When UFC strawweight champion Zhang Weili was told on Feb. 1 that she had to immediately move her training camp from China to avoid the travel restrictions caused by the coronavirus, she thought it was a dream.
That dreamlike sequence took an even more surreal turn a week later when she had to fly to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Finally on Saturday, three weeks after first fleeing China, Zhang arrived in Las Vegas.
With the nerve-racking journey behind her, the 30-year-old Zhang now faces the toughest challenge of her life as she’ll make her first title defense against No. 1 contender and former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk on March 7.
“I was like, ‘Was that a dream? Was that real?'” Zhang said through a translator.
Zhang sat down for an interview with ESPN’s Brett Okamoto on Tuesday night and shared what it was like to leave friends and family behind in China while trying to stay focused on the biggest day of her career.
Jan. 28: ‘I’ll see you in Las Vegas on March 7’
It was a simple Instagram post. Zhang published a picture of her fight poster with the promise that she’ll be in Vegas on March 7 for the fight.
Four days later, she realized nothing in her life would be simple for the next several weeks.
“I had a U.S. visa appointment on Feb 3 in Beijing and was waiting for that,” she said. “Then on the early morning of Feb 1, I got the news that flights between the U.S. and China had been suspended. And then I got a text from my UFC manager that morning telling me to depart immediately.
“We then started packing up our luggage and headed to the airport around noon. It was such a rush. At that moment, I realized that we had to leave the country.”
Feb. 1: ‘Like a refugee trying to leave’
Zhang had never trained for a fight outside of China before, and this was not just another fight.
“I didn’t even know where to train or anything,” she said. “Fortunately, I had two Thai coaches and they found a boxing gym to train and a place to stay.
“Once everything was settled, I felt a little bit relieved. The whole experience was like a refugee trying to leave.
“The first day I was in Thailand, it was hot and humid. I felt really uncomfortable because Beijing was super cold and dry. So I felt uncomfortable and sweating a lot during the first several days. I gradually got used to the climate on the third day and became comfortable. I stayed and trained in a house. It was in a suburban area, only our team lived there so it was fine.”
Feb. 7: ‘I was really upset and stressed out’
Zhang had just begun to feel comfortable in Thailand when new marching orders were delivered. She had to uproot her camp again and head to Abu Dhabi.
“It came very quickly, of which I had no idea,” she said. “I was suddenly told that I had to leave, which made me really emotional.
“But I understood that UFC must have prepared the best plan for us, so I followed the instructions and left Thailand.”
Having Thai coaches helped Zhang acclimate during the first leg of her journey, but there would be no familiarity at her next stop.
“I flew to Abu Dhabi on Feb. 7 after spending a week in Thailand,” she said. “At the time, I was a bit frustrated and very emotional because I had just got used to Thailand.
“In Thailand, I had two local coaches that I could talk to at least. But I knew nothing about Abu Dhabi, so I was really upset and stressed out. Then I called my mom and told her I was upset. She told me there were a lot of people in China fighting the virus, and I shouldn’t be the one complaining just because I needed to travel around. She said those doctors and nurses didn’t even have time to sleep, and that I should be grateful and overcome the difficulties. My mom’s words gave me a lot of confidence at that time.”
Zhang improvised at times, using a hotel bed as a landing spot for exercises while Facetiming a strength-and-conditioning coach in the United States.
Feb. 22: ‘We made it to America’
Zhang and her team arrived in Las Vegas on Saturday. She missed her original target date by just six days, but there was a lot more to it than being a few days behind schedule.
Still, she’s not ready to concede that the stressful camp will have any impact on her performance in the Octagon.
“People have no idea about my life,” she said. “They could only see me traveling around between different places such as Thailand, Abu Dhabi and the United States. But they had no idea I have been training all the time.
“I have been flying on Saturdays and Sundays, and training during weekdays with no breaks. This has been very consistent. I don’t think the traveling has impacted me a lot. Right now, the thing that frustrates me the most is the jet lag, but it would only take four or five days to get over.
“Currently, I’m feeling good physically and mentally. I think everything is fine. People are worried about me because they just don’t know my training schedule. But I think I will be just fine especially after overcoming such difficulties.”
Zhang said she never worried the fight would be postponed.
“I never had those thoughts, because I know when people need to achieve great things, they suffer facing a lot of challenges,” she said. “Everyone from my team did a lot for me to get to the fight week. I never thought there would be any problem to impact the fight.
“Also, my coaching team is here with me this time, so I never thought those things will impact the fight. Everyone is eager to see me fight against Joanna. I’m excited about the fight as well. I watched Joanna’s fight several years ago in China when she was still the champion. At that time, I watched her fight every day and always imagining to fight against her. Now the day is coming. I look forward to it.”