China trailblazer Zhang Weili headlines UFC return to Asia

·3-min read

Chinese history-maker Zhang Weili and two world title fights headline the return of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) to Asia on Sunday after a break of more than two years because of Covid.

Former strawweight champions Zhang and Joanna Jedrzejczyk of Poland are set to battle at UFC 275 in Singapore in a rematch of their March 2020 clash which UFC president Dana White calls "the greatest fight ever".

Much has changed since the pair fought each other to a bloody standstill across five thrilling rounds in Las Vegas.

Zhang was the champion then, China's first in UFC and the country's face of MMA, and successfully defended her title with a split-decision victory.

But she has since suffered two defeats in a row to Rose Namajunas, surrendering her crown in the process, while fellow former champion Jedrzejczyk has remained on the peripheries of the sport ever since that fateful night two years ago.

There is no belt on the line this time but the victor at Singapore Indoor Stadium will get the chance to win the title back against America's current strawweight queen Carla Esparza.

"I think now I know MMA deeper than I did before," the 32-year-old Zhang told AFP this week.

"During the first fight with Joanna my thoughts were simple: I wanted to win.

"But fighting is an invisible language and even though we were fighting, we respected each other more and more throughout.

"It's like the Chinese saying, 'Out of blows, friendship grows.'"

Zhang, who is still China's only ever UFC champion, is looking at doing more than simply get her crown back.

"Speaking from a spiritual level, I hope UFC fans see the strong heart that I have when I encounter a problem and then conquer it," added Zhang.

"I really hope I can inspire more people, so I am going for it on Sunday."

Jedrzejczyk has been biding her time, locked in extended negotiations with the UFC for a return to the cage and a chance to ultimately reclaim the belt she held from 2015 to 2017.

"What a fight this should be," UFC supremo White said this week.

"Weili is still the number-two-ranked fighter in the world so this is a very important rematch. It's such a big fight so it's straight in against the champion for the winner."

- Two title clashes -

The 12-bout card on Sunday morning -- prime time Saturday night in the United States --gives the Las Vegas-based UFC a chance to relaunch its ambitions in Asia.

The pandemic put the UFC's expansion plans on hold in early 2020, just months after the organisation launched a $14 million centre in Shanghai designed to nurture talent from the region.

A "Road to UFC" tournament for unsigned talent from Asia took place on Thursday and Friday in Singapore. There are 10 fighters from Asia and Australasia on the bill on Sunday.

Two world title bouts involving fighters with backstories from Asia will cap the action.

Brazilian light heavyweight champion Glover Teixeira faces Czech fighter Jiri Prochazka, who for years was an MMA champion in Japan.

In the women's flyweight, Brazilian challenger Taila Santos will try to tame the Kyrgyz-Peruvian champion Valentina Shevchenko, who spent a decade honing her craft in the wild domestic combat sport scene in China.

The 34-year-old Shevchenko, unbeaten since 2017, has flown under the radar in terms of mainstream global recognition.

White believes it’s time that changed.

"Valentina is one of the greatest female fighters of all time," he said.

"But Santos has 10 wins by knockout, her record is 19-1. It’s just a tough test, but if Valentina rips through her like she has everybody else, maybe then people will really start to appreciate what we have with her."

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