Zhang “Magnum” Weili fixed her grip on the UFC’s strawweight belt in 2020, emerging relatively unscathed from her first title defence, against former champ Joanna Jedrzejczyk in an epic encounter that still really needs to be seen to be fully believed. The 31-year-old now boasts a 21-1 overall record, and a 5-0 run with the world’s premier promotion, and has embraced being a role model for women fighting in mixed martial arts, in China and across Asia. “I am the ambassador,” Zhang told SCMP MMA before that bout against Jedrzejczyk (16-4) at UFC 248 in March. “I want to show women what can be done.” While Zhang captured most of the headlines, the past 12 months have seen the emergence of a new generation of fighters from Asia, among them women’s strawweights in particular, with Zhang’s compatriot Yan “Fury” Xiaonan (13-1), Japan’s Kanako Murata (12-1), and Thailand’s Loma Lookboonmee (5-2) also starring in a division that comes stacked with talent. It almost feels as though the 31-year-old Yan has been hiding in plain sight, given she hasn’t lost a bout since 2010, and is on a 6-0 tear in the UFC. The Shenyang-born fighter was the first woman from China to sign with the UFC, in 2017, and has let it be known that while she has celebrated Zhang’s rise to the top, she has her eyes fixed on relieving her of that belt. In overwhelming former title contender Claudia Gadelha (18-5), of Brazil, in November – 234 significant strikes thrown to 149 – Yan established her credentials and was rewarded with a rise to number three in the rankings. Yan had dispensed with another former contender in Poland’s Karolina Kowalkiewicz (12-6) in Auckland in February in a similar fashion – through weight of numbers – but against Gadelha there was also significant improvement in the Yan defence, as she fought to her feet from two takedowns. Yan spent the year in almost constant motion, as she sought to train and to fight as Covid-19-enforced travel restrictions threw plans everywhere into disarray. She told SCMP MMA she believes she is now just one win away from a title shot, as reflected in her ranking. “What I am most satisfied with was that I won that fight,” says Yan, of the bout with Gadelha. “I was able to showcase all I had practised during training, like my pace, wrestling techniques and takedown defence. I am very happy that I have improved as a fighter. “My goal in 2021 is to improve my MMA techniques. I hope I can quickly achieve my dream of winning that belt.” Murata might have made her UFC debut way down on the preliminaries of the UFC Vegas 14 card in November but she created a buzz, most notably in the UFC’s commentary booth where Hall of Famer Michael Bisping looked to the 27-year-old’s impressive wrestling pedigree. That they even mentioned Murata in the same breath as now-retired lightweight great Khabib Nurmagomedov (29-0) shows what she did that night, laying down a masterclass in the ground game in a decisive unanimous decision over veteran Canadian Randa Markos (10-10-1). The former Asian wrestling champion had her head turned towards MMA by watching Ronda Rousey (12-2), as the former American Olympian rose to her bantamweight title with the UFC. Given the way Murata monstered Markos – taking her down four times in three rounds – bigger challenges, at the top of the division, await. “I think from here on, every fight will be a challenge for me,” says Murata. “I want to take it step by step and eventually that will lead me to a title shot. “The best part of my last performance was that I was able to look back at the fight and see what I have improved on and what I want to work on. I now know clearly on what I want to make better and what parts I need to change and improve” The 24-year-old Loma had arrived in the UFC in 2019 as the promotion’s first-ever Thai fighter, with a background in Muay Thai that encompassed around 300 fights. Like Murata, Loma’s transition to MMA came via the Invicta FC promotion but there were questions about how she would cope with the step up in class, and in weight, given she’s more natural at atomweight. In Auckland, in February, Loma was thrown in at the deep end against veteran American fighting machine Angela Hill (12-9), and came up short, losing via unanimous decision and never really showing the confidence expected from someone with such an extensive fight pedigree. Loma went back to the team at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, made the adjustments and, importantly, she turned up on Fight Island for a clash with former Invicta champ Jinh Yu Frey (9-6). One of the feel-good stories of the UFC year was that Loma won, using her main weapons (elbows and knees) to overpower the American but showing impressive takedown defence, too. Loma also shared the spoils with her family, buying a two buffaloes now named Abu and Dhabi in honour of the venue where she won. I bought these two buffalos for my dad after my last fight and named them Abu and Dhabi. @ufc #UFCFightIsland4 pic.twitter.com/IPovZb20yA — Loma Lookboonmee (@lomalookboonmee) October 28, 2020 “I am happiest when I get to fight,” she says. “It’s like fighting is in my blood. I built a home for my parents through fighting. I’ve bought my buffaloes for my dad and am able to give my parents money because of fighting. For me, fighting is my life.” Loma has age on her side, as does 26-year-old Japanese Mizuki Inoue (14-6), who lost in August to Brazil’s Amanda Lemos (8-1-1) via unanimous decision but, like the Thai, has been fighting since her teens, and came to the UFC in 2019 full of potential.