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Coach expects long reign for Weili Zhang after impressive UFC title win

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Weili Zhang won all four UFC fights in just 12 months, stopping Jessica Andrade to win the belt.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Weili Zhang scored one of the fastest finishes of her entire MMA career in her biggest fight to date in Shenzhen, China, and her team says she’s only getting started.

Zhang stopped Jessica Andrade to claim the UFC strawweight gold in the main event of UFC Shenzhen on Saturday, knocking out “Bate Estaca” in just 42 seconds. One of her longtime coaches Pedro Jordao, who has been working on her jiu-jitsu for almost five years, didn’t predict such a quick win, but wasn’t surprised either.

According to Jordao, the game plan wasn’t to trade openly with Andrade early in the title bout, but to land on the feet and make sure to avoid getting her back against the fence.

Zhang’s team expected the elbows and knees in the clinch to be an important key against a powerful woman like Andrade, and that’s exactly what kept the Brazilian hurt after the right hand that landed flush on the chin.

“[Zhang] is a beast,” Jordao told MMA Fighting. “I thought Andrade would get in trouble when she decided to go toe-to-toe with her, but I was surprised she did it so early in the fight. I guess she ate one punch and got angry, just like [Cris] ‘Cyborg’ against Amanda (Nunes). Instead of retreating a little bit, she kept coming forward.

“I didn’t think Jessica would do that so early and come like crazy. We knew she would have problems when she did that.”

Jordao met Zhang after he moved to China in January 2015, back when Zhang only had three professional MMA bouts. She already had an incredible striking game at that time, Jordao says, but her jiu-jitsu “was too raw”. Zhang fell in love with grappling and was already winning medals later that year, and was more of a complete fighter when she shifted her focus back to mixed martial arts.

Zhang, 20-1 in MMA, is now riding an incredible 20-fight winning streak that includes 10 knockouts and seven submissions, and even Jordao admits he didn’t expect to go from UFC newcomer to strawweight champion in just 12 months.

“It’s something unusual, but a series of factors helped her,” Jordao said. “Her long winning streak with many first-round finishes definitely helped, the fact she’s always fighting opponents from other countries. It was a surprise for a lot of people, but not for us.”

Zhang will likely take some time off after fighting four times in the Octagon in one year — plus five bouts in 2016 and seven in 2017 —, and her next move still remains to be seen. Jordao says that top-ranked strawweights Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Claudia Gadelha both turned down fights with Zhang at UFC Shenzhen, and doesn’t see a clear No. 1 contender right now.

“I think everyone in the top 10 deserves a chance,” Jordao said. “They are all tough girls. I don’t know who they’ll offer right now, and I honestly don’t know what Zhang wants for her either.”

Whoever comes first, the jiu-jitsu coach expects a successful title defense to kick off a long reign as 115-pound queen. A fight with flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko would demand a “special work” in conditioning training, but Jordao doesn’t think it would be a problem either since “she’s really strong”.

“She has that potential and talent to beat every girl in the top 10,” Jordao said of the strawweights. “A fight is a fight, when the cage closes it’s a competition and the best will win, but she has the potential to beat them all. If I had to bet, I’d bet on her against anyone [laughs].”

“They are all really tough with their own unique style,” he continued. “Joanna has great Muay Thai. Tatiana (Suarez) is good in the wrestling area and ground and pound. Michelle Waterson has good karate. Rose [Namajunas] has good boxing and jiu-jitsu. Every single one has their own style, things that will complicate more or complicate less. The good thing about Zhang is that she’s strong in all areas.”