UFC 261: Namajunas’ Comments Add Extra Heat to Battle with Zhang

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Weili Zhang and Rose Namajunas, UFC 261
Weili Zhang and Rose Namajunas Credit: Gabriel Gonzalez/Cageside Press

UFC strawweight champion Zhang Weili is looking to cross over into a global star, and recent comments from former champion Rose Namajunas have made their clash one to watch at UFC 261.

How do you top what is considered the greatest women’s MMA fight of all-time?  UFC strawweight champion Zhang Weili became the breakout star of the MMA world by going from little-known contender to undisputed title holder in 2019.  Her popularity rose to a whole other level when she triumphed against former longtime champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk in the consensus Fight of the Year.  It was no small feat considering 2020 saw several exciting fights in the running for the award.  Though she left for the bout at the onset of the global pandemic, she returned home as a greater mainstream star than ever before in her native China.

While she was rather unheralded going into her title bout in 2019, the strength of Zhang’s schedule is one of the strongest ever seen in the women’s divisions after fighting Jessica Andrade, Jędrzejczyk, and now another former champion in Rose Namajunas.  With another victory, “Magnum” will have swept the field of most of the former champions and will look prepared to move up in weight to attempt to become only the second woman to hold titles in two weight classes simultaneously.

Though her 9-4 record may not leap off the page, the performances of Rose Namajunas in recent years have cemented her as one of the best fighters in the world at 115 pounds.  “Thug Rose” may not have sprouted immediately, but she blossomed to the elite level in 2017 by throttling perennial contender Michelle Waterson and then shocking longtime champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk.  She put on an encore performance the following year, this time going five rounds with Jędrzejczyk to further assert her newfound dominance at the top of the division.  Her streak would end in 2019, seeing her lose the title in stunning fashion to Jessica Andrade and avenging the loss in a non-title affair a year later.

As impressive as Zhang has been over the last two years, a Namajunas victory would be far from an upset.  That said, Saturday is still seen as a pivotal crossroads bout for her.  A win would put her back at the top of the division and position her to call the shots.  A loss would be alternating wins and losses in the past two years and likely well out of the picture for the foreseeable future so long as Zhang holds the title.  Considering that her recent comments regarding the politics (or lack-thereof) of Zhang have added more interest to the bout, the outcome is even more critical.

Stylistically, the speed and movement of Namajunas provide the biggest threat to Zhang.  Should she be effective, it stands to reason that Namajunas will be able to keep the champion at the end of her shots while minimizing the amount of damage she takes over the course of the bout.  By comparison, a varied attack from Zhang will be necessary to get within range and make Namajunas a more stationary target.  While Jędrzejczyk had success on the feet with a similar blueprint, Zhang ruled the day by doing more damage when she had her moments in the exchanges and she must look to do the same again by initiating her offense first.

A win for Zhang would seemingly sweep the field.  Though a number one contender fight between Carla Esparza and Yan Xiaonan figures to provide the next challenger, there will undoubtedly be a desire to see her move up to challenge reigning flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko should she also be successful on Saturday.  A Namajunas victory would likely see her face the Esparza vs Xiaonan winner, though a move up may not be out of the question in the near future as well as she already has victories over both Jędrzejczyk (twice) and Andrade as well to put her head-and-shoulders above most of the field.

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