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The Iso: Zhang Weili

Apr 8 2020
Photo by
Guillermo Hernandez Martinez/The Players' Tribune
Photo by
Guillermo Hernandez Martinez/The Players' Tribune
Apr 8 2020

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The Players’ Tribune is introducing a new series called The Iso. With so many of us keeping our distance from each other in a variety of ways, we decided to ask some of our favorite athletes to share how they’ve been dealing with life in the Covid-19 world, and how they’re spending their time away from their sport.


I was in Beijing on the morning of February 1, when UFC called me and my team. Go to Thailand, immediately. Leave right away. Flights between China and the U.S. had been banned because of the virus. If I didn’t leave right then, I’d miss my fight in Las Vegas on March 7. Rush, I thought, scrambling to pack, throwing clothes into luggage, not knowing when I’d return. We were on the road to the airport by noon and in Thailand by 9 p.m.

After a couple of weeks of travel — from China to Thailand to Abu Dhabi — I finally arrived in the States. And — I won. I defeated Joanna Jędrzejczyk to defend my strawweight title. It’s now been over 60 days since I left home. I’m desperate to get back.

I’m in Vegas, at a rented house with my team. Just spending time here and practicing social distancing.

My family is doing well. Fortunately the conditions haven’t been too bad in Hebei, where I’m from. I video chat with them every few days. We tell each other about our days and what we did.

I’ve thought about going back. We all have. A lot of Chinese people want to fly back home because China seems like a safer place. But the pandemic situation is very serious, and there are too many stops and transfers that I would have to make to get there. The best thing for me at the moment is just staying put.

I didn’t sleep, really. After I arrived in the States, the jet lag hit me hard and lasted so long. I don’t think I was even fully adjusted by the time of my fight. When I walked into the octagon, I felt like I was in this daze. In my mind, all of my reactions felt sluggish, like in the kind of dream where no matter how much force you release, your limbs just respond in slo-mo. 

It’s been a month since the fight. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on it since. The two of us fought hard and probably used up every ounce of our energy. We bludgeoned one another. We held nothing back. We left everything, and I mean everything, in that octagon. The result came suddenly, and at that point felt less important than the fight itself. We tried our best, and that is the value and the spirit of MMA.

Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

I felt both of us had changed. Our attitudes changed. When we shook hands before the first round, we were both very cautious, worried that the other would do something unexpected. But then after Round 5, we had this little hug that really broke everything, all the barriers.

I was fully recovered in about a week. It’s all just surface wounds, you know, compared to what’s going on in the world right now and what everyone is going through. The wounds and injuries from our fight, they aren’t even worth mentioning. That’s really how I feel.

All of the news has been about the virus outbreak in China. New cases popping up in different countries. This is not a problem of any specific country anymore — it’s about the entire human race. We have to get through this with trust and unity. I believe we all have to fight together.

Everyone’s life got interrupted unexpectedly. We used to be able to walk on the streets freely — go to restaurants, go to training — without any concern. A lot of people can no longer go to work as usual. We can’t walk on the streets whenever we want, we can’t have close contact with each other. Some of the simple things that I took for granted, I long for. 

Racism and xenophobia against Asian communities has gotten so bad. It has really exposed how narrow-minded and ignorant some people can still be about race and ethnicity, even in 2020. To my community: We all have to be strong and unite together. We should never lose our manners or our humbleness, but we also have to show that we are strong and fearless.

Now, my team and I are spending every day in this rented house. There’s not a lot to do, but I do try to train at least once in the morning or in the afternoon. And I try to take some time to chat with my fans back home. 

Mental health is so important. I believe that, for everything that unravels us, only 10% of the stress comes from the actual event — 90% comes from your own thoughts and emotions. Stay calm, take time to reflect, to think, and don’t make rushed decisions. Calmness and a slow pace can help in these situations. 

Appreciate the warmth around you. After we arrived at this house, one of our neighbors (she’s Chinese, and we’ve never met) heard that we’d had trouble purchasing groceries and other supplies, and she sent me rice, face masks and a lot of other things. There was another person who got in touch through social media, and she sent us hand sanitizer, foam rollers, simple exercise equipment, and other supplies. I was stunned. It showed me how much Chinese people are willing to help each other even when we are so far away from home. I’m extremely grateful.