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Photos: Weili Zhang training in Bangtao, Thailand ahead of UFC title bout

Weili Zhang is sharpening her game at Bangtao Muay Thai & MMA in Phuket, Thailand.

UFC star Weili Zhang training in Bangtao Muay Thai & MMA, in Phuket, Thailand.
Weili Zhang working on her striking with her Thai coach, John Yodpetch.

Phuket has always been a popular draw for professional fighters, with its beautiful beaches, world class Muay Thai and the growing amount of high level MMA gyms on the island.

Among those is Bangtao Muay Thai & MMA, which has quickly grown to be among the top destination gyms in the region. Spearheaded by head coach George Hickman, the new facility has already drawn numerous MMA stars. They’ve hosted UFC champions Alex Volkanovski and Jiri Prochazka since opening in April, and they also have some of the biggest stars in the Asian region currently working with them.

As seen on Bloody Elbow’s photo gallery below, that line up includes former UFC champion Weili Zhang, who is about to host her second fight camp with Bangtao Muay Thai & MMA.

Aside from the beautiful facility being a stone’s throw away from the gorgeous Bangtao and Surin beaches, one of the draws has also been the core coaching team coming from the popular Tiger Muay Thai gym.

George and his brother Frank Hickman handle MMA and wrestling programs, Josh Hinger black belt Alex Schild is the jiujitsu coach, while Andrew Wood handles strength and conditioning. Together they built the gym in Bangtao, while also hiring an army of coaches and Muay Thai champions to boot.

“I don’t think there’s one main reason why we branched off, I think it was more of the opportunity came,” George Hickman told Bloody Elbow about leaving Tiger Muay Thai.

MMA gyms in the country repeatedly closed down in 2020 due to the pandemic, and Thai stars like Loma Lookboonmee resulted to training in Schild’s front yard to prepare for UFC fights. As everyone’s travel and training schedules were put to hold, Schild said “this is the time” to push through with what they’ve always spoken about.

“It wasn’t one drastic thing that made us leave,” Hickman explained. “We were talking about it for years, and COVID gave us that time to put in that work and have what we have now.”

Hickman credits Schild for being the “catalyst” that brought everyone together, and they slowly built everything up from there. After eventually opening in April 2022, MMA stars started coming in.

“Weili came here five or six weeks before her fight in Singapore,” Hickman said. Instead of taking a break after winning that title eliminator against Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Zhang decided to quickly return to Phuket.

“I think she not only loves our gym, she loves this area in the island,” Hickman shared. “She was surfing the other week, and I think for her there’s not a lot of stress here. She lives nearby and can walk to training in like two minutes.

“I think it’s a good fit for everyone, and we get along so great with her team.”

UFC star Weili Zhang training in Bangtao Muay Thai & MMA, in Phuket, Thailand.
Weili Zhang working with her striking coach John Yodpetch and renowned Muay Thai coach Master Yod Yodkunsup.
Anton Tabuena

While technically still not in an official fight camp, Zhang has also been joining more of the daily classes with the other students and helping out other pros like UFC fighters Loma Lookboonmee and Ji Yeon Kim.

“She has John (Yodpetch), her coach, and two training partners with her, but since that fight, she’s really become part of our team now, like family,” Hickman said.

“She’s just great to have. She’s driven, she’s self-motivated, she knows what she wants — and that’s to be the champion again.”

Apart from Zhang sharpening her Muay Thai in Thailand, the Hickman brothers are also known for their MMA wrestling. Seeing improvements in that department, even from the Jedrzejczyk rematch, has been a treat for the team at Bangtao, and they expect it to continue ahead of that looming UFC title clash with a wrestler in Carla Esparza.

“Weili trains extremely, extremely hard, and she’s always improving. Obviously, she’s been world champion before, and she’s been very good already. But small things, like my brother, or Alex or myself show her, she picks up. She can do it one time and that’s it, she doesn’t forget it and can continue to do it,” he said. “A lot of fighters that get on that level, they plateau or get on a downward spiral for different reasons, but Weili is always getting better.

“I think anyone in the division, Weili is going to give problems,” he said. “Match up-wise for her, (Esparza) is such a great fight. We obviously know who the better striker is, but Weili’s grappling and her wrestling is not to be underestimated.”

While obviously focused on the task at hand, Hickman does admit that the idea of bringing a belt back to Bangtao would be satisfying after the bond Zhang has built with everyone at the gym.

“My brother corners Israel (Adesanya), (Alex) Volkanovski, and Kai (Kara-France). But to have Weili win the belt, it would mean a lot,” he said. “It would mean a lot to her training partners, who have been sweating with her everyday, training hard in the trenches with her. We’ve all had a little part of her journey, helping her, and it would give a whole sense of pride for our whole gym.”

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