Weili Zhang has a shiny gold belt around her waist and a big target on her back now.
The question is, who is willing to take the shot?
In the main event of UFC Shenzhen in China on Saturday, Zhang wowed the audience at the Universiade Sports Centre by taking out Jessica Andrade in just 42 seconds to claim the strawweight championship and become the first Chinese fighter to capture a UFC title.
It was the 20th straight win for Zhang, 30, and her first UFC knockout improved her record to 4-0 in the organization. She’d beaten longtime contender Tecia Torres and former World Series of Fighting champion Jessica Aguilar to earn her crack at Andrade and according to UFC president Dana White, there was no other direction for Zhang to go but to the top.
At the evening’s post-fight press conference, White told reporters that he wasn’t sure what was next for Zhang and that the rest of the strawweight division would have to be sorted out before any decisions were made.
“I don’t know if they’re all taking time off right now. (former champion) Rose (Namajunas) is definitely taking time off,” White said. “Rose got slammed on her head and wanted to take some time off after that, which is understandable. The other girls are all fighting, there’s other fights happening right now and as they play out it will determine what’s next for Weili.
“Weili told me tonight that she wants to fight as much as possible, which I love. And I can tell you this going into this fight with Jessica Andrade, nobody wanted to fight Weili Zhang. Nobody wanted to fight her. Now she’s the champion, so if you want a shot at that belt, you have to fight her.”
Along with Namajunas, waiting in the wings are names like strawweight legend Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Michelle Waterson, who meet in a potential No. 1 contender’s bout this October, and undefeated wrestling specialist Tatiana Suarez.
Any of those matchups brings their share of pros and cons from both a marketing and competitive standpoint. White sounded confident that Zhang will be ready for any challenge, even though he admitted that the manner in which she decimated Andrade caught him off guard.
“It’s funny because I asked a lot of fighters what they thought about this fight,” White said. “Everybody thought that Jessica was too strong for Weili and there were too many unanswered questions about Weili, which is true. If you’ve seen her fight, you can tell she’s well-rounded. She’s super talented, but how’s she gonna deal with the pressure of fighting for the title for the first time in her home country, all of her people here, and a lot of other variables that play into a fight.
“She looked like a world champion tonight. She looked like one of the most vicious women on planet Earth tonight. She looked incredible—No, the answer to your question is, ‘no.’ I did not see it ending like this.”
Whoever Zhang’s first defense is against, White is aiming to have his new champion appear as a headliner or co-headliner in the United States next. A native of the world’s most populous country, Zhang’s star power is far-reaching in the eyes of UFC officials.
“The fight that happened tonight, you know, the UFC is a global sport,” White said. “Tonight, Weili Zhang’s performance was so good and so big, people were watching this fight in Canada, the United States, Brazil, the Middle East. Weili Zhang became a huge star tonight globally, not just here in China.
“And obviously, the first-ever Chinese world champion. She’s still very fresh and young in her career, we’ll see what is in store for her, but she’s off to a good start.”