ready.
“This girl has an ability to go up to 125 pounds, win that belt and with the right programs and the right strength and conditioning … 135 pounds to me is not even a stretch.”
Henry Cejudo on Zhang Weili
Zhang has been sparring with former UFC flyweight title challenger John Moraga and Felipe Bunes, whom Albarracin brought in from the “Pitbull” brothers camp in Brazil. On those Saturdays in training camp, the coaches and training partners attempt to make the Scottsdale gym feel like Zhang is about to go into the Octagon for real, complete with all the expected noise.
Albarracin said he tried doing something similar with Patricio “Pitbull” Freire before his July title fight against A.J. McKee in Bellator, which was in McKee’s hometown of Los Angeles. But Freire didn’t like it. Zhang, on the other hand, has embraced the training tactic, despite some of the crass language.
“When Weili gets the opportunity to fight that night, there’s nothing she hasn’t seen,” Moor said. “Seen, heard, felt — any of those things. We have done all the boos and all the nasty s—, all the names. All that stuff.”
Zhang said she has no hard feelings toward the Florida fans and she puts the blame for the loss squarely on her own shoulders.
“Every region has its distinct culture,” Zhang said. “I respect that. I wasn’t on my ‘A’ game during the last fight. I wasn’t focused enough. This time, I know I have no control of the audience. The only control I have is on myself. That’s it.”
ALBARRACIN SAID ZHANG is the “fastest learner” he has ever witnessed in MMA, and he has worked with the likes of Cejudo, Jung, Patricio and Patricky Freire, Paulo Costa, Anderson Silva and Junior dos Santos. After Zhang became UFC champion despite not having had complete MMA training, Albarracin said, working with Fight Ready has turned her into “Weili 2.0.”
There is no use watching film of Zhang’s past fights, Cha said. She’ll be a completely new athlete come UFC 268, from her movement to her counters to her wrestling. Cha said that, in sparring, Moraga and Bunes are having a hard time hitting her.
“I can’t express how different she moves, the way of her style of fighting,” Cha said. “If you watched her last fights, it’s like press forward, get hit and fire back. I call it north-south style of fighting — just going back and forth, back and forth. There were no lateral movements. She wasn’t much of a counterfighter. I think she was more offensive-minded. Now we’re mixing. Now we’re doing a complete MMA package.”
Cejudo calls the evolution of Zhang “scary” for upcoming opponents. “There’s only one Zhang Weili and she can pick up anything that I’m teaching her,” he said. “So, it’s scary. It’s almost to the point where, pick your poison. You want to go off the clinch? You want to go for takedowns? You want to go counters? She’s there. It’s scary to see the type of fighter that she could become.”
Cejudo thinks Zhang can surpass him in some ways, which is no small feat since he’s one of only four fighters to ever hold UFC titles in two weight classes at the same time.
“This girl has an ability to go up to 125 pounds, win that belt and with the right programs and the right strength and conditioning … 135 pounds to me is not even a stretch,” Cejudo said. “It really isn’t. This girl is special.”
First, though, the objective for Zhang is beating Namajunas and regaining the strawweight title.
Zhang won that belt at a UFC Fight Night on Aug. 31, 2019, stopping Jessica Andrade in just 42 seconds. In her first title defense, at UFC 248 on March 7, 2020, Zhang and former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk had what many call the greatest bout in women’s MMA history, a bloody fight in which Zhang retained the gold via split decision.
Then came the loss to Namajunas. Cejudo told Zhang that the quick loss was OK, just a mistake. She didn’t even get a chance to display her abilities, he said, but that will change at UFC 268. Zhang embraces that attitude.
“Even though I lost to Rose in April, I learned something more important than simply winning that fight,” Zhang said. “I learned how to stay focused and fix my weakness and how to improve myself. I think I’ll be stronger this time. As I return, I think you’ll see a better Weili this time.”
And if the crowd in New York is as anti-Zhang as the one in Florida, Zhang will just think back to those Saturday simulation days at Fight Ready when she was laughing at the jeering Cejudo.
“Right now, I think if they boo me,” Zhang said, “I will just think they like me very much.”