Handan in northern China has produced many legendary fighters.
Mixed martial arts fighter Zhang Weili made history last August when she became the first Chinese UFC world champion.
And on Saturday in Las Vegas, she successfully defended her title against former champ Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
If it seems like Zhang has been preparing for this moment her whole life, it’s because her hometown of Handan in northern China is famous for producing fighters.
The city of 9.5 million is steeped in martial arts history. People here regularly practice tai chi 太极, wushu 武术, kung fu 功夫, and sanda 散打, a form of Chinese kickboxing. Stories of Handan’s homegrown legends are shared in schoolyards and playgrounds.
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“Everybody in Handan worships martial arts,” Zhang says. “Everybody wants to be strong. Old people, young people, everybody is doing some kind of tai chi or wrestling.”
Zhang herself started fighting at an early age, protecting fellow classmates from bullies at school. Her mother put Zhang through a “toughening up” routine that included jumping out of holes dug into the ground—an exercise that helped develop the core strength she uses to power her game today.
Despite the initial encouragement, Zhang’s parents weren’t keen on their daughter becoming a professional fighter, instead pushing her toward more “respectable” pursuits such as teaching.
But Zhang kept training in secret, picking up disciplines like sanda and shuaijiao 摔跤 (Chinese wrestling). In 2013, she made the leap to professional mixed martial arts, inspired by kung fu star Donnie Yen and his performance in the 2007 action film Flash Point.
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Her debut match ended in a decision loss to China’s Meng Bo, but it would be her only loss. Since then, she has remained undefeated.
As Zhang’s reputation grows in the MMA community, Handan is becoming more important as a place where she can escape to relative anonymity.
“A few years ago, my parents had someone come fix our boiler,” she recalls, “and he was telling them they should check out this Zhang Weili because he heard that she was from their area and was a very good fighter.”
When the man asked her parents whether they knew her, they laughed.
“So I can never get too big for Handan,” Zhang says.
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.