On March 7, UFC Strawweight Champion Zhang “Magnum” Weili will attempt to defend her belt for the first time when she fights former strawweight queen Joanna Jedrzejczyk in the co-main event of UFC 248. And to say Magnum has had a tumultuous fight camp may be an understatement.
Zhang, who is the first Chinese UFC champion ever, trains out of Beijing, China, and her fight camp was disrupted by the emergence of the COVID-19 coronavirus. The coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China, and in the months since it emerged, it has killed over 3000 people, most of them in mainland China. As of this date, there are more than 88,000 cases worldwide.
UFC 248 takes place March 7 at 10 p.m. Eastern time. It will air as a pay-per-view on ESPN+.
The uncertainty around the spread of the virus in the early months and fears of travel restrictions on Chinese citizens created obstacles for Magnum that she, or any MMA fighter, typically wouldn’t have to worry about while in a fight camp, let alone before their first title defense.
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Magnum Left China in Early February When the United States Restricted Travel From the Country
In an interview with ESPN’s Brett Okamoto, Zhang was asked if she was worried that she was going to get the coronavirus while training in China. She answered that she wasn’t worried initially because she was only going from the gym to her home and she only came into contact with her coach. She added that once her friend told her that if she got coronavirus her career could be affected, she became more concerned.
Magnum decided she needed to leave Beijing the first weekend of February after the U.S. announced flights from China to the U.S. were suspended due to the coronavirus. On January 31, the Department of Homeland Security announced that all travelers who had been to China in the past 14 days would be denied entry into the United States, with the exception of American citizens and close relatives.
Zhang received a text from her UFC manager telling her to leave the country right away. As soon as she got the news from her manager, she said they, “started packing up our luggage and headed to the airport around noon. It was such a rush.”
Okamoto asked the champ what her reaction was, and she said, “I thought it was a dream. I was like was that a dream? Was that real? I didn’t even know where to train or anything.” At that point, she said her two Thai coaches found her a boxing gym to train at in Thailand.
Reflecting on the experience, Magnum said, “Once everything was settled, I felt a little bit relieved. The whole experience was like a refugee trying to leave.”
Zhang’s Fight Camp in Thailand Only Lasted One Week
During the ESPN interview, Zhang spoke about her experience training in Thailand. She said, “The first day I was in Thailand, it was hot and humid. I felt really uncomfortable because Beijing was super cold and dry, and was over 10 degrees lower in temperature than Thailand. So I felt uncomfortable and sweating a lot during the first several days. I gradually got used to the climate on the third day and became comfortable.”
But, as history has it, Magnum was only able to stay in Thailand for a week. She left for Abu Dhabi on February 7 after Thailand also became a country with a growing number of coronavirus cases. Okamoto asked her if she had ever thought she would have to change training camp locations again, and she said, “I had no idea. I was suddenly told that I had to leave, which made me really emotional. But I understood that the UFC must have prepared the best plan for us, so I followed the instructions and left Thailand.”
Zhang felt “a bit frustrated and very emotional” when she had to leave Thailand because she “just got used to Thailand.”
Magnum “Knew Nothing About Abu Dhabi”
After only a week in Thailand, she touched down in Abu Dhabi, UAE. The fight camp transition was difficult for the champ, and even more stressful. In Thailand, Zhang was able to communicate with the two local coaches, but she “knew nothing about Abu Dhabi,” she said, sharing how upset and stressed out she was.
Magnum told Okamoto she called her mom to share her feelings, but her mom told her she shouldn’t be complaining as “there were a lot of people in China fighting the virus.” Zhang was only contending with a difficult travel schedule, her mom said, whereas the doctors and nurses in China were working around the clock.
Zhang said, “My mom’s words gave me a lot of confidence at that time.”
Magnum Never Considered Rescheduling Her Bout With Jedrzejczyk
After a three-week ordeal, Zhang is finally in the United States, and is finishing her fight camp in Las Vegas.
The UFC strawweight champion told Okamoto that she never felt like her match with Jedrzejczyk would be impacted by her tumultuous schedule. When asked if she feels like she’s at a disadvantage because of her last month, Magnum shot that idea down. Although she had to fly a lot, she had a consistent training schedule. The biggest issue she is dealing with is the jet lag, but she’s confident that by fight time, it won’t be an issue.
She told Okamoto, “I think this fight has a deeper significance to me. It is a fight for me and people battling all kinds of difficulties, not only the virus. All of us face difficulties, therefore it means a lot to us. It would be a great thing if I could help inspire them and give them confidence.”
Zhang Attempts to Defend Her Title for the First Time
On March 7, in the co-main event of UFC 248, Magnum will take on former UFC Strawweight Champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Zhang lost her first ever professional MMA fight, but since then, she has won 20 fights in a row and bolsters an impressive 20-1 record. She earned the strawweight title in August 2019 when she finished Jessica Andrade in 42 seconds.
Jedrzejczyk is the most successful strawweight champion in UFC history. She won the belt at UFC 185 by defeating Carla Esparza, and went on to defend the belt five times before losing it to Rose Namajunas at UFC 217. Since then, Jedrzejczyk hasn’t been able to capture gold again. She lost in a title rematch against Numajunas, as well as a flyweight title shot against Valentina Shevchenko.