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Coronavirus outbreak motivates UFC champion Zhang Weili

Updated March 3, 2020 - 6:22 pm

Zhang Weili is from Handan, a city located in the coastal province of Hebei, China.

It’s the birthplace of tai chi and has a population of 9.3 million.

But on Saturday, Zhang will fight a UFC 248 co-main event while representing the 1.4 billion people in her home country.

And, in a way, the planet.

“This is not just a regional crisis in China, but a global crisis,” she said via translator Tuesday. “Everyone is working hard against the coronavirus. We as human beings need to come together and fight this.”

She left her homeland — where the virus originated — to train for a first strawweight title defense against former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena.

It’s possible that the stigma of coronavirus will prove more lethal than the virus. After all, it’s generated a level of alarm and hysteria that seems to have gripped the world.

Or at least all Costcos and Walmarts.

Bottled water. Toilet paper. Antibacterial soap.

Shelves are empty.

Zhang is hopeful such fear, at least for those who love fighting, can be momentarily tempered by watching her fight this weekend.

The three-week journey here — from China to Thailand to Abu Dhabi and finally the United States — never caused Zhang’s thoughts to stray far from her parents and brother and others back home.

But the idea of not fighting was never entertained. It means too much to so many outside the Octagon.

“I might not have pushed myself or prepared as hard if not for the coronavirus,” she said. “China is going through a very tough time now, but everybody is doing their job. I do my job to make this happen. I do believe winning will be great motivation for my country. I do this for my people.”

The winning part might be toughest of all.

Stop us if you have heard this before, but you’re looking at two fighters who appear to loath each other.

How what is happening in China and the long trip here might affect the champion Zhang won’t be known until the opening round. Mental toughness doesn’t appear a weakness of the 30-year-old. But she’s also about to engage the greatest (and smartest) women’s strawweight in UFC history over a scheduled five-round bout.

Jedrzejczyk is 32. She also never, ever tires.

There isn’t a discipline of mixed martial arts that she hasn’t mastered. Yet Jedrzejczyk’s insensitivity just might have lit a raging fire under Zhan

It was in late January when Jedrzejczyk posted an Instagram story with a photoshopped fight poster.

On it, she was wearing a gas mask while standing behind Zhang as a reference to the coronavirus.

Jedrzejczyk since apologized and removed the post.

Zhang hasn’t forgotten.

“I was really angry that she was making fun of the outbreak and our country,” she said. “A lot of people have lost their lives. Lost their parents and become orphans. It’s a tragic moment for the Chinese people, for people all around the world. And she’s making fun of it? In China, we don’t laugh at people who are suffering. We help them up. We build them up.”

UFC’s big interest

Know that this fight means more to the UFC than merely an anticipated match on the 248 card, one president Dana White said Tuesday he is more excited about than any of the other matchups.

The company has an enormous financial interest in China, where it has raised the Performance Institute Shanghai. It is promoted as the world’s largest, state-of-the-art MMA training and development facility — all 93,000 square feet of it.

So to have Zhang as a champion means something to the brand.

It means a lot.

“I think it worked out for her to leave China and get here to Las Vegas so she could acclimate to the weather, acclimate to the time,” White said. “It was better for her to come early. Take all the things that make her special — first Chinese champion, a female, which people love right now. At the end of the day, she’s a gangster and focused on being the best. She hits harder than 99.9 percent of the men I’ve ever seen. I love this fight, man.

“We all should have concerns about (the coronavirus). It’s a serious problem. We’re looking at how it will affect our business this year and how we battle this thing moving forward. We were working on this a month-and-a-half ago.”

A few weeks later, Zhang Weili left China.

On Saturday, she fights for it.

And, if you ask her, the world.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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