New UFC strawweight champion Weili Zhang has burst onto the scene in a huge way, but she is not lacking for challenges as she begins her reign atop the division.
It is the nature of MMA, if not all sports, to immediately ask what comes next. That is the case even after Saturday where top Chinese prospect Weili Zhang claimed the UFC strawweight championship in a show-stopping performance against powerhouse Jessica Andrade. “Magnum” became the UFC’s first Chinese champion and won the belt on home soil. China is the most populous country in the world, and already it is expected that Zhang’s first title defense will be a major event. Against whom? Let’s dive into the options.
Let’s not forget, Saturday was supposed to be Suarez’s title opportunity before the cards were dealt in favor of Zhang. Undefeated in her career, with a 5-0 win streak in the UFC alone, Suarez is someone the UFC has shown great investment in. In the same vein as heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic and featherweight star Brian Ortega, Suarez was featured as part of a campaign by UFC sponsor Modelo ahead of her last fight at UFC 238 in June.
Stylistically, Suarez’s wrestling against the impressive striking of Zhang is an intriguing match-up. Suarez expects to be back in the cage in 2019 following a neck injury before her last fight, however it remains to be seen what timetable the UFC and Zhang may have before the end of the year. A December or January return makes the most sense for Zhang, but it will have to be seen if that is enough time for Suarez to make a full recovery and compete at the championship level.
Michelle Waterson/Joanna Jedrzejczyk
This one is incumbent on the winner of their bout on October 12. Former champion Jędrzejczyk provides a strong case after recording five impressive title defenses between 2015 and 2017. While losses to Rose Namajunas and Valentina Shevchenko (at flyweight) may have away some of her shine in the past year, she remains a high level threat for anyone at 115 pounds.
Waterson, in a similar vein to the aforementioned Suarez, is another fighter that the UFC has shown great investment in. Featured everywhere from ESPN Magazine to a whole documentary from LeBron James’ company UNINTERRUPTED, Waterson is the definition of a fan-favorite and the television appeal of a match-up with Zhang is a no-brainer.
What Jędrzejczyk lacks in power, she makes up for in blistering precision. Her accuracy and output have been prolific and her ability to maintain the distance would be up against Zhang’s versatile striking attack. For Waterson, her multi-faceted game would be put to the ultimate test against the bigger and similarly well-rounded champion.
The former champion has not said much since losing to Andrade back in May but remains one of the most dangerous fighters in the strawweight division. With a devoted fan-base and exciting style, Namajunas is much closer to another shot at the title than many may realize.
While “Thug Rose” mentioned retirement, many are expecting a reinvigorated competitor when she returns to action. While the aforementioned contenders would be considered ahead of Namajunas, the same was thought of Zhang before circumstances played out, which means the former champion is just as viable a candidate as anyone at this stage. The well-rounded game of Namajunas against the physicality of the champion would be an exciting fight for as long as it lasts and is as good a match-up as any that could be made for the belt.