Unless Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje deliver a stunner at UFC 254 in October for the lightweight title, fight of the year honours will go to Zhang “Magnum” Weili and her absolute slugfest with Joanna Jedrzejczyk. At UFC 248 in March in Las Vegas, the Chinese and Polish stars went toe to toe for five brutally beautiful rounds. They threw playbooks out the window and brawled, exchanging combinations with little regard for defence. It was a classic, a brilliant masterpiece and Zhang’s split decision was well deserved. She earned the win and nobody was arguing the result given JJ’s head swelled up like a balloon. The victory was the Chinese superstar’s first defence of the strawweight belt after beating Jessica Andrade a year ago in Shenzhen. That fight was a quick one, with Zhang going full beast mode for 41 seconds, throwing kicks, landing blows, coming at Andrade with knees and a relentless fervour. It was quite clear Zhang did not want the first ever UFC fight in Shenzhen go to waste. She did what champions do, showed up when it mattered and gave her fans something to cheer about. While we were introduced to Zhang’s exciting, take-no-prisoners style in Shenzhen, we really got to know her in the lead-up to UFC 248. One of the great things the UFC has launched over the years is its Embedded vlog series, which follows fighters in the lead-up to their bouts. UFC star Zhang’s growing influence sees her top athlete on ‘Forbes’ China Celebrity List We got to watch Zhang make a risky journey from China to Las Vegas during the first wave of the coronavirus, handling a tough situation with class and patience. When she showed up in Vegas, she was more than keen to meet the media, mingle with fans and practice her English. We found out she is a consummate professional and takes her role as not only a fighter, but an ambassador for the sport, quite seriously. Her desire to learn English by taking classes in her homeland, and actively trying to engage with people in the US, speaks volumes about what she is trying to achieve outside the Octagon. She recalls shades of Canadian Georges St-Pierre, himself a brilliant representative of what it means to be a true mixed martial artist. Humble and appreciative, but a dangerous and clinical assassin imbued with a wolf warrior mentality. The UFC has no shortage of superstars today (Conor McGregor, Jon Jones, Jorge Masvidal) but many of them lack a wholesome image, could be categorised as rapscallions or act more as villains than heroes to fans. Zhang, as the first Chinese champion in the UFC, knows she represents more than herself, she represents the motherland, her heritage, her culture, and a land with more than 5,000 years of history and one of the most richest in combat sports. Right now China has a problem on its hands with fake martial arts “masters” . Videos floating around the internet are an embarrassing sight. Kung fu practitioners, who tout a variety of superhuman skills, step into the ring with amateur MMA fighters, and get beat up and knocked out cold in seconds . It has called the validity of traditional martial arts into question, and whether these “masters” are simply snake oil salesmen bringing serious detriment to the world of fighting. ‘Thug’ Rose started planning for Weili in hospital after UFC 251 Zhang is the complete opposite, her skill matched only by her desire and commitment to the sport, to the craft of fighting, and it shows whenever she steps into the ring. Zhang’s backstory is an interesting one. Meng Bo actually beat her in her first MMA fight back in November 2013 in Xuchang, in Henan province. Bo’s only real claim to fame – she fights in Asia’s ONE Championship now – is that she is the only fighter to beat Zhang. After the decision loss, Zhang has been on a tear – 21 wins, five of them in the UFC. Losing your first fight can be a tough pill to swallow, but in turn, using it as fuel is an even more powerful elixir. Good fighters shake off losses, great fighters find ways to use setbacks to make them better competitors. Zhang will most likely take on “Thug” Rose Namajunas next in her second title defence, in a fight she will be heavily favoured to win, and for good reason. Namajunas is a quality fighter, but she has shown serious inconsistency throughout her career, which has led to a 10-4 record in the UFC. With 1.4 million fans on Weibo, Zhang is a pitch perfect representative for MMA and China. Her star is rising and one hopes the 31-year-old has lots of gas in the tank for a long, illustrious run at the top of the women’s UFC mountain.