China’s Zhang Weili became the breakout star of 2019, but she has work to do before she can usher in a new era in the strawweight division. It starts with a fight against former champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk on UFC 248.
Official for her first defense! 🇨🇳
— UFC (@ufc) March 6, 2020
Last August, “Magnum” Zhang Weili took the world by storm when she shocked the world with a first round stoppage of Brazilian powerhouse Jessica Andrade to win the UFC strawweight championship. It seems silly now, but Zhang was not even discussed over Jędrzejczyk, Tatiana Suarez, or Michelle Waterson for the shot at the belt. Since then, however, she has emerged as a breakthrough star with the potential for a long reign. Not lost on anyone with a business mind, she is the first champion to hail from the largest country in the world where her public appearances on television draw large numbers and already A-list stars like the NFL’s Tom Brady openly discuss her.
At least on the outside, Zhang has maneuvered the complications of the corona virus outbreak in her home country as well as one could hope to. Despite moving her camp and travel concerns, she arrived to fight week in excellent physical condition and has handled the increased media attention of being a champion like a seasoned star. Not to be overlooked, the fight with Jędrzejczyk for Zhang is a critical one. Firstly, the former champion on paper represents the standard of excellence that was previously set in the strawweight division. Secondly, after already shocking Andrade, a win over Jędrzejczyk would add two of the consensus three best strawweights of the last several years to her resume.
— UFC (@ufc) March 4, 2020
Former champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk set the standard for excellence in the strawweight division when she surgically dismantled contender after contender to record five title defenses, second behind only Ronda Rousey in terms of championship success for women in the UFC. After a long layoff in 2019, she returned to form in October with a dominant victory over Michelle Waterson to secure her third shot at winning a UFC title since losing the belt in 2017. The anticipation for the fight has many pegging it as the most interesting match on the card for good reason. Despite all of her previous success, to overcome the formidable champion after her tumultuous last several years would be arguably the biggest victory of her career.
It is not lost on anyone that the fight seems like a bit of a crossroads for Jędrzejczyk. Her move up to flyweight to claim gold against familiar foe Valentina Shevchenko was unsuccessful and she also failed to reclaim her title in the rematch with former champion Rose Namajunas. While the strawweight division is not lacking for fighters, a loss for Jędrzejczyk would virtually remove her from the title picture indefinitely unless there is another major shake-up.
Stylistically, the athleticism and versatile attack of Zhang figures to pose unique challenges to Jędrzejczyk. The champion possesses an arsenal of kicks that she uses to great effect and is an adept grappler. Against the former champion, Zhang should look to chop away with leg kicks and hamper her mobility in the early rounds and look for openings to end the fight later on. The Polish contender is known for her surgical precision on the feet and should look to maintain the distance behind a sharp jab and footwork. A brawl unanimously favors Zhang so Jędrzejczyk must remain disciplined for the entire 25 minutes.
🏆 Zhang and Joanna will not back down!
— UFC (@ufc) March 5, 2020
Should Rose Namajunas be triumphant in her rematch with Jessica Andrade next month, she figures to be the obvious next contender for Zhang should she be victorious. It would also raise an interesting situation for Jędrzejczyk as Namajunas already holds two victories over her. As Jędrzejczyk has already fought most of the top ten in the strawweight division, a rematch figures to be on deck unless undefeated contender Tatiana Suarez returns in the third quarter of 2020 straight into a title shot.