LAS VEGAS – Ronda Rousey no longer is competing in mixed martial arts, but her impact still is felt.
Zhang Weili, the first Chinese champion in UFC history, on Saturday will step into the cage for her first strawweight title defense in the UFC 248 co-main event. If it wasn’t for former UFC champ Rousey, there may never been a UFC champ Zhang (20-1 MMA, 4-0 UFC).
“Ronda Rousey is my biggest motivation,” Zhang said at a Thursday pre-fight media day Thursday. “She was a great role (model) and example for me. I watched her fighting in 2013. She impressed me about her performance in a man-dominated (field).
“She won the first women’s title in the UFC. I decided to follow her path. That’s why I quit my job in 2014 and started training like a pro. She always motivated me.”
Inspired by the first UFC’s first female titleholder, Weili began her pursuit of mixed martial arts – despite her family’s doubts. Her parents weren’t thrilled about her decision, but they allowed her to attempt.
“(In) the beginning, they didn’t support me at all. They didn’t really understand because I had a pretty stable job at that time. … I told them, ‘Just give me three years. Let me chase my dream. If my dream comes true, I’ll keep chasing it. If I fail, I fail with no regret. Just promise me a year.’”
From there, Weili delved into mixed martial arts. Before long, she was sitting on the UFC’s doorstep with a 16-1 record, having largely dominated the Asian regional scenes.
“I committed to be a professional MMA fighter,” Weili said. “I always said, ‘Big vision, big goal.’ I broke those big ones into smaller ones. I achieved the smaller ones step by step. Eventually, I’d make the big ones happen.”
These days, Weili’s parents have made a 180-degree turnaround. They are supportive of their daughter’s success, Weili said.
“They’re proud of me,” Weili said. “They’re saying, ‘You’re doing a great job.’ And also, they have learned things from me as well.”
What advice would Weili give to those looking to pursue their career aspirations?
“Just chase your dream, man,” Weili said. “Don’t wait.”
UFC 248, which is co-headlined by Weili vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk (16-3 MMA, 10-3 UFC), takes place Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The main card airs on pay-per-view following prelims on ESPN and early prelims on UFC Fight Pass/ESPN+.