Published: 11:14, April 15, 2024
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Fists of 'Fury' fail to suppress 'Magnum'
By Sun Xiaochen
UFC Women's strawweight champion Zhang Weili (right) punches Yan Xiaonan in a women's title fight during UFC 300 on April 13, 2024 in Las Vegas. (PHOTO / AP)

Zhang Weili taught her fellow challenger Yan Xiaonan a lesson that she herself had learned the hard way — just being good at throwing punches is far from enough in mixed martial arts.

Zhang, the Ultimate Fighting Championship's first world title holder from China, stole the show on a stacked card at UFC300 in Las Vegas on Saturday by defending her strawweight belt in a five-round unanimous decision against No 1 challenger, and her compatriot, Yan Xiaonan to continue her reign over the division.

Known as the "Magnum" in the Octagon, Zhang neutralized Yan's biggest threat as a heavy puncher by taking the fight to the ground, keeping the "Fury" busy by fending off her grappling and choking attempts to eventually prevail in the first ever all-Chinese title fight in the Vegas-based MMA promotion's history.

Despite Zhang ending up the winner, Yan's never-say-die spirit throughout five brutal rounds, highlighted by her resilient comeback from a rear-naked choke by Zhang, which almost sent her into unconsciousness in the dying seconds of the first stanza, drew thunderous applause from the sold-out T-Mobile Arena in Vegas

Zhang's fifth win in a UFC title bout, scored 49-45 in her favor by all three judges, is second only to retired legend Joanna Jedrzejczyk's record of seven and extends her most recent winning streak — that started with a knockout win over Jedrzejczyk in their rematch in June 2022 — to four bouts.

Despite Zhang ending up the winner, Yan's never-say-die spirit throughout five brutal rounds, highlighted by her resilient comeback from a rear-naked choke by Zhang, which almost sent her into unconsciousness in the dying seconds of the first stanza, drew thunderous applause from the sold-out T-Mobile Arena in Vegas.

"I thought she was out and I was about to win. She recovered her consciousness quickly in the second round and fought well from there," Zhang said at the post-fight interview about the choke that had almost finished her fellow countrywoman.

"Xiaonan is such a tough fighter. She's so resilient. At a couple of moments, I was like, 'oh my god!' Her will to win was insanely strong. I respect her very much. Hopefully, we can be friends after this fight," said Zhang, who has further improved her career win-loss record to 25-3 and, since joining the UFC in 2018, 9-2.

Zhang Weili of China and Yan Xiaonan of China exchange strikes during their strawweight championship title fight at T-Mobile Arena on April 13, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (PHOTO / AFP)

Yan, who was the first Chinese woman signed by UFC in August 2017, fell to 8-3 in the Octagon and 18-4 in her career, but has left the Saturday night showpiece with plenty of positive takeaways, not least that she will remain a serious title contender in the division should she complement her ferocious striking with more skills on the ground.

"Zhang is a more all-around MMA fighter than me. My strength is my striking and I will let the world see that," Yan, who knocked out Brazil's former champ Jessica Andrade in May last year to earn the challenge, said of her strongest quality before the fight.

Zhang Weili of China falls after being punched by Yan Xiaonan of China during their strawweight championship title fight at T-Mobile Arena on April 13, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (PHOTO / AFP)

Versatility rules

As an equally exceptional striker, yet less-developed in grappling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu in her early UFC years, Zhang's career progression in the Octagon, especially the experience of fighting back from straight losses to Rose Namajunas in 2021, has made her the most complete fighter and queen of the division, with an almost invincible dominance.

Both hailing from China's traditional sanda, or kickboxing, system, by training with all-rounders, such as former two-division UFC champion Henry Cejudo and his wrestling mentor Eric Albarracin, Zhang has developed into a more complete package since losing the 115-pound (55-kilogram) strap to ex-champ Namajunas in April 2021. However, Yan's versatility in her fight craft, outside of overpowering her foes with heavy punches, remains raw.

Both hailing from China's traditional sanda, or kickboxing, system, by training with all-rounders, such as former two-division UFC champion Henry Cejudo and his wrestling mentor Eric Albarracin, Zhang has developed into a more complete package since losing the 115-pound (55-kilogram) strap to ex-champ Namajunas in April 2021

 

Zhang's revival from a split-decision loss in a rematch with Namajunas owes a lot to her improvement on the mat, which later helped her retake the strawweight crown from American veteran Carla Esparza, by choking out the wrestling specialist at UFC281 in November 2022.

"I've gained a more profound understanding of MMA, realizing that, in this sport, it takes everything possible to win," Zhang said of her progress before the challenge against Esparza, who captured the title from Namajunas via a split decision in May that year.

"You cannot just be good at throwing punches on your feet, you need to be aggressive on the ground, and in every possible way."

Citing Zhang's finesse and deeper experience in five-round title bouts, multiple female stars, including Namajunas, who's moved up to the flyweight class, and Alexa Grasso, had all picked the Hebei province native as the favorite in the "Chinese derby".

Yan has, however, turned some fellow pros into her fans with her steely will to win.

"Yan Xiaonan's ability to get out of these submission attempts is actually insane at this point!" former UFC women's featherweight title contender Megan Anderson posted on social media platform X on Saturday.

"Weili Zhang showed her champion mettle tonight. Yan had some great moments, but it wasn't enough. Great fight from both ladies."

UFC women's strawweight champion Zhang Weili is announced as the winner over Yan Xiaonan in a women's title fight during the UFC 300 mixed martial arts event on April 13, 2024 in Las Vegas. (PHOTO / AP)

In the later main event, on a card featuring 12 current or former champions, Brazil's Alex Pereira left no doubt as to who the true light heavyweight champion was after knocking out American challenger Jamahal Hill just midway through the first round to cap the adrenaline-filled evening in the combat sports capital.

But, the lasting image of UFC 300, one that likely will resonate for years to come, was Max Holloway's last-second knockout of Justin Gaethje for the ceremonial BMF title belt.

It was arguably the most anticipated fight on the loaded card, and it did not disappoint. A rousing crowd of 20,067 that roared over the final seconds and its stunning conclusion certainly got their money's worth.

"That fight sucked the life out of everybody tonight," UFC president Dana White said. "People ask me what I do. I sell 'holy shit' moments. That was the ultimate 'holy shit' moment of all time. Let's just talk about his fight for the rest of the press conference."

sunxiaochen@chinadaily.com.cn