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Zhang Weili targets pay-per-view title defense in China for 2023

Zhang Weili is bringing home UFC gold, and next, she wants to bring a pay-per-view home.

The Chinese star became a two-time strawweight champion on Saturday at UFC 281, dominating Carla Esparza in the co-main event before finishing with a rear-naked choke in Round 2. Zhang’s overall pro record improved to 23-3 and she reinforced her reputation as her country’s premier MMA fighter.

At the evening’s post-fight presser, Zhang was asked if she was hopeful that would consider China to host a future title defense.

“If we can do it, if the UFC can do it, I hope I can defend my title next year in China,” Zhang said. “A billion Chinese MMA fans, they are looking for a big pay-per-view event in China.”

Zhang’s first title win came in Shenzhen, China, in August 2019, on a UFC Fight Night event that was geared toward local time (a 13-hour difference from Eastern Standard Time). That meant many North American fans possibly didn’t watch live Zhang’s championship knockout of Jessica Andrade. That’s one logistical hurdle the UFC would have to tackle to accommodate Zhang’s wishes, but given her massive popularity — including receiving loud cheers on Saturday at Madison Square Garden — it’s an option that the promotion could consider.

To win her second title, Zhang showed off her impressive grappling to foil Esparza, a wrestling specialist. She enthusiastically spoke of her development as an MMA fighter and the possibility of incorporating more traditional techniques from China.

“I think mixed martial arts is a very comprehensive sport,” Zhang said. “I even think in the future I may try to bring some techniques from traditional Chinese martial arts, just to showcase more martial arts disciplines in my game.”

“For [Bajiquan] they have very good elbow attacks,” Zhang later added. “For Tai Chi, the principal of how to use power and strength is very good. Even now, I’m doing some strength and conditioning training based on the Tai Chi principal. So I do think some idea or principals of those disciplines, we can involve those in modern mixed martial arts.”

The UFC has gone to great lengths to expand into China, including building a Performance Institute in Shanghai. Zhang credited the promotion with the rapid growth of MMA in her home country.

“I think since I won the belt the first time there are more and more young Chinese people, more girls, more women starting to participate in this sport,” Zhang said. “MMA has developed very fast in China, from the UFC PI Shanghai in China in 2019. I also want to say thanks to the UFC. They give all the fighters and this sport massive support, like the UFC PI. They take care of me a lot, whether in Shanghai or Las Vegas. So I do appreciate that we have an MMA promotion like the UFC. They do help us a lot.”

Belt back in hand, Zhang has a number of potential challengers ahead, including recent UFC Vegas 64 main event winner Amanda Lemos, countrywoman Yan Xiaonan, and Rose Namajunas, the latter of whom already holds two wins over Zhang.

Zhang is leaving the decision who will be next in the hands of the matchmakers.

“They are all good fighters, so I’ll just see what the UFC wants,” Zhang said. “We’ll wait for the call from them and discuss with them which one is better for me.”

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