It’s a hard act to follow. UFC 248 may have been about the middleweights, and Israel Adesanya’s first title defense, but it was Weili Zhang vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk that stole the show. If you were a fighter competing for fight of the year, they stole that too. It was an incredible bout: the kind of back and forth struggle lesser beings would have forfeited. But not Zhang. And not Jedrzejczyk.
Strawweight is a fascinating division. It’s hard to imagine Zhang losing the title, but that doesn’t mean her hold on the division is hackproof. Rose Namajunas offers a unique stylistic challenge, with her more lateral style on the feet. Carla Esparza and Mackenzie Dern, meanwhile, have the potential to test Zhang’s ground game. This is all superficial analysis, so please don’t @ me about how “wrong” I am about whether or not Zhang vs. Esparza is actually a bloodletting. We’ll have that discussion soon enough. For now, let’s talk about the drama.
Get your s**t together, Dana White
I can’t make sense of this either, so let’s walk through the timeline together. Zhang versus Esparza could be next. Why? Because according to Dana White, Rose doesn’t want a title fight. ‘Huh?’ That’s what Rose thought too. But if you know Dana, then you know how this works. Whether it’s Nick Diaz, Tyron Woodley, Ben Askren, Alistair Overeem, Shogun, Jon Jones, or Dustin Poirier — sometimes people who fight for a living don’t want a fight. According to Dana. I don’t want to get too sidetracked here, but I think it’s important.
Maybe this is the only way Dana can rationalize the fact that it’s within Dana’s control to help fighters want fights. Or maybe it’s just the tried and true tactic of a bully: knowing full well these fighters have as much pride as they do, implying that they’re scared is an easy dog whistle. Any interest they have in fighter pay and fair compensation can be sidelined, and ignored. When White questioned whether Poirier wanted a fight with Tony Ferguson, he said that there were “a lot of different ways to turn down a fight.” Ah, yes. But it goes both ways, my good sir. There are a lot of different ways to guarantee that a fight takes place too.
If strawweight is to move forward, these are the kind of issues that have to be resolved. We can enjoy, and appreciate all the different matchups ahead of us, but if the behind-the-scenes machinery isn’t working — if matchups can be determined by in-office politics and implicit bullying — then the UFC may as well be a company of wannabe fighters.
2021’s Fight of the Year is brought to you by Women’s Strawweight: again
We can thank Zhang for this. She has such a hard-charging, direct style that it’s impossible to deter her strategy. If the Esparza fight happens, that is not the fight I expect to win fight of the year honors. Esparza has had a successful year. She’s undefeated in her last four. But her style remains a nickel-and-dime crapshoot of takedown attempts, necessary standup, and more takedown attempts. That’s not a criticism. It’s just her birthright: similar to Clay Guida, that’s just the only way they can win. Plus it’s not like Zhang’s ground game is some kind of x-factor: as soon as Jessica Aguilar tried to get it to the ground, Zhang took her down, destroyed her with elbows, locked in a triangle choke, and then finished her with an armbar.
However, I do believe Zhang vs. Namajunas will happen. Just like Dana’s list of “scared fighters”, many of whom would be on to beat the opponents they were supposed to be trembling in fear at, the fight will eventually happen. I consider it a lot closer than it may appear. You can look at common opponents, and what not, but I still see Zhang as having issues with movement. And I think all the ingredients are there for a great fight with Rose able to potentially discombobulate Zhang early, and fall into trench warfare late.
Get Dern a trio of non-title fights for 2021
Development doesn’t always have to be a sprint. Sometimes it’s a marathon. Not everyone is gonna smoothly transition into MMA from a BJJ background, and earn a title fight after three years like Demian Maia. And maybe that’s exactly who she is. Nonetheless, I didn’t necessarily think she showed good standup against Virna Jandiroba, but I also don’t care: improvement can be gradual, and in that context, I saw gradual improvement on a skill she’s completely new to, which is all you can ask of a fighter who until now has only ever dedicated her technical acumen to one art. Nonetheless, get her the right experience. The striking at the top of the division is high level. And she already lost to someone with lower level striking. Give her the right kind of experience, and 2021 will be the year the real MacKenzie Dern stands up (against the division’s best, not literally, but you know what I mean).