Though there’s not a lot of chatter about it on social media, and it’s not the kind of stacked card that draws the attention of even the most casual of mixed martial arts fans, the UFC’s card Saturday in Shenzhen, China, has the potential to be one of the most significant in the sport’s history.
China’s Zhang Weili is fighting Jessica Andrade for the strawweight world title Saturday, and the UFC’s history has shown that the mere presence of this card in China will have an outsized impact on the sport in the country.
That can be nothing but a positive for both the UFC and the sport as a whole.
Expanding the UFC’s horizons has been one of the key tenets of Dana White’s tenure as UFC president and part-owner. Whenever he’s asked if the UFC will go to a city, state and/or country it hasn’t yet staged an event, his answer is invariably, “We’re going everywhere.”
Prior to White taking over the reins in 2001, the UFC had put on events in the U.S., Brazil and Japan. Since White joined the company that has expanded to 23 foreign countries in all corners of the globe. The UFC has put events on in 40 of the 50 U.S. states as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.
White’s belief is that once he brings a live event to a country it spurs interest not only among fans, but among athletes who would then begin to train as mixed martial artists.
The first non-U.S. event of the White Era was UFC 38 at Royal Albert Hall in London on July 13, 2002. MMA eventually became hugely popular in England and produced many great fighters, including former middleweight champion Michael Bisping, a UFC Hall of Famer.
Conor McGregor attended UFC 93 in Ireland as a fan and was hooked on the sport and went on to become its biggest star.
The UFC has produced a significant fighter in nearly every country it’s visited, but nothing would have the impact that China could have because of its extraordinary population and long history with martial arts.
China’s population of 1.44 billion is nearly 20 percent of the world’s total population of 7.7 billion people, so it’s obvious that if only 10 percent of the country becomes interested in watching MMA and only 1 percent becomes interested in competing in it, those are massive numbers.
If Zhang were to defeat Andrade to become the world champion, it would only spur the inevitable growth that is to come. Saturday’s bout will be the sixth in China and the third on the mainland.
It also becomes a revenue producer for the UFC, because it helps it expand its television reach. The UFC generally does not put on a show in a country where it does not have a television deal, but its deals often expand once there are shows in that country and a local one has success.
Zhang is 19-1 and on a 19-fight winning streak after losing her pro debut. She’s 3-0 in the UFC and earned the title shot with an impressive showing in a win over Tecia Torres at UFC 235 in March.
The pressure facing her is enormous and not only because of how talented Andrade is. Expectations are huge on Zhang and Andrade is a 9-5 favorite who is coming off a title-winning stoppage of Rose Namajunas.
If Zhang pulls the upset, the impact will be real and it will be significant. She may carve a place in history as the first person of Chinese descent to wear a UFC belt, but rest assured, she won’t be the last.
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