Weili Zhang got a good reception from the New York fans at the UFC 281 pre fight press conference. It would have come as a welcome relief to the Chinese strawweight who has struggled to perform in front of hostile crowds in the US.

She was beaten by Rose Namajunas twice in front of the American fans with the most recent defeat coming at UFC 268. That fight took place in Madison Square Garden, the venue that Zhang will return to this weekend.

Last time around she was booed by the fans at UFC 268. But Zhang seems to be a more popular figure these days and it helps that she is coming of a highlight reel knockout.

Zhang finished Joanna Jędrzejczyk with a spinning back elbow at UFC 275 and sounds like she is in a better place ahead of her return to New York,

“My mindset has adjusted a lot. I think I’m a lot more resilient, a lot better and a lot more at peace with things. I want to tell everyone that the road doesn’t always have to be smooth or straight up, there must be ups and downs (and) this is the wonderful part of life. We should enjoy this wonderful moment and enjoy the process,” she told UFC.com.

Hostile atmosphere

The first fight with Namajunas took place at UFC 261 and Zhang admitted afterwards that the hostile atmosphere had affected her. She was knocked out in the opening round and the defeat cost her the strawweight title she had held for nearly two years.

In the wake of that experience, the 33-year-old made various changes to her game and even moved to Thailand to train. Zhang has spent a lot of time training Bang Tao Muay Thai in Phuket and says that she’s evolved massively since her first title reign,

“Compared with my last title fight, I have a deeper understanding of MMA. The first time I fought here I was not ready (to compete in) the mecca of sports, this time I am ready.”

She has made improvements on both the mental and the technical side and thinks they helped her to put on a bonus winning performance at UFC 275,

“I learned from my failure and adjusted my mentality and in the last fight I got a fantastic win.”

Clash of styles

Zhang sees the fight with Esparza as a clash of styles and expects to have her grappling and wrestling tested by her opponent,

“Everybody knows Carla Esparza is a wrestler and I am more of a striker so I can (see) how my grappling and wrestling is so I am very excited.”

Zhang is looking to recapture the strawweight title. It is something her opponent has already succeeded in doing and she respects Esparza for her longevity,

“As a fighter I respect her because I like her story. She was the inaugural champion of this division and then got the belt again after eight years.”

Zhang describes Esparza’s last fight as ‘boring’ but believes that their contrasting styles will make this weekend’s clash much more intriguing,

“We are going to show a complete MMA fight. We can show striking ,grappling, wrestling in this fight. Every aspect of MMA.”