The lone fight featuring women at the layered UFC 268 card on Saturday may be one of the most important of the year, featuring a rematch of two top-10 pound-for-pound fighters. Rose Namajunas defends her strawweight title against the woman she just took it from, Zhang Weili. The rematch is the co-main event of a star-studded card in front of a live crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. Take the dive below for the stakes in this fight, a full breakdown, and a prediction of Rose Namajunas vs. Zhang Weili 2.
The second chapter of a budding rivalry is upon us 📖
🏆 @RoseNamajunas vs 🇨🇳 Zhang Weili
— UFC (@ufc) November 4, 2021
The Stakes in Rose Namajunas vs. Zhang Weili 2
This fight means a lot more for the former champ Zhang Weili (21-2) than it does for Rose Namajunas (10-4). A title fight is always significant no matter who the players are, but Zhang has never before been in a situation where she has to bounce back and reclaim what she lost. She’s only lost twice- once to Rose- and the other was her pro debut, followed by a 21-fight win streak. Zhang’s career has largely been free from the need to go back to the drawing board and exorcise the demons that come with such a big defeat.
Rose, on the other hand, has already experienced several highs and lows of MMA. She’s already been a champion and knows what it’s like to have that glory violently ripped away, only to climb back up the mountain. If Namajunas loses, at 29, she still has a lot of paths forward at strawweight, which could include a trilogy fight with Zhang. Zhang, 32, would lose two in a row to Rose if she falls and would have to decide if she wants to stay at strawweight or test her luck at challenging for the 125lbs belt.
History would claim that rematches within the same year rarely pick a different winner. Rose is well aware of that, as she knocked out Joanna Jedrzeczyk to win the belt, and five months later won a decision in the rematch. 2021 has been a trying year for Chinese fighters, but aside from the above high stakes, the circumstances surrounding Zhang’s headspace in the first fight and preparation for the rematch make it uniquely enthralling. All of the major questions surrounding the rematch centre around Zhang. Let’s dive into Zhang’s space for a bit.
Zhang “Magnum” Weili – Factors that Differentiate the Rematch
Before getting into some particulars, let’s take a look at what some of those central questions around Zhang are.
First, ‘How much was she mentally unprepared for the daunting and toxic environment of their first fight?’ Zhang has stated in multiple interviews all of the distractions for from a focused headspace at UFC 261. First was the hellishly long travel required for her to get from China to Jacksonville, Florida, and the ensuing jetlag.
Once in the arena- the first full-attended UFC event in over a year- seeing Chris Weidman fight before her and break his leg got in her head. Seeing someone do the same job as you and horrifically injure themselves is disturbing and a shocking reminder of the savage nature of the profession.
To make matters worse, she entered the Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena to a huge crowd of hostile fans, likely fanned into flame by Namajunas’ racist comments about Chinese people. Zhang isn’t weak for feeling the crushing weight of an environment turned against her, she’s human.
The second key question is ‘How much will training in Arizona change her fortunes in the fight?’ Zhang has made drastic changes to her training, moving to Scottsdale, Arizona, to train at Fight Ready MMA- a surging gym with some of the best fighters and coaches in the world. She’s gotten the dedicated attention of Henry Cejudo, Eric Albarracin, and Eddy Cha to make adjustments. Her coaches have given their best to help Zhang emotionally process the loss turn it into resilience, at times simulating hostile environments in the gym and playing boos over loudspeakers. While all these changes seem to be just what Zhang needs in a stateside training environment, a few months is still a short time to turn a loss into a victory.
Zhang’s Sweet Spots
Concerning that loss to Rose earlier this year, there wasn’t a lot to take from the fight, as it ended in 78 seconds. The short fight saw Rose using a wide stance and long jab to move quickly in and out of range. Zhang countered the movement but peppered Rose with leg kicks to slow her movement before the fight-ending head kick that dropped Zhang. With such a short fight to judge from, there’s likely to be a different outcome or duration of the rematch.
