Gathering publicity before a fight is necessary, whether it is in professional boxing, wrestling, or mixed martial arts. In the professional fighting world, trash-talking and showmanship are strongly encouraged. The millions of viewers that watch controversial figures like Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz battle it out in The Octagon expect it.
Narratives in the professional fighting world, whether real or fake, raise publicity for fights. The build-up leading to the match is as important as the match itself. People are attracted to controversy and inclined to take sides—something that pre-fight drama provides.
The recent clash between Chinese fighter Zhang Weili, Asia’s first UFC champion, and Polish fighter Joannas Jedrzejczyk created a great deal of hype. It started with one social media post.
Using Instagram, Jedrzejecyck posted a photoshopped image of herself in a gas mask standing next to Zhang Weili. The post was a not-so-subtle joke implying that the Chinese fighter has the coronavirus.
Accompanying the post, she placed three playful emojis. It highlighted her insensibility towards a virus that has killed 26,939 people and infected 430,652 others worldwide.
The post normalizes racism against Asians and cannot be tolerated. Let’s not forget the U.S. President refers to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus.” Further, Asians have increasingly experienced acts of discrimination because of the coronavirus’ Chinese origins. In this atmosphere, Jedrzejczyk’s post is just unacceptable.
The virus has personally affected Zhang’s life, causing her to move her training camp from China and relocate multiple times. Her immediate family remains quarantined in China as well. In response to Jedrzejcyk’s joke, Zhang replied in serious fashion on Instagram:
“To make fun of tragedy is a true sign of one’s character. People are dying, someone’s father, someone’s mother, someone’s child. Say what you want about me if it makes you feel stronger but do not joke about what’s happening here. I wish you good health until March 7th. I will see you soon.”
After facing backlash online, Jedrzejcyk deleted the post and tried to resolve the situation with an apology:
“Hey, champ, hey Weili, so sorry to make you feel bad, but I would never make fun of sick people with illness or virus. So I didn’t want you to get offended. But I just made fun of the funny internet meme. So, so sorry. Still, I will see you March 7. And don’t get emotional, OK?”
The drama, however, did not end with Jedrzejcyk’s apology. Rather, a group of fans holding the Polish flag shouted “coronavirus” at Zhang during an open workout hosted on March 4th. In response, Zhang casually gave them the middle finger with applause from the crowd.
To shift blame onto Zhang, Jedrzejcyk labels Zhang’s gesture as an “attack on the Polish Nation.” In this full quote at pre-fight media day, Jedrzejcyk brags about her ability to intimidate the Chinese fighter.
“What you have done yesterday to my fans, you never do that. You don’t [expletive] with Polish Nation. But you never knew that. And, I will outclass you on Saturday, I promise you. You’ve never faced someone like me!”
In response to Jedrzejcyk’s continuous threats, Zhang simply smiles and tells the Polish fighter to “shut up.” She then walks off the stage in preparation for the fight, which is just days away.
At UFC 248 hosted in Las Vegas on March 7th, Zhang defended her UFC Women’s Strawweight Title against former champion Jedrzejczyk in an epic five-round battle. Commentators and fans have hailed the fight as not just one of the best in UFC Women’s history, but in all of UFC’s history.
South China Morning Post sports reporter Patrick Blennerhassett described it as “…one of the most compelling tilts of mixed martial arts fighting we’ve seen, ever, period. The two went at each other like rabid animals finally uncaged after years of taunting and teasing, exchanging blows in punishing flurries with little regard for safety or defense.”
At the end of the action-packed 25 minutes, Zhang’s face was bloodied and battered, while Jedrzejcyk’s face was so swollen, she appeared like “an alien.” Ironically, the disfigured image of her face sparked memes of her own.
In her post-match interview, Zhang raised awareness for COVID-19, calling it not only China’s issue, but the world’s issue. In an increasingly divided world, she hopes that everyone can “come together, stay together, fight together, and win this.” She also praises the resilience of the Chinese people during this period of immense suffering.
In what appears to be a response to Jedrzejcyk’s pre-match antics, Zhang states that “We are all martial artists here. We don’t want any trash talk here within The Octagon. We want mutual respect. We want to set a good example for the kids and for the upcoming talents. A lot of them look up to me. We are the champions, not the tyrants.”
Zhang, however, harbored no bad blood after the fight, applauding Jedrzejcyk’s fighting prowess in an Instagram post:
I respect each of my opponents. Other people’s failure will not make me happy. My confidence is built on my training and my team. @joannajedrzejczyk is a very powerful martial artist. In the end, the octagon does not need garbage, we worked together and the battle was great.”
Zhang Weili has not only showed her resoluteness, sportsmanship, and forgiveness in the face of racism, but also her compelling humanity. In using her win as a platform to raise awareness for COVID-19, she showcases the seriousness of the virus while also calling for international unity and action. She is a true champion in and out of The Octagon, and Dana White hopes to turn her into the “next superstar like McGregor or Ronda Rousey.” But unlike those previous fighters, Zhang always lets her fighting do the talking.