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East or West? Weighing up Zhang Weili's next move

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Roar Rookie
3rd September, 2019
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Zhang Weili brutally cemented herself as the dominant UFC strawweight with a blistering 49-second technical knockout win over Jessica Andrade. China now has a legitimate UFC Superstar in the making, so what’s next for the UFC’s expansion into Asia?

The crowd at the Universiade Sports Centre in Shenzhen exploded into thunderous nationalistic rapture as they witnessed their countrywoman become China’s first UFC champion.

Observing the sea of waving red Chinese flags it was clear Zhang struck a longstanding nerve among the Chinse people, a culture with a rich history of adherence to the way of the martial arts, as they witnessed one of their own ascend to the top of the world’s pre-eminent martial arts tournaments.

UFC president Dana White now has a profitable Chinese world champion and wants her back in the US for her first title defence. The UFC has a global reach, but the company is always hesitant to book big pay-per-views outside North America for fear of missing the prime-time US television viewers. Zhang is open to the idea of returning to America but noted the previous difficulties of securing visas for her cornerman.

Zhang also made clear her goal is to defend her title on pay-per-view before her people.

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“I’d like to get on a pay-per-view event,” she said at the post-fight press conference. “But I also want to have a pay-per-view event in China. This is my wish.”

Zhang is now an extremely important Asian asset at a time the MMA leader is running in second place to the ever-popular and growing One Championship.

The UFC could gain more by capitalising on Zhang’s popularity in China to help win back the ground lost to One in the Asian market. She still has potential to be a popular draw in the United States, but there is definitely more to gain from seeing her establish herself to the Asian market as China’s MMA superstar.

The Singaporean based One Championship has made a name for itself as the most popular brand of mixed martial arts in Asia, something that has put a bit of an asterisk on the UFC’s notable claim to be the worldwide leader in MMA.

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Asia is a big and dynamic market the UFC has tried to capitalise for some time. A performance institute has been opened in Beijing and the promotion has been steadily establishing offices in China and around greater Asia. Since the takeover of Pride Fighting Championships in Japan in 2007, the organisation had little to worry about in the way of a competitor in the region and has only returned with shows a handful of times.

Formed in 2011, One has been steadily on the rise and is now the most dominant force on Asian mixed martial arts and taps into a lucrative demographic of martial arts-crazed millennials. Atomweight champion Angela Lee has emerged as a household name in her native Singapore and greater Asia.

Zhang presents herself as a massive opportunity for the UFC to gain back ground in Asia.

Fight Night 157 in Shenzhen was a success and saw the emergence of a new Chinese star along with plenty of up-and-coming Asian talent. If the UFC is to claw back the ground lost to One in the region, more shows and stars are needed. Zhang presents as that opportunity.

However, opportunities are fleeting in this turbulent MMA landscape and a rising star’s potential could disappear in a flash. If the UFC misses out on this moment, they may risk giving up too much ground in the East.