What Zhang does best is unlikely to change in the rematch. She comes from a Sanda background, which is a form of kickboxing with parallels to Muay Thai. Zhang shines in exchanges, typically outlanding and countering opponents well. When her opponent throws two punches, she throws four and usually gets the last word in the exchange. As one of the hardest hitters in the division, few strike with Zhang for long before they start to show signs of damage.
Another asset of Zhang Weili is her athleticism. She’s always had phenomenal strength and conditioning programs, which give her physical advantages in practically everyone she faces. This comes into play with not only her punching power but dominance in the clinch. Against both Jéssica Andrade and Joanna Jedrzeczyk, she had great success out-muscling and controlling the two, landing concussive elbows to Andrade that led to the finish.
While most of Zhang’s fight time in the UFC has taken place on the feet, her ground game is nothing to sniff at either. A BJJ purple belt, she submitted Jessica Aguilar with armbar in her sophomore appearance. Her offensive wrestling game isn’t great, but it sounds like that’s been one of the focuses of her time at Fight Ready. Her strength and serviceable knowledge on the ground should keep her out of most bad positions and allow her to work her way back to the feet.
Rose Namajunas- The Path Is Already Laid
UFC fans have gotten to watch Rose Namajunas grow up in the Octagon. Far from just a flashy submission fighter, Trevor Whitman has brought along her striking to be among some of the most formidable in the division. While she doesn’t have enough of a size or reach advantage over Zhang to make a big impact, she fights long and is far more mobile than Zhang. She likely has the best footwork at strawweight and always stays balanced. She is patient and hits hard, even at range: she’s scored knockdowns of both Michelle Waterson and Zhang with her stealthy head kick.
On the mat, she’s one of the more clever grapplers with a high finish rate. Including her wins on the Ultimate Fighter, she’s made eight women tap. As a brown belt, she made tough outs like Paige VanZant look like an amateur on the ground. Even off of her back, she’s highly offensive and never stays there long before sweeping or taking the back.
While only Zhang and her team know the improvements she’s made both physically and mentally, on paper, it could be a very close fight. Rose has already beaten Zhang once this year, so it’s not like she doesn’t know a path to victory. She needs to stay at range, damaging with jabs and 1-2’s to let the finish present itself. She’ll have to be on her bike, which no one does as well as her because Zhang is going to come at her and try to tag her with long combinations.
If the fight goes to the clinch, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to pull guard to either attempt a flying submission or try and drag Zhang into her spiderweb on the mat. Especially if the fight goes into the later rounds and Zhang’s reactions and ability to explode are diminished, she can wrap up a triangle or rear-naked choke.
For Zhang, she wants to counter Rose’s jab with combinations and press in. The last fight between Rose and Jéssica Andrade gave a lot of hints at how to work through the rangy offense of Namajunas. Rose hasn’t shown a tendency to counter that much so far, so Zhang can hurt and score against Namajunas big time here. Every one of Zhang’s recent fights, she starts by firing off a series of low kicks, as she did against Rose in their first fight. This is a good plan to try and slow her movement, as long as she keeps her defense high. Over time, mix in the low kick with combinations to wear her down.
She can also use the wrestling she’s been picking up with Henry Cejudo to try and push the fight to the clinch. Zhang is strong here and could keep it up against the fence to throw elbows and hooks. Going for the takedown to the floor is ill-advised as dangerous as Rose is off her back. She has to resist the urge to go to the ground if she hurts Rose, and instead needs to channel the forward pressure on the feet.
A very likely scenario is that the fight goes much longer than the first, with Zhang landing the more damaging punches until Rose either scores a knockdown or pulls guard and get the submission later in the fight.
Prediction: Rose Namajunas def. Zhang Weili via submission in round 3
How to Watch: Rose Namajunas vs. Zhang Weili 2 is the co-main event of UFC 268, which airs on PPV exclusively on the ESPN+ app on November 6th, with the main card airing at 10pm EST / 7pm PST.