Be Water, My Friend



When I was four years old, I did something that made me just as proud as when I became China’s first UFC champion earlier this year.

Since my parents were away working so often, I had been going to kindergarten since I was two years old. I hated it. I cried every morning when my dad would have to drag me there. All I wanted to do was play games. Some of my neighbors thought I had ADHD because I couldn’t sit still — my parents couldn’t even leave the front door open because they knew I’d run out. (Often I’d find a way out anyway.) But at the kindergarten the doors would be locked. And it made me feel like a prisoner.

This one day I can’t remember exactly what we were doing, but I do know that I went to the bathroom. I noticed a pillar beside a window. The window was open.

All I had to do was to somehow get up there.

I’m still not sure whether four-year-olds are supposed to be able to do what I did next … anyway, I put one foot against the pillar and the other against the wall and climbed up to the window. But when looked outside, I saw that it was way too high for me to jump down to the ground.

Fortunately, I had been watching kung fu movies.

In the movies the kung fu masters can “fly.” That is, they kind of float through the air, say, from one tree to another. I wanted to be a master, too — a female one. Where we lived, in the city of Handan, my mother used to dig holes in the ground that I would try to jump out of. If I did, she would dig the hole deeper. The goal was to become as agile and “light” as possible, just like a true master. Sometimes I would stand on my bed with a bath towel tied around my neck (because all superheroes wear capes) and I would pretend to fly.

But standing at the open window, I had no cape. And I couldn’t fly. But I saw that there was a tree close to the wall. Just like in the movies! The decision was easy. I took a deep breath, jumped to the tree, slid down, and — voilà! — I was out.

When the staff found out that I had escaped, my teacher freaked out and called my parents. They went crazy. How can a four-year-old girl get out of a locked building without anyone seeing?

Of course, I had no way of telling them right then. I had already walked home.

Guillermo Hernandez Martinez/The Players

At the time I didn’t really think much of it. All I had done was escape from kindergarten. But I eventually came to understand that I had done something far greater than that: I had overcome an obstacle that had seemed insurmountable. By slowing down. By thinking. By adapting to the world in front of me.

How did I realize this? Well, it started with a clip from an interview with the great Bruce Lee, which I watched just a few years after my great escape. As he speaks his eyes light up, his charisma draws you in, and you get the feeling that he is letting you in on a universal secret.

He says:

“Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water.

“Now, you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow, or it can crash.”

Then he smiles and a twinkle appears in his eye. He says:

“Be water, my friend.”

To me, he meant that you couldn’t just use logic to figure things out. You had to feel them, to discover them for yourself.

I resolved to do so, no matter how long it took.

When I was six — not long after my escape from kindergarten — I began to study with a kung fu master who taught martial arts to kids. I was also doing other sports: track and field, high jumping, swimming, Ping-Pong. I never wore dresses. I had short hair. Some people thought I was a boy (though I never cared what others said about me). Two years later, I told my parents that I wanted to go to a school dedicated to martial arts. My mom — the woman who had dug holes in the ground so I could pretend to be a kung fu master — usually supported me in things like that, but this time she said I was too young. The place was like a boarding school, so I would have had to take care of myself. Still, she said she would reconsider when I was 12.

Four years later, with my parents’ blessing, I began at the martial arts school and joined the kickboxing team. For a few years everything went well.

But when I was 17, suffered a bad injury to my lower back.

The injury seemed to make my parents realize how difficult it would be for me to have a future in martial arts. This was the early 2000s, when nobody knew about professional martial arts athletes. What kind of job would I have if I just kept training? Who wanted to see a girl get beaten up? There was no way I could go back to a “normal” school, because by going to a martial arts academy I had already missed out on such a big part of the standard curriculum. So my parents decided that I had to learn a skill.

They enrolled me at a beauty and hairstylist school.

I hated the idea of going there. I knew I had to make money, but I didn’t want to do it like that. I still had this burning passion for martial arts. Besides, I had come to learn that no matter what the world throws at you, you are never completely trapped. If you can adapt, if you can be like water, there is always a way out.

I began thinking, What if I could make it to Beijing?

