UFC 268: Can Namajunas Deliver an Encore Against an Improving Zhang?

Rose Namajunas and Weili Zhang, UFC 268
Rose Namajunas and Zhang Weili, UFC 268 Pre-Fight Press Conference Credit: Gabriel Gonzalez/Cageside Press

UFC strawweight champion Rose Namajunas is looking to deliver an encore of one of her best performances, but Zhang Weili has added high profile members to her camp to get revenge at UFC 268.

Rose Namajunas has been here before.  How does one top a stunning first round knockout to become a UFC champion?  “Thug Rose” followed up a quick finish of Joanna Jędrzejczyk with a five round battle in their rematch that saw her further cement her status as the best strawweight in the world back in 2018.  After stopping former champion Zhang Weili in April, Namajunas will now be looking to replicate her performance in an immediate rematch at the same site as her career defining battles with Jędrzejczyk.

Often, it would appear that Namajunas competes against her own greatness. After delivering perfect performances that see her take virtually no damage, tactical errors or close fights like her recent ones with Jessica Andrade make it appear as if she struggles with inconsistency.  Look at any fighter’s career and you’ll see close fights are par for the course regardless of one’s status.  While a loss to Zhang will leave her in a rare position, any victory at all should be celebrated as her remaining ahead of the competition.

Zhang Weili has shuffled the deck, so to speak, for the most critical juncture of her career.  “Magnum” has made the move to Arizona to work with the team at Fight Ready where she has spent the latter part of her camp with former two-division champion Henry Cejudo and coach Eric Albarracin who have also taken to helping fellow former champion Deiveson Figueiredo ahead of his own immediate rematch.  Considering the Zhang was considered one of the best talents in women’s MMA who was even discussed as a possible challenge for flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko, the prospect of her adding multiple new dimensions to her game is an intimidating thought for the division.

April’s loss to Namajunas was as disheartening as a champion of her stature could have.  After stopping Jessica Andrade to win the title and winning the greatest fight in women’s MMA history against Joanna Jędrzejczyk, to lose the belt quickly without virtually landing a punch was a letdown to say the least.  Further, Namajunas’s comments regarding Zhang coming from China became a major talking point leading into the bout.  In recent weeks, Zhang has said that she felt that the statements turned a portion of the fanbase on her which gives their rematch a level of friction that wasn’t present in the majority of the time leading up to their first fight.

Saturday will be a contrast of finesse versus physicality.  For Namajunas, using her impressive range and movement to attack Zhang from the outside will be paramount toward replicating her success.  Zhang by comparison will look to force the fight into a brawl as much as possible where she can use her power and neutralize the reach of the champion.  An x-factor in the fight could be who has the advantage on the ground.  Zhang has not needed to display much of her ground game in the UFC while Namajunas has not needed to use her submission attack in quite some time.  Should Zhang get the fight to the ground and be able to stifle Namajunas, it could be the difference in a competitive fight.

It’s expected that Carla Esparza will be the next challenger for the title following her recent five fight win-streak.  The question will be whether it will come in short order after the bout between Namajunas and Zhang.  Esparza has not fought since May and while a guaranteed title shot may be enough for her to take the time to wait, there is no question that it is a long layoff if a fight with the Namajunas/Zhang winner does not happen next spring.