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Zhang Weili says focus has been to work hard, improve constantly leading into UFC 281

The strawweight star's fighting formula once again has her on the doorstep of greatness at Saturday's event in New York.

The absolute best athletes and creatives in the world are the ones that refuse to rest on their laurels. No matter what they've achieved or the accolades bestowed upon them, they're the ones that are constantly pushing the boundaries, working to improve, to innovate, to learn, and to grow.

Zhang Weili is one of those types.

Three years ago, the Chinese fighter rose to the top of the strawweight division with a rapid win over Jessica Andrade. This weekend, she looks to return to the throne when she takes on current champion Carla Esparza (19-6 MMA, 10-4 UFC) in the co-main event at UFC 281 in New York City, and in the time between those two events, Zhang (22-3 MMA, 6-2 UFC) has adopted that "never stop learning" approach.

"My mindset has adjusted a lot," she said when asked what has changed most between her first championship opportunity and the one in front of her on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden. "I think I'm a lot more resilient, a lot better, and a lot more at peace with things.

"More importantly, I want to tell everyone that the road doesn't always have to be smooth or straight up – there must be ups and downs; this is the wonderful part of life.

"We should enjoy this wonderful moment and enjoy the process."

Losing certainly contributes to understanding that a career, like a good mixtape, can't be all rise. There will invariably be struggles, and Zhang has experienced a couple of setbacks in recent years.

She lost the strawweight title to former champ Rose Namajunas in sudden fashion at UFC 261, getting knocked down and out by a high kick just 78 seconds into the highly anticipated contest. They faced off again six months later, and this time Zhang lost a split decision; a second straight defeat after an incredible 21-fight winning streak.

The positive for Zhang is that the former champion has reached the point where she's far more worried about the process than the results, knowing that her preparations are the only thing she can control.

"In every fight, one (fighter) wins, the other loses; this is inevitable," began Zhang, who returned to the win column with a second-round knockout win over Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 276 over the summer in Singapore. "If you only think about winning and losing, you can set yourself up to think too much about winning and losing. This kind of thinking will limit myself, limit my continuous innovation of training, and then limit my pace of progress.

"In Chinese words, 'be swayed by considerations of gain and loss.' I think I just be the best me, give 100 percent effort on my training, perfect my skills and foundation. In short: do what I should do, prepare what I should prepare, and enjoy all this.

"So, when it comes to the fight, we can't control anything but ourselves," she added. "Be yourself, show your skills and tactics, show what MMA is all about. Focus on yourself and focus on the fight, that's it."

That focus on the process also carries over to the way Zhang looks at the strawweight title she'll challenge for this weekend.

While many fighters hold UFC gold out as the ultimate marker of accomplishment and a key indicator of a successful career – either their own or someone else's – an increasing number of competitors, including Zhang, have taken to seeing the belt in their respective division as the cherry on top of the sundae.

And when you break it down, it makes a great deal of sense because just as an ice cream sundae can be outstanding without that radioactive red Maraschino morsel perched atop the whipped cream peak, a fighter can have a successful career even if they never claim championship gold.

Granted, Zhang has already tasted that sickly sweet bite once before, so reframing her thoughts on the importance of the title may be easier than for someone that has yet to achieve that feat, but that doesn't make her current position on the matter any less genuine.

"The UFC champions in every division are constantly updated," she said. "Wins, losses and titles are ephemeral; it's all changing all the time. The main thing is to show my ability, show my skills in every fight.

"Winning or the champion's title is the biggest reward for every athlete, and it is the recognition of the athlete's hard work," continued this weekend's strawweight title challenger. "We put in countless hard work for it, and that's what all the athletes want, but, most importantly, every experience is a part of life, and you should be fearless and do what you must do."

Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, Zhang will look to become the third woman to hold the strawweight title twice when she takes on Esparza.

The current champion won the belt earlier this year in an awkward, low-output meeting with Namajunas, marking the second time "The Cookie Monster" has bested the popular Trevor Wittman protege with the UFC title hanging in the balance. Her first reign began with a win over "Thug Rose" to close out Season 20 of "The Ultimate Fighter" but ended in her first championship defense just a couple months later when she lost to Jedrzejczyk at UFC 185.

Filled with confidence in her preparations after dispatching "Joanna Champion" in her last appearance, Zhang is ready to once again test herself against another member of the division's elite.

"It was certainly very important for me to win the match against Joanna," she said in regards to their highly anticipated rematch, which proved to be Jedrzejczyk's UFC swan song. "Winning this fight made me more convinced that I can win more fights by focusing, working hard, and constantly improving."

Like all her opponents, Zhang has nothing but respect for Esparza, and recognizes the difficult challenge in front of her this weekend in New York City.

And given her mindset and focus, it should come as no surprise that her thoughts on what a win on Saturday would mean skew more towards the bigger picture than her own personal situation.

"It means that I will get challenged by the best of the best," she said. "And it is not easy to stay as the UFC champion."

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