Beijing was where one of my older brothers lived. My parents did not want me to live in a city on my own, but they would be O.K. with it if I lived close to my brother. So I moved to Beijing, where I got a job as a hotel receptionist. I worked 12-hour shifts at night and slept during the day — and since I wanted to maintain my sharpness, I trained in the early afternoon. I went running in parks. I shadowboxed. I lifted weights. I must have been the fittest hotel receptionist in Beijing.

Three months later, I became a P.E. teacher in a kindergarten. It did not take long before I wanted to make a second escape. I felt like I was wasting time. At the same time I kept seeing updates from members of my old kickboxing team: They were competing in tournaments around the country.

They were doing what they really loved.

I began applying for new jobs. One day I got a call asking if I wanted to work in the reception office of a gym. I went to check it out. When I arrived, the first thing I saw was a boxing ring. It was in superb condition, well-equipped. I asked the owner if I could train there if I took the job. He said yes.

Zhang Weili

So in 2010 I went to work for the gym. On my second day there I saw someone I thought I recognized, but whom I had never met. I went over to say hi. It was Wu Haotian, one of the first Chinese mixed martial arts fighters. He was there to train. The gym was also used by the first jujitsu coach in Beijing. The owner of the gym was a huge MMA fan, as well.

All these people just came into my life by luck.

For the next two years I literally lived at that gym. I would sleep in a dorm just behind it. Whenever I wasn’t working, I’d be hitting the heavy bags, running on the treadmill, getting lighter — learning how to fly. Every evening a couple of us who worked there would discuss what we had done during the day and what we could do to improve. I loved it. I was right where I belonged. If I missed a single day of training it felt like a day wasted.

Soon I was earning good money too. I quit reception to work in sales and, though I am shy outside the ring, I became the top salesperson there. You know why? Because I was so enthusiastic about the gym. If you truly love something, people are going to feel it.

That said, I had no clear idea about what I was training for. I was just enjoying myself. Then in 2012 I saw a Chinese girl who did MMA and I thought it looked really cool. I already knew that I liked MMA, which is like a mix of all the martial arts disciplines, with rules so open that you can win in almost any way you want. But I had never thought of trying to do it professionally.

A year later, I saw Ronda Rousey beat Liz Carmouche in the first female UFC fight. That was an eye-opener. Back then there was no pro female MMA athlete from China, no role model I could follow. But Ronda was a real superstar. She was cool. She was rowdy. She stood her ground in a male-dominated sport. She was telling the world that there was space for women in the UFC.

In June that year I wrote a post on Weibo, the biggest social media platform in China. It said, “As long as I don’t give up, I will stand in the UFC ring one day.”

In 2014 I quit my job to pursue a career in MMA.

There were so many doubts. I was a 24-year-old single girl living in Beijing with a decent job. To most people that would be good enough. Now I was giving up my income — an income I really needed. But you have to train full-time to get anywhere in MMA. I told my family that I didn’t want to have any regrets when I turned 30. I told them to give me three years to make it as a pro, otherwise I’d get a normal job. Finally they agreed.

Not long after I had turned pro — I’d only had two fights — I pulled or twisted something near my right waist while doing a high, sweeping kick during training. I rested for a week, but the pain refused to go away. I tried to train using the left side of my body, but that just made it worse. Soon I had to stop training altogether. I couldn’t walk straight. It even hurt to sleep. I had to enter rehab. It was the darkest period of my life.

I tried to watch others train, hoping that I would learn something by observing. But I would just end up crying in a corner. The rehab was not going well — nothing was working. My lower back was still in pain.

I used to get uncomfortable if I went a day without exercise.

But suddenly I hadn’t trained for six months.

I felt like I did when I climbed out the window at my kindergarten — only this time there seemed to be no way out.

GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

Not long after that I got a phone call. It was the manager of my old gym. He asked why I had stopped going there. I told him about my injury, and then he did something far better than giving me my old job back: He introduced me to other doctors — better doctors. He also owned an ad agency, and since he knew I had no job, he asked if I wanted to help out in his office. I said yes. Soon I was going from work to rehab to training to work again. I only slept six hours a night, but I was so grateful to him. I felt like I had a purpose again.

