Cover photos courtesy of UFC on Instagram
When the official card was released for UFC 261, much of the card that was brought forward was, admittedly, a bit shallow in my view. Three title fights that punctuated by an immediate rematch of a washout we saw last summer, and Valentina Shevchenko facing off against another women’s flyweight who stands essentially no chance (although Andrade stands more of one than any other 125er Shevchenko’s faced to this point). But sandwiched in between two seemingly style-deficient title fights sits what I consider to be UFC 261’s true crown jewel.
Zhang Weili and Rose Namajunas will meet in the co-main event of UFC 261 with Weili’s status as the standard at strawweight on the line. This is, by far, the most competitive of the three title fights, as well as being the most compelling given their respective prior performances. Weili most recently went to hell and back to edge out a split decision against the inimitable Joanna Jedrzejczyk all the way back at UFC 248 in March 2020 (incidentally, the UFC’s last live pay-per-view with a full capacity crowd). Namajunas, meanwhile, avenged a previous title-changing loss to the aforementioned Jessica Andrade at UFC 251 back in July.
While that worn out saying “styles make fights” typically annoys the ever living hell out of me, sometimes it can be used appropriately to describe a destined and inevitable battle of attrition, as this fight may so accurately be. Strawweight’s two most unique characters has undoubtedly produced one of the most anticipated fights we’ve had in 2021.
The UFC’s queen of China couldn’t be returning at a more perfect time. At the conclusion of the slobberknocker between Zhang and Jedrzejczyk, the world essentially stopped- which is now why I’m almost positive that that fight was transcribed in the book of Revelation as a cause for the end of life as we know it. While I’m embellishing a bit, looking back, it does kind of feel that way though, doesn’t it? The last great memory we got as fight fans before a virus of biblical proportions forced us all to move indoors and abandon our Keto diets for one more akin to a daily routine of ordering Pizza Hut and binging Shameless on Netflix.
Okay, now onto serious business though. I’ve long called Zhang Weili a generational talent and while some people have understandably abandoned that mindset after the Jedrzejczyk fight, it reinvigorated it for me. Who else does that to Joanna Jedrzejczyk? Who else can stand with her and put her through the same hell she typically puts everyone else through? Weili’s style is the embodiment of what is becoming known as the “MMA base,” a style that isn’t hinged on a series of specific martial arts styles (although she is a traditional martial artist, as well), but rather a style based on being a dominant MMA fighter, someone who spends as much time doing jiu jitsu as they do kickboxing as they do pocket boxing as they do clinch work, etc. Nowhere has this style of fighter been more present than it is in Zhang Weili. And thanks to the Jedrzejczyk fight, we also learned just how rock solid her chin is and that her cardio can sustain an ungodly five-round war pace. This is not me saying she can’t lose, because this division is incredibly stacked and Namajunas has already shown that she can climb the mountain successfully, but good god is Zhang Weili a special talent. Even in a loss, I still don’t think that can be denied.
On the other side is the former strawweight champion Rose Namajunas, one of the most enigmatic fighters on the UFC roster. What’s fascinating about Rose is her stunning evolution through the teeth of the strawweight division at such a young age. Her rise was very similar to Weili’s, in regard to her essentially jumping right into the deep end of the division, albeit when the division was in its literal infancy. Namajunas has evolved from being the kid with outstanding back takes and chokes to the G.I. Jane who combines systems effortlessly and flows like a rose in the wind (I swear to god, no pun intended. Well, sorta…)
One susceptibility many thought Namajunas may have had after the first Andrade fight was that she was unprepared to face off against opponents gifted with purely raw strength, a la Weili. She proved in the rematch, however, that her answer to brutalizers is the same as it is to every opponent she crosses: speed, footwoork, and quick strikes. Namajunas is essentially poetry in motion when she’s flowing at her best rhythm on the feet, and my guess is that many people pegging her as having a shot this weekend are essentially betting her to play the matador to Weili’s bull this weekend.
X-Factor: The Ground
An aspect that is continuously getting overlooked is the capability of these two to both take the fight to the canvas and the strategy each one implements when it reaches that point, given that their ground skill is essentially opposite of the other. Zhang is a monster when it comes to her ground and pound, as evidenced in the Jessica Aguilar fight. She’s quick to bloody up her opponents and is Tony Ferguson-esque the way she implements elbow strikes. She is also effective off of her back, and if Rose shoots a naked double leg with no setup, Weili could easily throw a triangle or armbar into the fray. Rose, meanwhile, loves to use takedowns as a means of setting up transitions to get to favorable positions to set up submissions. Rose will often shoot for a single, then transition to the back almost immediately if her opponent overextends to either defend or counter the takedown, which makes her lethal in clinch positions. If she so chooses, Rose has also been shown to be capable of using bodylock and traditional martial arts takedowns effectively throughout her game. Just like every other aspect of this fight, the thought of a ground battle between Rose the submission specialist and Zhang the ground and pound maven just makes this duel even more interesting.
Honestly, this is a hard fight to predict. In my mind, it essentially comes down to the freshness of Weili. Did that year-long layoff benefit her after that war with Joanna? There is no definitive answer as each fighter handles a layoff differently. Rose has also been shown to struggle past round two in her last handful of outings. Round three was when Jedrzejczyk began to start coming into her own in their second fight, while Jessica Andrade, many theorize, could have finished Rose a second time had the fight been five rounds and not three. I think that’s essentially what we’ll see here. Rose will look sharp early and steal a round off Zhang, but Zhang’s pressure will fold her as the fight goes on, which I believe will result in a late TKO finish for the champion and her retention.
Prediction: Zhang via 4th round TKO
UFC 261 is yet another compelling card for the MMA leader here in 2021, and with a full capacity crowd on deck, get ready for two of the three best strawweights in the world (eyes on you, Tatiana Suarez) to blow the roof of the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.
Follow Johann on Twitter: @thejohanncastro
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