Zhang Weili regains her strawweight crown at UFC 281

Society & Culture

Showing off a refurbished ground game, Zhang defeated American Carla Esparza via a second-round submission.

Zhāng Wěilì 张伟丽 defeated Carla Esparza via a second-round submission at UFC 281 to return to the top of the women’s strawweight division.

This was Zhang’s first bout since her knockout of Poland’s Joanna Jędrzejczyk in June. The fight against Esparza posed a different, perhaps bigger, challenge due to Esparza’s wrestling ability. The two-time champion had a reputation for grinding down her opponents with a superior ground game. On the other hand, when Zhang lost to Rose Namajunas in her rematch for the belt last year, it was her inability to counter Namajunas’s wrestling that did her in.

The first round started as many expected, with Esparza making concerted efforts to bring the fight to the floor. She eventually landed a takedown, putting Zhang on her back — the same position that she had struggled to escape from against Namajunas. This time it was different.

Since that loss to Namajunas, Zhang has dedicated herself to the art of wrestling, working with top-level coaches and even former U.S. Olympic wrestling gold medalist and former two-weight UFC champion Henry Cejudo.

The first round ended not with Zhang on her back but in mount, landing elbows and punches from the top.

The second round started the same as the first, with Zhang dominating the boxing and kickboxing and with Esparza looking to secure another takedown.

This time, Zhang showed even more of the past 18 months of work. She was able to secure a rear naked choke to submit the American and take back the title she first won in 2019.

Up until she ran into Namajunas, Zhang had defeated opponents by out-striking them with superior power and stamina. Now, she may have one of the most well-rounded skillsets in the sport.

All that remains for Zhang to secure her legacy is to write the previous wrongs against Namajunas in a rematch that is surely next for her.


China building toward FIBA World Cup qualification

China took a massive step toward FIBA World Cup qualification after a breathless 81-72 win against Iran in Tehran.

The game was a crucial test for Dù Fēng’s 杜锋 men in Group F, where China is vying with Iran and Kazakhstan for the remaining two tickets to the World Cup next year in Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

Unlike the women’s team, who have seen continued success on the international stage, the men’s team has struggled in recent years.

The men’s last major success was a gold in the Asian Games in 2018.

Despite winning the FIBA Asian Cup and the Asian Games more than any other nation, China’s men’s side has lost its Asian ascendency to emerging nations such as South Korea, Lebanon, and Iran, not to mention Australia, which recently began playing in Asian tournaments.

At the last World Cup, which was hosted at home, China’s campaign was a disaster.

Despite winning the Asian Cup the year before and boasting a roster of strong veterans and future stars, the team crumbled under the expectations and pressure, losing to Poland and Venezuela in the group stage.

Since, China has steadily rebuilt and brought through a new generation.

Of the five starters in Tehran, only two — Zhào Ruì 赵睿 and Wáng Zhélín 王哲林 — were on that 2019 squad. It’s clear that Du has focused on building strength in depth and a resilient mentality.

With players such as Liaoning Flying Tigers star and CBA MVP Guō Àilún 郭艾伦 not required for the trip, China looks like it will have a well-rounded and flexible team for next year.


Other Stories:

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Confusion Reigns as Marathon Races (kind of) Return to China (Sixth Tone)

China’s recovery from COVID-19 is proving to be a marathon, not a sprint (Inside the Games)

Liu brothers move closer to potential China switch (China Daily)

China, a country of 1.4 billion, again misses World Cup (ABC)

Zhou hopes China GP will happen in 2023 despite COVID-19 (Reuters)

The China Sports Column runs every week.