How Zhang Weili’s UFC title win reclaims our common humanity
Anti-Asian racism has intensified since coverage of the coronavirus, but Zhang’s resilience reminded me it’s time to be brave
Saturday night’s UFC strawweight match between China’s Zhang Weili and Poland’s Joanna Jedrzejczyk was nail-bitingly close. Each fighter held her ground with heart and a savage combination of precision and urgency.
It was powerfully cathartic to watch two talented women performing their art – what they have trained and sacrificed so much to be able to do – without apology, with nothing held back, minutes before the start of International Women’s Day on Sunday. Jedrzejczyk was a formidable opponent: Smart, strategic, fast with mean legs and a longer reach. For Zhang, trying to land a strike on Jedrzejczyk must have been like trying to catch lightning. I readied myself for heartbreak. But Zhang kept going. She went back on the offensive, focusing her fists on Jedrzejczyk’s head and face.
As an Asian immigrant, I rarely see anyone who looks like me in these tournaments. So seeing Zhang fight was validating. But since news coverage of COVID-19 broke, anti-Asian racism has only intensified. The seriousness of the illness did not trigger compassion, but fear and hate leading to heightened racism and xenophobia against which I feel unable to protect myself and my family. Her display of sheer determination reminded me that this is a time to be, yes, prepared, but also brave.
This must have been on Zhang’s mind, too. “It really took us a long way to get here because of the coronavirus back in our country, everybody knows that,” was how she began her victory speech. “It was very serious, very serious. But we made it … I hope we stay together, we come together, we can win [against] this coronavirus. Our country [is] suffering from the big tragedy right now, so we’ll fight together. We’ll win it.”
She said almost nothing about herself, though later she made sure to thank her team, family and supporters. Her first concern was rehumanizing the Chinese people for the tens of thousands at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday, and the millions watching from home. Because she spoke through an interpreter who was overwhelmed by relief and excitement, there may have been things that were lost in translation. But I will never forget how she affirmed the need for unity for all of us to get through this and become well again.
I’d like to think that she’s not just talking about healing of the body, but also of the soul: healing from the drive to scapegoat, to exclude, to blame. Healing from the loss of loved ones that so many all over the world are experiencing right now, and so many more will. Healing from our fear of each other. And while I question UFC’s decision to host this fight, I can’t say I’m not glad it did. While nothing is pure in this world, and sadly very few human things remain uncontaminated by the profit motive, the best impulse in sports is still to remind us of our shared humanity, our ability to overcome our limits, to put our best fight forward, and stay in this together.