“Listen to the cheering – we just got our championship. It is historical. We are going to show the world China power, letting the world know that Chinese fighters are good at the sport.”
– Li Jingliang when speaking to the media at the UFC Shenzhen post-fight press conference.
The story of mixed martial arts in China is one that is impossible to tell without mentioning the name “Zhang.”
In 2011, UFC officially absorbed World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) which was, at the time, the home to all of the best fighters in the world that weighed 155-pounds or lighter.
With the acquisition of the promotion’s roster, UFC gained plenty of new faces to display to their audience—multiple of which would leave their marks on the sport forever.
Among that mix was a man that even the most hardcore of fans may not even remember.
Lightweight veteran turned featherweight, Tiequan Zhang made his UFC debut at UFC 127 when he defeated Jason Reinhardt with a first-round guillotine submission in just 48 seconds. Thus making him the very first fighter from China to compete inside the world-famous Octagon.
Unfortunately for “The Wolf,” he would go on to drop three straight after his debut. His very last fight would come in late 2012, therefore, capping off his career at a solid 15-4 with all of his wins coming in the form of finishes (12 submissions, 3 KO/TKOs). In late 2013, he would take his talents to the coaching world where he was the head coach for Team Sky Dragons on The Ultimate Fighter: China—a series that only saw one installment.
Those who do remember Zhang, might say that the BJJ black belt from Inner Mongolia wound up being a fighter of the journeyman status upon arrival in the UFC. But in hindsight, he should be recognized as the starting point for something spectacular.
In the immediate years that rolled on, more fighters would follow in his footsteps, such as Jumabieke Tuerxen, Zhang Lipeng, Guan Wang, Wuliji Buren, Kenan Song, and Hu Yaozong. But none were able to stick around to a notable degree. However, while competitors tried their hands on the ultimate proving ground, the Chinese MMA scene would slowly be building and developing back on home soil.
The early days of the sport, its evolution, and worldwide acceptance
With Asia often being regarded as the continent where the building blocks of combat sports were founded, it’s no surprise that things started off strong in the early days of the sport. Although the biggest noisemakers came from countries such as Japan with names like Kazushi Sakuraba and Genki Sudo among many others. This is without even mentioning the Japan-based promotion, Pride FC.
Fast forward three years and things were beginning to really take shape in the world’s most populated country. And if you would have told someone from then that the charge would be led by female athletes, they probably would have laughed in your face.
As time goes on, things change no matter the circumstances which was exactly the case with women in MMA becoming more of normalcy worldwide. Them competing in the first place was barrier shattering enough, but there were still many walls that required knocking down… Enter “The Panda.”
Beginning her career in 2014, Jining, Shandong’s Xiong JingNan would need just four-years to make history by becoming the first Chinese world champion in a major MMA promotion when she captured the ONE Championship strawweight title with a fourth-round TKO stoppage of Tiffany Teo.
Since then, the now 31-year-old has ruled with an iron fist as she has dispatched of everyone thrown in her way with three successful title defenses currently next to her name. The most recent one being the biggest of them all when she handed undefeated superstar and fellow champion, the atomweight queen of ONE, Angela Lee her first career loss.
Having already cemented herself in the record books, JingNan isn’t stopping there as there’s still plenty left to be remembered for. And in her next bout, it will be her turn to try and gain a second divisional title when she drops to atomweight for her rematch with Lee in October.
While JingNan began her career in 2014, a man by the name of “The Leech” and hailing from Tacheng, Xinjiang, began his UFC career that very same year.
Just like the original Chinese UFC athlete in the aforementioned Zhang, Li “The Leech” Jingliang would also start off on a good foot by earning a split decision victory over David Michaud at UFC 173. However, unlike his predecessor, the welterweight dark horse would find himself becoming his country’s most successful male fighter.
Jingliang has been proven to be entertaining each and every time out, and more often than not it has seen his hand raised. He currently holds a UFC record of 9-3 and is 7-1 in his last eight bouts, riding a three-fight winning streak. His last win coming just this past Saturday night when he picked up his biggest win yet. Jingliang halted the momentum of the streaking Brazilian, Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos with a third-round stoppage via punches.
With the support of China behind him, Jingliang has started to really emerge as a contender at 170-pounds.
Whether or not “The Leech” will find himself grouped into the consistently crowded UFC top 15 rankings at welterweight remains to be seen. But going back to the female athletes, they won that race as well.
In Chinese MMA, talent has been cultivated most notably through promotions like Kunlun Fight, Glory of Heroes, and Road FC. The latter being where Sanda specialist, Yan “Nine” Xiaonan would catch the eyes of the UFC brass. Therefore leading to her being signed in 2017 to become the first female from China in the promotion’s history.
Debuting in her home country for a Shanghai event, the Shenyang native would make her presence felt with an exciting but clear victory over Kailin Curran that extended her win count to eight with only a single loss professionally. Having fought three times since and winning them all, Xiaonan finds herself as a top-15 contender and one who can expect to be in the title mix very soon.
Of course, for any fighter, being the first to do something is an exhilarating thought. And in all Chinese UFC fighters’ cases, the aspiration is to be the first titleholder representing their homeland. Well, that was the goal until August 31, 2019.
The Weili Zhang era
November 9, 2013 marked the professional MMA debut of Weili Zhang. Like Xiaonan, Zhang is a Sanda practitioner with a drive to do something special.
Unfortunately for Hebei’s Zhang, she would suffer defeat right from the get-go as she was bested by Meng Bo via unanimous decision. That one loss would be all the motivation needed to catapult Zhang forward on her journey.
The Black Tiger Fight Club representative in Zhang hasn’t lost since that fateful day as she has won a stunning 20 consecutive bouts. With only four fights in her first three years competing, things would ramp up significantly once she arrived at Kunlun Fights in late 2015.
Zhang would compete in an insane 13 fights in the two years that followed (6 in 2016 and 7 In 2017). Perhaps an even more impressive fact is that all but one of these fights ended with a finish (8 KO/TKOs, 4 submissions). By this point, there was more than enough evidence that there was something special about the strawweight prospect.
In August 2018, the currently 30-year-old Zhang would make her U.S. and UFC debut at UFC 227 when she outpointed Danielle Taylor en route to a unanimous decision win. As a proven finisher, the performance didn’t blow back the hairs of any pundits at the time, but it can also be noted that she was without her head coach and some cornermen due to visa issues keeping them out of the States. Something that would prove problematic one more time since.
Now having fought twice in UFC China events, it’s undeniable that both wins were the biggest of Zhang’s career… but one significantly outweighed the other.
Even though it has been a slow build for China to put itself on the MMA map, Weili Zhang wasted no time whatsoever in speeding up that process. Three fights into her UFC career and only 42 history-making seconds were needed in her fourth to capture UFC gold for the very first time in the country’s history.
At UFC Shenzhen, recently crowned champion, Jessica Andrade would succumb to Zhang’s onslaught of fists, elbows, and knees thus leading to the words “and new” escaping Bruce Buffer’s mouth to wrap up the evening. Truly a moment that begs for remembering—just like Zhang demanded.
The rise of Chinese MMA has begun as evidenced by everyone mentioned. All it takes is to get the ball rolling before surrounding participants get affected in one way or another.
With the likes of young star prospects in the making such as Song Yadong, Li Kai Wen, or Liu Pingyuan to the established champions like “The Panda,” it’s an exciting time to be able to witness the quickened development and progression of MMA in a culture that has combat sports deeply rooted within it.