One day he told me that he had seen a boxing gym on sale. He asked me if I wanted to rebuild it with him. It sounded amazing. Over the next year I forgot all about MMA and turned into a renovator, sales person and p.r. guru. I helped him revamp the place. I called potential clients, I handed out flyers in the streets. At some point it dawned on me that I was not just rebuilding a gym — I was rebuilding myself.

All along I had been eating well and staying disciplined with my training. By June 2015 my lower back was feeling better. My body had recovered.

And I wanted to fight again.

It took months to get an opportunity. Everyone was ignoring me because I had been out for so long. But in December I got a chance at Kunlun Fight, an MMA competition in China. When I won my first fight on a TKO, it caught people’s attention. Suddenly everyone wanted to invite me to tournaments.

Over the next two years I fought 13 times.

And I won every time.

Suddenly I was so busy. The training and fighting did not stop. I never went shopping, I never hung out with friends. I hardly had any friends, because I was living in a bubble. I was working so hard that, every three months, I would hit a wall, feeling down and lost, and I’d have to ask myself whether all of this was really worth it. But every time I did, the answer was yes. I wanted to fight in the UFC. And I wanted it too much to stop.

As it turned out, the UFC actually came to me first. I won three Chinese MMA titles in those two years, and after the first one they asked me if I wanted to join. But my manager and I felt I wasn’t mature enough, so we decided to wait. We agreed that when we finally did go to the UFC, we wouldn’t just go to show our faces — we’d go to win.

In 2018, when I finally did join, I was scheduled to make my UFC debut that August in Los Angeles. Everything that could go wrong with my preparations, did. My coaching team had their visas rejected, so I had to go to L.A. on my own. I arrived a week before the fight. My opponent, Danielle Taylor, had probably been there preparing for a month. I had never been to the U.S. before, so I hardly spoke any English. The food was weird. While other fighters were training with their teams, I was running alone on a treadmill. I had not realized until then just how important my team was to me.

On the day of the fight I did not eat anything. I just had a cup of coffee.

To be honest, even with all the drama, I still thought I would be able to knock her out. But once I entered the ring I was completely lost. The arena seemed huge. There were thousands of people watching, but I couldn’t see them because of the bright lights. I felt lonely. Helpless. Scared. Scared of losing.

My goal was no longer to KO her, it was just to win and get out.

We fought for three full periods, until time ran out.

In the end I won. But it wasn’t pretty.

Afterwards a lot of people were saying that I had overestimated my ability by joining the UFC. That was difficult to hear. So I decided that I would win my next fight convincingly. The fight would be in November in Beijing against Jessica Aguilar, a tough opponent.

I beat her in less than four minutes.

Jerry Lai/USA TODAY Sports

People often ask me why I am so aggressive in the ring. Look, everything I have worked so hard for, everything I have fought to overcome — the injuries, the rehab, the pain, the tears — comes down to those few minutes in the ring. So once you are there you do not want to just run around. You want to fight, to show who you are, to silence the doubters. You want to repay those who believe in you.

When I beat Tecia Torres last March, nobody was doubting me anymore. I felt so proud. But I still wanted more.

Then in August, I got a chance to become the UFC strawweight champion.

The fight would be against Jéssica Andrade in Shenzhen, China.

Everything I had ever worked for came down to that fight. I spent two months preparing  — training, crying, breaking down and building myself up again.

What happened that night has stuck in my mind as a series of clear snapshots.

I can remember how everyone was cheering for me as I entered the arena, how it felt like the place was on fire. I can remember the referee pulling us apart before I realized that I had won — on a TKO, after 42 seconds. I can see Dana White handing me the belt while I fought back tears. I even remember the night after the fight, when I could not sleep, and the morning after, when I got a raft of messages from students preparing for their college entrance exams. They were saying that I had inspired them.

When I think of the fight itself, it is hard to put it into words what I was feeling. I was just so relaxed, so at peace, almost in a spiritual state. I was in that magical zone where you can see your opponent’s moves in slow motion.

Just like in the movies.

What I experienced that night in Shenzhen was not something logical. I could feel it, feel that my mind was empty, that everything just flowed. That flowed.

I was formless. Shapeless.

Like water, my friend.