UFC 261 Preview & Predictions: Zhang vs Namajunas
By Cathal Geeney
It has been over a year since Weili Zhang successfully defended her strawweight title against Joanna Jedrzejczyk in one of the most exciting bouts of 2021. She makes her return in a fascinating showdown with former champ, Rose Namajunas.
Zhang is undefeated since losing her debut MMA fight and has looked incredible in her UFC career to date. The thirty-one-year-old is an expert kickboxer. She is light on her feet, with a more traditional Muay Thai stance, throws feints and looks to a very solid jab to set up her combinations. The first ever Chinese UFC champion possesses both speed and power. She is happy to wait on her opponent to make the first move, before countering with a powerful left hook or right straight.
Zhang fluently mixes in kicks, attacking the leg of her opponent as well as firing off spinning kicks to the body.
The reigning champions skills aren’t limited to striking. In terms of grappling, Weili has never been successfully taken down inside the UFC octagon. The Brazilian Jiu Jitsu purple belt is dominant on the canvas where she can land dangerous ground and pound attacks or look to add to her seven career submission victories.
As Zhang has been so dominant to date, she had not exactly been given an opportunity to showcase her grit and determination. But in her last meeting with Jedrzejczyk, Weili emphatically demonstrated that she has an iron chin, a relentless gas tank and refuses to quit. You would be forgiven for thinking that this will be a one-sided affair given the skillset of Zhang.
Yet, Rose Namajunas is also an exceptional fighter with a highly talented team surrounding her, led by head coach Trevor Whitman. The former strawweight champion is used to being written off and she will enter the octagon as the underdog for the fourth time in her last five outings.
The evolution of Namajunas has surprised many. Before stripping Jedrzejczyk of the belt back in 2017, five of her six professional victories (in addition to all three of her exhibition wins on TUF) had come by submission. As such, she was somewhat pigeon-holed as a submission specialist who excelled on the mat. And while her Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is top class, she has become one of, if not the most, talented stand up fighters in the division.
Namajunas is a long, rangy striker with precise movement and striking. Like her opponent on Saturday night, she also relies on a sharp jab to control and set up combos. The wide stance of Rose allows her to manoeuvre in and out of range when landing shots. She has many weapons in her offensive arsenal, switching stances and landing counter shots and an array of kicks. She can also exchange in the pocket, landing wide, dangerous hooks.
On paper, this is the most competitive and exciting fight of the night. Two highly skilled strikers will go to war to get their hands on the strawweight strap.
There is no glaring weakness in the game of Zhang for Rose to go after. Instead it will likely be the subtle attacks and adjustments that will be the difference. It will be very interesting to see if Namajunas tries to pressure Zhang and risk dangerous counter shots or if she relies on her speed and footwork to outland her opponent and fight on the outside.
Despite the ability of Rose, I think Weili might just edge this one. She should have the advantage in terms of power, and this may pay dividends as the fight goes into the championship rounds. The open stance of Namajunas will also allow Zhang to target the legs which could slow down the challenger.