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Which Strawweight Can Actually Beat Zhang Weili?

UFC Tampa features an intriguing headliner in a division that doesn’t get a lot of main event quality exposure. Former strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk and fan-favorite Michelle Waterson will face off in a bout that will likely determine the next challenger to Zhang Weili’s belt. Jedrzejczyk has the championship pedigree, and Waterson has the momentum, but how do either, or any other top-ranked strawweight, actually match up with the Chinese queen of the 115’s? This article will focus on a list of hypothetical scenarios for each potential challenger in the mix, and just how big of a chance they may have.

A post shared by Michelle Waterson (@karatehottiemma) on Sep 9, 2019 at 7:54pm PDT

Joanna Jedrzejczyk

Assuming, of course, Joanna wins this weekend; she would all but be the definite contender for Weili’s first title defense. Joanna blends both Muay Thai kickboxing and traditional Muay Thai style subliminally. It led her to capture the belt in early 2015 and allowed her to keep it up until late 2017 when she relinquished it to Rose Namajunas. Since losing the belt, two of Joanna’s three bouts have been for a UFC title, rematching Namajunas in April 2018 and facing Valentina Shevchenko for the flyweight title in December 2018, losing both by decision sandwiching a win against Tecia Torres in July of 2018.

So let’s say Joanna beats Waterson and gets her title shot against Weili. It seems difficult to envision Joanna getting finished for a second time in her career, but against Weili, it would likely be a reality. Weili’s power, accuracy, distance control, above-average guard game, as well as an ability to make the fight dirty if needed, makes her a dangerous proposition for someone like Joanna, who has one sharpened skill and is mostly untested in other areas of her game.

Odds: Weili (-150), Jedrzejczyk (+130) – Weili’s pressure and accuracy prove too much for the former champ, as she retains her belt by finish, likely by KO or TKO, within the first three rounds of the fight.

Michelle Waterson

Waterson already has an uphill climb against the likes of Joanna on Saturday. If victorious, she’ll have enough momentum and fan popularity to likely garner a title shot against Zhang Weili. Waterson has quietly built up a 3-fight winning streak at 115, beating Cortney Casey, Felice Herrig, and Karolina Kowalkiewicz. She’s also the former Invicta FC atomweight champion. Waterson is known for striking from range, with her primary weapon being her kicks. She also has a now well-noticed grappling attack, always looking for “submission over position.”

Weili vs. Waterson would be, to put it mildly…one-sided. Technically, Weili holds the advantage everywhere the fight would take place. Better striking, better grappling- both offensive and defensive, more power, more creativity, better fight IQ, etc. The only advantage Waterson would carry against Zhang would be her experience at the highest level. While Zhang has more fights, Waterson has more experience at the sport’s highest level. Despite the experience, though, Weili carries the advantage everywhere in this fight. It’d be a quick night. And Still for the Chinese champ.

Odds: Weili (-400), Waterson (+365) – In what turns out to be a skill set mismatch, Weili wins by first or second-round finish.

A post shared by Rose Namajunas (@rosenamajunas) on Jul 20, 2018 at 12:40pm PDT

Rose Namajunas

The former strawweight champion is a fan favorite, and that status could propel her to earning another title shot despite losing the title in her last fight. Before the loss to former champion Jessica Andrade in her previous fight, Namajunas had been riding a 3-fight winning streak that included two wins over Jedrzejczyk and a submission win over Waterson. Primarily known as a grappler with outstanding submissions- specifically her rear-naked choke, Namajunas established her status as a more polished striker in her most recent bouts, having knocked out Jedrzejczyk once and knocking Andrade down in the first round of their May bout.

Zhang vs. Namajunas might be a more competitive fight than the two previously mentioned, but once again, Zhang would carry the vast majority of advantages in this hypothetical defense. Namajunas would, though, have the edge on the ground, which is someone who has faced Zhang so far in her UFC career can’t claim. In the striking department, Zhang would carry an advantage but not a massive one. She would hold the edge in power, distance control, and accuracy- albeit not by a considerable margin. Namajunas would probably last to a decision and take some rounds from Zhang, but it’s hard to envision her beating the most well-rounded fighter strawweight has seen.

Odds: Weili (-125), Namajunas (-105) – Weili wins a unanimous decision, 48-47 across the board, but Namajunas troubles her on multiple occasions.

