UFC 268 Preview & Prediction: Weili Zhang v ‘Thug’ Rose Namajunas

UFC 268 Preview & Prediction: Weili Zhang v ‘Thug’ Rose Namajunas

By Cathal Geeney

Weili Zhang has been granted an immediate rematch after giving up her strawweight title to Rose back in April of this year.

If history is anything to go by, this may not bode well for the Chinese challenger. The last six fighters granted an immediate title rematch have all been unsuccessful in their attempts.

Yet this is not likely to faze Zhang. She appears laser focused in the build-up and has moved to the US in recent months to train under the tutelage of Eric Albarracin and Henry Cejudo.

Weili was caught cold early in their first fight after Rose feinted a low kick but instead landed crisp to the head. Weili is an expert kickboxer and will be working on adjustments to prevent a repeat occurrence.

The thirty-two-year-old is light on her feet, with a more traditional Muay Thai stance, throwing feints and looking 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.

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. It will be very interesting to see how her new team will help her further improve her MMA grappling. This may give her an edge on the night.

Despite the many skills of Weili, Thug Rose has already proved she has the ability to defeat Weili and will be confident she can repeat this feat. Namajunas is an exceptional fighter with a highly talented team surrounding her, led by head coach Trevor Whitman.

This is the second reign of Namajunas as the strawweight champ, and she did not shy away from speaking about the burden of being champion first time around. But it seems that the queen of the 115-pound division has grown in confidence and is now more comfortable handling the pressure that comes with holding the title.

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 classed 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.

Prediction:

On paper, this is the most competitive fight of the night. Two highly skilled strikers will go to war to get their hands on the strawweight strap. A big discussion point relates to how relevant was their last bout given the short nature of it.

Some feel this was a one-off fluke and did not necessarily prove that Rose is the superior martial artist. And to those, it may be worth referring back to when Namajunas first won the title by KO in the first round over Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Rose demonstrated in the immediate rematch that the first KO was no fluke.

Zhang is an incredible competitor. I’m excited to see what improvements she brings to her game since moving to the US. I expect her to try and disrupt the flow of Rose with increased grappling and attacks to the leg.

I have found myself going back and forth on this one repeatedly. Last time out, I picked Zhang, and I was very close to making the same pick this time around. But having looked back at the growth of Rose Namajunas a fighter, the tight knit team she has around her, and her will to overcome obstacles, I am going to take the Wisconsin native to have her hand raised once more.

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