Asian MMA

Zhang Weili – A Rare Breed

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More often than not, once a fighter fights for a belt in a major organisation, you know their fighting style. This is especially evident when fighters win a belt, they don’t like to stray too far away from what got them into the position of world champion. Then you have the exception, Zhang Weili. The first-ever Chinese champion has massively altered her game, her fighting style and outlook on fights to become far more wrestling-heavy. We take a look at how Zhang Weili’s game has evolved, predict how good she could be and how far her ‘new’ style could take her.

Early UFC Career

Entering the UFC with a record of 16-1, Weili had finished a huge 15 of her wins. She debuted at UFC 227 with a decision victory over Danielle Taylor. During this fight, she largely controlled the distance using her superior length, striking ability and speed. The only takedown of the fight came when the two met in a highly contested clinch. The future champion was able to trip Taylor when she manipulated her balance.

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After the fight got to the ground, although Zhang did control her opponent, there was no real urgency to try and finish the bout and it was more about control, rather than effective damage or fight-ending sequences. She didn’t attempt a takedown for the remainder of the fight and picked up a unanimous decision victory.

Against Jessica Aguilar, Zhang landed a similar takedown off a chaotic clinch, manipulating Aguilar’s weight going backwards and landing the trip. On this occasion, however, she seemed far more willing to exchange with Aguilar on the ground, looking to land ground and pound, landing 39 ground strikes, mostly from side control. When she did progress her position into full mount, she quickly rolled to her back, attempting a triangle. After savage elbows, she quickly transitioned into an armbar finish. This was the first time we saw just how effective and just how brutal ‘Magnum’ could be on the ground.

She then took a huge step up in opponent when she faced Tecia Torres. Torres is notoriously quick, effective and many of her opponents look to take her down (Jessica Andrade took her down 10 times in the bout prior to her fight with Zhang). ‘Magnum’ landed 2/8 takedowns at a percentage of just 25%. When she did secure the takedown, she didn’t focus too much on damage, preferring to control her opponent and prevent her from getting back to her feet, gaining 2:30 control time.

When facing Jessica Andrade for the title, the fight ended far sooner than many thought it might. No wrestling exchanges occurred throughout the 42 seconds that this bout lasted.

Championship Regin

Zhang Weili’s epic fight with Joanna Jedrzejczyk, we all remember how full of action it was. What we tend to forget is that the champion shot for eight takedowns, securing one. With that one takedown, she was only able to control Jedrzejczyk for 30 seconds. Yes, this fight was predominantly on the feet, but her takedown accuracy was poor, sitting at just 12%.

Facing Rose Namajunas, similar to that of the Jessica Andrade fight, the fight didn’t last long enough to warrant any wrestling exchanges. The fight was over in just 1:18 and Zhang suffered her first loss in seven years. This loss clearly was devastating and Zhang decided that changes were needed.

Having predominantly trained out of China her entire career, she made the move to the US to train with Henry Cejudo and the team at ‘Fight Ready’. It’s understood that the theory behind this was to improve her wrestling,  add another string to her bow and make her even more dangerous for the rematch with Namajunas. We clearly saw this in the rematch between the two at UFC 268 just seven months later.

Wrestling Heavy Approach

Against Namajunas in the rematch, we saw how working with Cejudo and the team at Fight Ready completely changed her game. During the first round, she was able to land her ‘go-to’ takedown. She achieved double under-hooks before manipulating the balance of Namajunas and then tripped her, getting her to the ground. This was a big moment in the fight as many believed that Zhang would be shooting for the takedown throughout. Although she was stuck in half guard, she worked hard in an attempt to get to side control, clearly a position she prefers to work from.

She wasn’t able to gain too much control time on this occasion, with Namajunas using her active guard to elevate Zhang and eventually fight back to her feet. What we did see in the first round is that she was yet to really have the ‘wrestling mindset’. There were opportunities for Zhang to shoot for a takedown as a result of long combinations from Namajunas. Instead of shooting, she chose to exchange with the champion.

Zhang landed a great takedown at the end of the third round, timing Namajunas’ left straight, ducking under and grabbing a double leg. She transitioned to a single leg as Namajunas posted her arm on the mat. Zhang quickly noticed this and tucked Namajunas’ head to complete the takedown.

We saw her fairly rudimentary wrestling game in the fourth round. She had the perfect opportunity to take the champion down, timing her low kick but falling into the takedown as she grabbed the leg from too far away. She didn’t have her legs behind her in order to drive through the takedown nor could she elevate or manipulate the balance of Namajunas. She was able to get the back of the champion and sit her down, however, the double leg was drastically unsuccessful. She was also taken down in the final round and controlled, ultimately leading to her losing the bout.

There is little doubt that she implemented a more heavy wrestling approach in this one, shooting for a total of 11 takedowns and landing five.

Jedrzejczyk 2

Zhang Weili faced Joanna Jedrzejczyk for a second time recently at UFC 275 in a rematch of their 2019 epic. We saw the evolution of Zhang’s game in this one without a doubt. She landed three of six takedowns, all of which were landed in the first round. Yes, the two women got after it straight away with heavy exchanges, however, she mixed the martial arts and landed multiple takedowns.

The Rare Breed

As we stated, often, when a fighter gets to the pinnacle of their career and win a title, they rarely switch up their style. Khabib Nurmagomedov was never going to turn into a kickboxer, he was going to stick to his sambo roots as that is what got him to the dominant position he was in when he won the belt. Israel Adesanya is highly unlikely to begin shooting for takedowns and look to work a Jiu-Jitsu game.

One fighter that has changed his game slightly is Kamaru Usman. Usman, since working with Trevor Wittman, has vastly improved his stand-up game. He’s become more willing to stand with all of his opponents, notably against Gilbert Burns and Colby Covington, where he shot for a single takedown throughout both fights.

There is a clear evolution in Zhang Weili’s game to the point that we don’t know what gameplan she’s going to implement next. If she finds herself unmatched on the feet, she’s more than capable of shooting for a takedown and working her ground control game. With that being said, we all know just how capable she is on the feet.

At 32 years old, she’s still evolving and the ceiling is still extremely high for China’s first UFC champion. She’s facing Carla Esparza in the co-main event this Saturday, where she will enter the bout as a favourite. What further evolutions will we see in the rare breed that is Zhang Weili next? We’ll have to wait and see but what we do know is that the future is exciting for Chinese MMA.

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Frazer is a 26 year old MMA and boxing enthusiast from Coventry, England.

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