<
>

Zhang Weili says virus crisis gives her title fight extra meaning

LAS VEGAS -- The UFC's strawweight champion, Zhang Weili, says her upcoming title defense against Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 248 on March 7 has taken on a "deeper significance" due to the ongoing health crisis in her native China.

Earlier this month, Zhang (20-1) was forced to flee her normal training camp in Beijing due to concerns over the coronavirus outbreak. She eventually relocated twice -- to Thailand and then to Abu Dhabi -- before finally making it to Las Vegas last weekend. Her 115-pound title fight is scheduled to take place at T-Mobile Arena.

"I think this fight has a deeper significance to me," Zhang told ESPN. "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."

The coronavirus outbreak, which began in Wuhan, in the Chinese province of Hubei, in December, has infected more than 80,000 globally. Zhang, 30, said she was rushed out of the country on Feb. 1, just as numerous flights going in and out of China were being canceled due to the outbreak.

"I thought it was a dream," Zhang said. "I was like, 'Was that a dream? Was that real?' I didn't even know where to train or anything. Fortunately, I had two Thai coaches and they found a boxing gym to train and a place to stay. Once everything was settled, I felt a little bit relieved. The whole experience was like a refugee trying to leave."

Zhang's relief was short-lived, as her management and the UFC advised her to relocate again just days after she arrived in Thailand, due to growing concerns of coronavirus cases in Thailand. Zhang admitted that was the hardest part of the ordeal, but she never considered withdrawing from the scheduled title defense.

"I knew nothing about Abu Dhabi, so I was really upset and stressed out," Zhang said. "Then I called my mom and told her I was upset. She told me there were a lot of people in China fighting the virus, and I shouldn't be the one complaining just because I needed to travel around. She said doctors and nurses didn't even have time to sleep, and I should be grateful and overcome the difficulties. My mom's words gave me a lot of confidence at that time."

Zhang, who is from the Hebei province in China, said none of her friends or family have been infected with the virus, but many had to cancel travel arrangements to attend her first title defense.