Weili Zhang on Joe Mazzulla: ‘I Would Love to Have Him in My Corner’

The UFC women’s strawweight champion is a fan of the Boston Celtics and head coach Joe Mazzulla

One year ago, the Boston Celtics fell short in the Eastern Conference Finals.

First-year head coach Joe Mazzulla was overmatched and outmaneuvered by Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, whose team jumped out to a commanding three-games-to-none lead–and then finished the Celtics in humiliating fashion in Game 7.

But what a difference a year can make.

“Coach Mazzulla is a champion,” said Weili Zhang, the reigning UFC women’s strawweight champion–and a friend of Zhang. “And he is welcome to come in my corner during a fight.”

Joe Mazzulla coached the Celtics to the NBA championship
Joe Mazzulla coached the Celtics to the NBA championship / NBA

Speaking through a translator, Zhang highlighted the coaching prowess of Mazzulla, who guided his team to the NBA championship earlier this week. Mazzulla’s Celtics defeated the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals after storming through the first three rounds of the postseason.

Mazzulla incorporates MMA film into his motivation tactics, and he also relishes the chance to compete in the sport.

“I learned he competed in jiu-jitsu, and we became friends when the Celtics were training in Las Vegas,” said Zhang. “I would see him training at the UFC Performance Institute at six in the morning. Right away, I was impressed at how diligent and professional he was.

“Coach Mazzulla is very, very focused. He is open to learning, too. That’s why he is a top coach.”

After learning on the job last season as interim coach, where he suddenly replaced the suspended Ume Idoka following an internal controversy, Mazzulla took charge in year two. His most noteworthy accomplishment was getting players to embrace the notion of team before the individual. He also fostered a sense of togetherness, reaching out to all Celtics alumni before the season and embedding a sense of family in the storied franchise.

“The NBA is very, very popular in China,” said Zhang, China’s first-ever UFC women’s champion. “I am a Celtics fan, and I watch all the Celtics games. I admire the way he coaches. His approach is a patient one. You can see the similarities between basketball and MMA in the way he coaches. Both require endurance. You need to keep calm.

“His philosophy brought his team together. They are very united. That separates them from other teams.”

Weili Zhang is the reigning UFC women’s strawweight champion
Weili Zhang is the reigning UFC women’s strawweight champion / Zuffa

Zhang is also a champion. The two-time, reigning UFC women’s strawweight champ defeated Yan Xiaonan in April at UFC 300. Her next bout should be announced soon, and she is seeking her third straight title defense–chasing Joanna Jędrzejczyk, who made five successful title defenses.

Only a year separates the 35-year-old Mazzulla and the 34-year-old Zhang. Mazzulla had a chance to watch Zhang defeat Amanda Lemos in spectacular fashion last summer at UFC 292 in Boston, and Zhang now wants Mazzulla in her corner.

“That would be a great experience for me,” said Zhang. “I would love to have him in my corner. I’m in talks with the UFC about my next fight. Hopefully there will be some good news soon.”

Published |Modified
Justin Barrasso


Justin Barrasso has been writing for Sports Illustrated since 2014. While his primary focus is pro wrestling and MMA, he has also covered MLB, NBA, and the NFL. He can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com and followed on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.