A post shared by Jessica Andrade “Bate Estaca” (@jessicammapro) on Oct 10, 2019 at 1:10pm PDT

Jessica Andrade

The “battering ram” and the one Weili beat in 42 seconds to claim her throne atop the strawweight mountain; it seems unfathomable to imagine the same result a second time. Given what Andrade accomplished before losing to Zhang, in a pinch, a rematch could happen sooner rather than later. Even then, Andrade should have to get at least one win before considered by the UFC. Andrade is far from a polished or clean fighter, but her raw strength and power always make her a tough out. Another highlight-reel knockout win could quickly put her back in a position for a title opportunity.

If the rematch were to occur, I would expect Andrade to approach it far more conservatively and not bolt in swinging like she did the first time around. Even then, Zhang’s technical prowess would probably be too much to overcome, unless Andrade was somehow able to land a massive, staggering shot. Although, she’d only be able to do if she brawled- which, as we’ve already seen, doesn’t work against Zhang.

Odds: Weili (-165), Andrade (+135) – Weili wins a dominant decision, if not securing a late finish.

Warning long post: Yesterday was definitely a tough night. I had a really horrible neck injury going into the fight. I injured it again in the first round. I battled as hard as I could with a very bad neck and a numb arm. I didn’t have the performance I wanted but Im really proud of myself for battling through that injury and being able to get the job done. It tested me mentally and physically. This sport is very tough and battling through injuries during a fight is something fighters have to deal with. Im so thankful for the people I have by my side. You guys love me so intensely and it uplifts me in so many ways. It was great to compete in the wonderful city of Chicago! Thank you for all the people that cheered me on before I walked out you guys had me on the verge of tears. I want to thank my opponent Nina for showing up ready for war you’re and amazing fighter. I want to thank everyone who helped me get to this point. My coaches @super_betiss @romiearam thank you for believing in me. @chris_psycho_sykes i love you, thank you for being my biggest fan. My family @lisamom2four @juliaarose54 @ricky_steamboat @caseyscakes @stefani_spite_mma @breezy_everdeenmma @fam_ily1st @justjoedammit @ogredoubleg my sister in law Michelle, my big brother and my grandma for coming to support me. It meant so much to have you there. My meal prep company @seizes_meals for helping me with my weight. @sportsspecificrehab for helping me the last week with my neck. @drinkbodyarmor for helping me through my camp. These types of fights make you realize who the true supporters are. So, thank you guys for being the amazing, kind and genuine people that I love to have around. Time to heal up, become better and on to the next one. 🙏🏽 #perseverance #ontothenext #ufc #ufc238 #nevergivingup #wmma #mma #support #love #inspiration #motivation #mondaymotivation #inspire #goals #fightingspirit #modelo

A post shared by Tatiana Suarez (@tatianasuarezufc) on Jun 9, 2019 at 12:49pm PDT

Tatiana Suarez

Now, this is, in my opinion, the fight to make right now. It is a fight between the two tried and true best strawweights on the UFC roster at present. Suarez is undefeated at 9-0 and has looked unstoppable when healthy. Against Nina Ansaroff, she showed a bit of complacency in her striking game but revealed post-fight that she had an untreated neck injury. When healthy, we’ve seen Suarez dominate ranked contenders Carla Esparza and Alexa Grasso, as well as former top 15 strawweight and Invicta staple Viviane Pereira.

Zhang would 100% be Suarez’s toughest fight, and Suarez would undoubtedly be Zhang’s toughest test to date. It’s the only fight, at the moment, that would determine who currently is the one true strawweight queen. Suarez has been lauded by many as the unofficial, uncrowned champion, and Zhang has looked as close to unstoppable as one fighter could be in just 4 UFC appearances. Suarez’s grappling would present Zhang with problems she’s never experienced off of her back- so much so that she would be capped as a slight favorite. In contrast, Zhang’s striking would be far too crisp and dynamic for Suarez. Striker vs. grappler to determine who is the best. THAT is peak MMA.

Odds: Weili (+135), Suarez (-165) – No, that’s not a misread. Even after all the praise I’ve given Weili, there’s a genuine chance she’d be the underdog against the undefeated grappling monster that is Tatiana Suarez. However, in what turns out to be a competitive fight, Zhang wins a close decision with the x-factor being her distance control and anti-grappling. The result could very well depend on location and if “hometown judging” comes into play.

Again, my speculation and analysis are through performances seen so far by each woman mentioned. Reaffirming my belief that Weili truly is the best strawweight at present, there is no doubt that the crop of contenders standing in line will all make for great fights. Strawweight is the most exciting women’s division by far and rivals some of the best in the sport in terms of competition. Like I said in my Esparza-Grasso article, get ready for the chaos to ensue. We’re just getting started at 115.

Follow Johann on Twitter: @thejohanncastro

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