Filipino coach preps MMA women’s world champ for title defense

Filipino coach preps MMA women’s world champ for title defense
UFC champ Zhang Weili poses with striking coach Benedict Alumno. —CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS

Filipino pride will be well represented at UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championships) 300, the landmark event in mixed martial arts (MMA), full-contact combat, on April 14, Manila time, in Paradise, Nevada.

No Filipino fighter is on the card, but Benedict Alumno promises to make his countrymen proud. Alumno is the striking coach of UFC women’s strawweight champion Zhang Weili. He is also the younger brother of Philippine National Muay Thai team head coach Billy Alumno.

The high-octane Chinese champ will stake her crown against her compatriot Yan Xiaonan in the card’s co-featured bout, and coach Ben has been hard at work getting her prepped and ready to go.

The Baguio native started training with Weili last year when “Magnum” defended her belt against Amanda Lemos in the co-main event of UFC 292.

Fitness instructor in China

“I used to work as a fitness instructor in a gym in China,” Alumno said in Filipino. “Then during the pandemic, I went back to the Philippines.”

Alumno thought that was it for his time as a migrant worker in China, until a former student at Beijing’s Black Tiger MMA Fight Club reached out with an unusual opportunity.

“I got a call from one of my students, asking me if I could coach a UFC fighter,” he recalled.

To his surprise, the combatant was Weili, the woman regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, female fighters of all time. “[My former students] told her they liked my coaching, and they told me that my fast-paced style matches Weili’s abilities,” he said.

It was a no-brainer for Alumno. The next thing he knew, Weili’s handlers had booked his flight to Bangkok so he could join the team.

‘I didn’t hesitate’

Filipino coach in MMA
Weilli and Benedict at the gym

As a former professional fighter and an MMA fan through and through, Alumno knew of Weili long before he received that phone call. 

“I’ve seen her fight many times before,” revealed the 37-year-old. “So when I finally got to coach her, I had already visualized her moves and how quick she is. When they asked me to train her, I didn’t hesitate.” 

The pressure of training a world champion did not faze Alumno, but he wasn’t completely certain that Weili would take to his style.

“At first, I told myself, ‘They’d observe and see if they like me,’” he said. He understood there was no harm in trying. “They did try me out for three months to help her prepare for the Lemos fight.”

When fight night rolled around, Alumno’s lessons paid off hugely. The fighting pride of Handan, Hebei, utterly overwhelmed Lemos from wire to wire, specifically in the striking department. 

Lopsided fight

It was one of the most lopsided title fights in UFC history. Weili landed 163 of her attempted 217 significant strikes for a massive 75% connection rate. The poor challenger connected with a measly 29 strikes overall during the 25-minute affair.

Making it look easy, Weili notched her third successful title defense. 

And Alumno passed his test with flying colors. “They liked me because I can adjust very well with Weili,” he said, pride brimming. Shortly after the fight, he was offered an extension of his contract, which he gladly accepted.

“We have minor problems because of the language barrier,” he admitted. “She’s not very fluent in English and my Chinese isn’t great either. So now, I’m trying to adjust by learning Chinese phrases, and she also tries to adjust by learning more English.”

Interestingly, Alumno is not Weili’s first Filipino coach. That distinction belongs to one Vincent Soberano, who told the South China Morning Post that he knew Weili was championship material the moment he laid eyes on her.

This might explain why Weili needed little or no time gelling with another Filipino coach despite the language barrier. That, or because fighting is a universal language.

The way to go

Filipino coach in MMA
The Filipino striking coach trains his Chinese students.

For a country that prides itself in combat sports excellence, the Philippines isn’t very well represented in the UFC.

At present, four fighters of Filipino descent are on the UFC roster: Joshua Culibao, Hyder Amil, Punahele Soriano, and Ricky Turcios. But in terms of nationality, Culibao is Australian, while Turcios, Amil and Soriano are American.

Alumno believes that if a homegrown Filipino talent wants to make it to the big leagues, the way to go is to leave the country, 

“The style of training abroad is very advanced,” he said. “Here, if you’re looking for someone to train you for your ground game, for example, the team will hire somebody who’s one of the best at it. In jiu-jitsu, for instance, it’s best to have a coach from Brazil.”

On top of that, the best training partners are found outside the local scene, Alumno said.

“If you’re the best in the Philippines, your partners are probably the same guys you’ve been training with,” he observed. “When you get to that point, you’re only helping your partners improve, but not yourself.”

Will we ever see a true-blue Filipino enter the Octagon? Only time will tell.

But until then, Filipino DNA will find its way to manifest in the world’s leading combat promotion, whether it’s through the four de facto proxies or the echoes of Alumno’s coaching in Weili’s exploits.

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