UFC women’s strawweight champion Zhang Weili is learning English to help increase her popularity and marketability now that she is a bona fide international star.
She had two words for former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk during a staredown at Thursday’s media day to promote their UFC 248 title bout Saturday at T-Mobile Arena.
“Shut up,” Zhang said to Jedrzejczyk, who was chirping in her face.
The most recent flare-up between the fighters has added another dimension to possibly the biggest bout in the division’s history.
“It’s hard for me to stop talking about this fight,” UFC president Dana White said. “I love the main event, but I can’t express to you how much I love this fight. You have Joanna, who held the belt for a long time and is one of the nastiest females on planet Earth, going against the first-ever Chinese champion. Have you watched her training? They had video of her punching the other day. She throws punches better than 99 percent of the men I’ve ever known in my career. It’s a fascinating matchup.”
Zhang fled her native China early in training camp as reports of the coronavirus outbreak started to spread. She wanted to stay healthy, but more practically, there was concern of travel restrictions between China and the United States impacting her ability to get to Las Vegas.
She ended up in Thailand for a week before the virus also spread there, and her team was relocated to Abu Dhabi before completing her training camp in Las Vegas.
During Zhang’s turbulent journey with the fight still in question, a UFC 248 promotional poster edited to show Jedrzejczyk wearing a gas mask while standing next to Zhang started circulating online. Jedrzejczyk shared it on her Instagram feed, triggering immediate backlash from fans and Zhang.
“She was making jokes about the outbreak and making a joke about our nation, our country,” Zhang said. “A lot of people died from this. A lot of families lost their family members. There are kids who lost their parents and have become orphans. It’s a very tragic moment for the Chinese people. That she’s making jokes about that really made me irritated.
“In the Chinese culture, we don’t laugh at people who are suffering. We help them. We lift them up.”
Jedrzejczyk apologized, but she hedged this week when she insisted the meme had nothing to do with coronavirus.
“I was only laughing about how silly I looked with the mask on,” she said. “I would never laugh about sick people or people with an illness. This virus is not funny.
“She can be angry all she wants. I don’t have to apologize anymore. I didn’t do anything wrong. She’s making the story and creating the drama. It doesn’t matter what I say or what she says. It’s about the fight on Saturday.”
Tensions had appeared to calm before Wednesday, when Zhang flipped off some Jedrzejczyk fans holding a large Polish flag during open workouts on the casino floor of the MGM Grand. Zhang claims they were taunting her about the coronavirus, but Jedrzejczyk called it disrespectful to her country and its flag.
That’s what she was confronting Zhang about when the champion told her to “shut up.”
On Tuesday, Zhang took a dig at Jedrzejczyk’s decision to get breast implants during an interview with the Review-Journal.
“I’m done caring about the other stuff,” Jedrzejczyk said. “It’s going to be the best strawweight fight in UFC history because she’s such a talented and powerful champion, but she’s new to this level. I’ve been here. I defended the belt five times. I was the champion for 966 days. She’s going to have her first title defense. Give her credit. She made it. She’s the champ. I’m impressed. But she hasn’t fought anyone like me.”
They will stop hurling insults and start throwing punches on the main card, which also features a middleweight title bout between Yoel Romero and middleweight champ Israel Adesanya. The main card begins at 7 p.m. on ESPN Plus pay-per-view.
Main card bouts for Saturday’s pay-per-view event at T-Mobile Arena:
Israel Adesanya (18-0) vs. Yoel Romero (13-3), for Adesanya’s middleweight title
Zhang Weili (19-1) vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk (15-3), for Zhang’s women’s strawweight title
Beneil Dariush (16-4-1) vs. Drakkar Klose (10-1-1), lightweights
Neil Magny (21-8) vs. Li Jingliang (16-5), welterweights
Alex Oliveira (19-7-1, 2 No Contests) vs. Max Griffin (15-6), welterweights