With a population of over 1.3 billion, it was only ever going to be a matter of time before China became a force to be reckoned with in MMA and strawweight Zhang Weili has well and truly put them on the map.

At UFC on ESPN+ 15, Zhang blew the roof off the Shenzhen Universade Sports Centre Arena when she destroyed Jessica Andrade in under a minute to capture the UFC strawweight title in front of a deafening 10,302 Chinese fans who were packed to the rafters. Victory for Zhang meant that she became the first-ever Chinese fighter to hold a title in the world’s largest MMA organization and the likelihood is that she’s the first of many more to come.

Zhang wasn’t the first Chinese fighter to enter the Octagon, but she’s undoubtedly the most influential so far. It took her just 42-seconds to make history and defeat Andrade for the title in August earlier this year, but it was the result of a lifetime of dedication to martial arts. Zhang’s road to the UFC belt officially began back in 2013 when she made her professional MMA debut at the age of 24 but her life as a martial artist began a lot earlier.

Born in the Hebei Province in 1989, Zhang was surrounded by combat sports from a very early age. Speaking recently in an exclusive interview with Fighters Only, Zhang described how she was involved in the full-contact Chinese self-defence system and combat sport Sanda (Wushu Sanshou) from a very early age.

Becoming a world-renowned champion was never the goal growing up, but being a martial artist and learning how to protect herself was something she learned from a very early age.“I trained traditional Chinese martial arts and Sanda when I was a child for as long as I can remember,” Zhang recalled. “It was my parents who introduced martial arts to me and encouraged me to learn how to defend myself. I was born in Hebei, Handan, a place that is famous for Taichi, but I loved Sanda which is a Chinese form of kickboxing that combines traditional kickboxing techniques with wrestling, takedowns, throws, sweeps, kick catches, and in some competitions, even elbow and knee strikes.

“I competed in Sanda for a long time, but then I suffered a serious back injury and retired,” she continued. “I then started working in a gym in Beijing and got to know the first generation MMA fighters in China. Watching them train every day made me realize that I still had the fire to become a professional fighter, so I then started to train MMA after work.”

Zhang’s back injury forced her to try out several other careers such as a hotel receptionist, cashier, sales assistant, bodyguard, and even teaching. Nothing, however, gave her the same motivation as being a professional fighter, though those around her originally tried to deter her from following that career path.

“After I become a professional fighter, my parents saw how badly I was getting injured training and fighting and they wanted me to quit,” Zhang said. “It’s funny because they were the ones that introduced me to fighting to begin with! I know they weren’t happy with me at the start, but I insisted that I wanted to do what I love. My parents now give me full support and are very proud of everything that I’ve achieved. I think it makes them very happy that I insisted I fight.”

A huge moment in Zhang’s career came before she even entered the MMA cage in February 2013. It was a night that changed the trajectory of Women’s MMA forever and seemingly inspired women not just in the United States, but as far afield as China where a 24-year-old Zhang made a decision to focus purely on MMA.

“When I saw Ronda Rousey become UFC champion in 2013, I thought it was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” Zhang said. “I loved everything about the way she represented herself and I realized when she won the UFC belt that this is what I wanted and that I also wanted to be UFC champion.”

“Shortly after she won that fight I went and resigned from my job in the fitness gym, and became a full-time fighter,” she continued. “This meant I could focus 100 per cent on my fighting.”

Zhang made her professional MMA debut in November 2013 on a show called China MMA league in Xuchang. To this day it remains the only defeat of Zhang’s MMA career and she has since gone on a 17 fight win streak with four wins inside the UFC Octagon. Debuts are usually tough enough, but as Zhang recalls, the odds were well and truly stacked against her on the night she first entered the cage.

“I was a substitute for an injured fighter and only took the fight on two days’ notice,” Zhang said. “When I accepted the fight the promotion told me it was a flyweight bout so I cut 2kg for the weigh-in.

“It was only then at the weigh-in that my opponent weighed 60kg (132-pounds),” she continued “and they then said it was a 60kg fight. I still decided to go ahead with it, but then they didn’t tell me the fight only had two rounds until they were done. To be honest, I wasn’t very happy with the way I fought, but a lot of things were stacked against me.”

Thankfully for Zhang, shortly after she was defeated in her debut, she started to sweep through the local Chinese MMA scene and she started to put together an incredible winning streak. Fighting mostly in the Chinese promotion Kunlun Fight, Zhang fought across multiple weight classes and went on to win their strawweight title in May 2017.

Despite focusing on MMA, Zhang still competed in other standup martial arts too and made it all the way to the final of the Legend of Mulan kickboxing tournament staged by Kunlun Fight. After then going on to win the vacant Top FC strawweight title in July 2017 and then winning a further two bouts, Zhang got the call that changed her life forever.

“I honestly can’t describe the feelings that were going through my body when I was told I was signing for the UFC,” Zhang said. “I was so excited and happy. I knew that my career was going to be taken to a whole new level.

“I was at the gym doing my boxing training,” she continued. “I’ll never forget my coach coming over to me and saying that they wanted to sign me. I knew this was going to be the start of something very exciting and that I was 100 percent ready to face the challenge.”

Zhang debuted in the UFC in August 2018 at UFC 227 in Los Angeles. Despite it being her first time in the US, she put on an impressive display to beat Danielle Taylor via unanimous decision to record her 17th straight win.

Like her professional MMA debut, it was a night where the odds were stacked against Zhang with coaches unable to get the correct visas to enter the United States. Despite the lack of a coach in her corner, Zhang overcame her nerves and went on to get her hand raised.

“Fighting in the UFC was like nothing else I had experienced,” Zhang said. “When I was backstage I felt nervous, more so than ever before. Once my music started though the nerves went away and I felt ready to go.

“I remember the first thing I thought when I entered the Octagon was that it was huge,” she continued. “I think I only performed to 30 percent of my ability during that fight. With all my coaches unable to get a visa to corner me, I just had friends in my corner, so I was basically fighting alone during the time. To be honest, I felt lonely and upset, but the only thing I was thinking during the fight was to keep going and win.”

Zhang went on to win her next two UFC bouts, first defeating Jessica Aguilar via submission in November 2018, before then beating Tecia Torres via unanimous decision at UFC 235.