BEIJING, Aug. 24 (Xinhua) -- Walking into Black Tiger gym in Beijing's northern suburb of Shunyi, you are greeted by the crash and crack pads. The smell of sweat, hard work and dreams linger in the air inside the gym, located in a quiet part of China's capital city, known mainly for quaint coffee shops and eateries and green spaces.
However, nothing about the work at Black Tiger gym is quaint.
Commanding shouts echo in between the clatter of punches and kicks down the corridor from the gym space. Upon entering the space, the source of the commotion is revealed.
Zhang Weili, the number one contender for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) World Strawweight title, is hard at work. Standing at only 162 centimeters, the diminutive figure of China's mixed martial arts (MMA) star stands with her own powerful aura that draws everyone's attention.
Her concentration is absolute, her eyes unmoving from the targets put in front of her by her coach. Her goal is clear, beat Jessica Andrade on August 31 and become China's first UFC world champion.
Zhang's story started at the age of nine when she was first introduced to the Chinese martial art of Sanda or Chinese kickboxing. Since then Zhang honed her skills to become one of the most well-rounded fighters in the world. Her fearsome kicks, first developed in Sanda, now accompany her exceptional striking ability and her intelligence in the clinch and on the ground.
Her record is phenomenal, since a debut loss in Kunlun MMA, the fighter from Hebei province has amassed 19 straight victories, including three with the UFC.
Despite her fierce striking, there is a grace to Zhang. As she throws her punches and kicks, it's not hard to notice there is an ease in the way she moves. Gliding around her coach, her feet barely make a sound as she switches to execute another deadly kick.
Away from the workout, Zhang is relaxed and at ease with her surroundings. When asked by Xinhua how she is feeling about the fight, Zhang revealed, "I think I might be too relaxed. I don't feel stressed or tense right now. Maybe my coaches are more strained than I am. I want to feel the nerves for the fight, but I can hardly have that feeling right now."
Yet, she is aware of the monumental challenge in front of her, "That feeling will come out as soon as I arrive at the ring. That feeling is not just nerves, but excitement. Every time when I take part in a fight, I get that feeling when I enter the arena and hear the entrance music.
"If I could become the first UFC world champion, it means that I finally realized my dream. Meanwhile, it means that MMA will become more recognized and known to more Chinese people, and it can get more people involved in this kind of sports. In this sense, I think what I'm doing is very meaningful."
For Zhang, there is a responsibility. A responsibility, not just to herself and her ambitions, but a responsibility to MMA in China. Zhang understands her position very clearly and recognizes the boost her victory would give to the sport in her homeland.
"My first goal is to win the championship on August 31. If I could win, more people will start to have an interest in this sport. Just like famous Chinese athletes Yao Ming and Li Na, they promoted the development of a sport after they achieved outstanding results. I will also follow their steps to spread MMA in China.
"In recent years, more and more Chinese people are getting involved in MMA. I have seen many fighting and boxing clubs open in China, and more Chinese children started to take up MMA training. There are many more TV programs and films spreading the idea of mixed martial arts," Zhang disclosed about the future of MMA in China.
"UFC has opened a Performance Institute in Shanghai, which is helping to develop more Chinese and Asian talents. Many top athletes joined this project. I believe that there will be more MMA talents that will appear in the coming years, and MMA in China will improve continuously."
Zhang, however, finds herself in a male-dominated world. Standing in the middle of the gym, she is the only woman. The other fighters that surround are all men and all her coaches are men. Yet, it is clear that Zhang commands the respect of everyone in the gym.
Suddenly, the sound in the gym stops and the other athletes cease their training. Zhang is putting on her pads and the other fighters gather around her training space to watch her spar.
With her coach equipped with enough padding to cushion a 20-story fall, Zhang gets to work with her final preparation of the day. The room of fighters watches on in focused silence, hanging on her every punch, studying her every knee, learning about every elbow. They are watching an inspirational master at work.
Zhang is a role model for these fighters. She is an example of hard work and the diligence required to make it as one of the world's most capable fighters.
However, she also knows that she is a role model for young girls, "I think girls are equal to boys. Girls can achieve what boys can. Girls have many possibilities. You should not be simply defined as gentle or weak, you can also be brave, hardworking, persistent and independent. Never let those 'titles' define or limit you."
It is clear that she is passionate about inspiring girls with her actions in and out of the ring, much in the same way iconic women's fighter Ronda Rousey of the United States inspired her.
In fact, Rousey, who became a global star with her stunning performances in the UFC, gave Zhang a personal shout-out on her Instagram earlier this week.
"I feel like a proud mama watching how women's MMA has grown," Rousey wrote. "Women from all walks of life, from all over the world are rising to the challenge and showing the world what it means to fight like a girl. Weili Zhang @zhangweilimma is a prime example of overcoming adversity - fighting not just through the ranks but to also get noticed and stand out. I've definitely taken notice, and so should you. Best of luck to the ladies fighting August 31 on #UFCfightnight157."
For Zhang, Rousey remains her idol and the personal mention by the MMA legend touched her.
"I really appreciate what she did. She's my role model. Her performance in the octagon refreshed my view on women. I started to realize that women can also show their strength in the octagon, and women could do better than men. I saw her fight in UFC in 2013 and that inspired me to be determined and work hard to be someone like her.
"When she mentioned me on Instagram, I felt very surprised and excited. For me, she seems like an idol that unapproachable for me, but she made me feel like she is a close friend."
Perhaps Zhang herself can have that same effect on up and coming female fighters in China. Speaking to Xinhua, Zhang offered a few inspirational words for young women looking to make their way in the world, "If you have a dream, try hard to make it come true. Every dream is reachable. Don't be afraid of having big dreams, make your big goal into smaller ones, and achieve them one by one, you will get close to your big goal. I did it; I believe you can do too."
Zhang will arrive in Shenzhen as the slight underdog. However, with home support from the Chinese fans and a mission to inspire China and young women around the world, maybe the scales will be tipped in her favor.