Zhang Weili vs. Rose Namajunas takes place at UFC 261 this April 24, 2021 at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida. The bout will serve as the co-main event to the welterweight title fight rematch between Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal.
One sentence summary
David: The oldest blood feud in the world: whatever can get you up for a fight.
Phil: Rocky 4 for the snowflake generation!1
Record: Zhang Weili 21-1, Rose Namajunas 9-4
Odds: Zhang Weili -190, Rose Namajunas +175
Introduction to the fighters
David: I didn’t think much of Zhang as a prospect, besides thinking it was cool that her background was in one of the more obscure martial arts (Shuai Jiao). But a quick armbar of Jessica Aguilar, and a dominating performance over the constantly-underrated-but-constantly-overmatched Tecia Torres made me change my mind. I believe I picked Andrade to beat Zhang, but she had shown me enough to make me think twice, and she’s been excelling inside the cage ever since.
It’s hard to say whether Zhang has the ingredients for a dominant champion. There are times when it seems like she’s still a novice. There are times when it looks like she’s still working out the kinks. There are times when I think maybe the competition at Kunlun wasn’t as easy as it looked (indeed, if you look at the records of her opponents, it’s a far cry from the stuff in North American shows). And there are times when I think maybe Zhang can end up the Aldo of her division.
Phil: I am also someone who tended to downplay how good Zhang was, which has made her ascent a pleasant surprise. It’s one of those weird situations where you find yourself attempting to reassess how you view prospects and what exactly that means: she’s a few years older than Namajunas, and has basically the same amount of MMA experience.
That being said, she is also undeniably someone who has blossomed with the exposure to the top level of the sport. Was she an ultraviolent finisher before she fought Andrade, or someone who could reasonably be expected to compete in a brutal stand-up war with Jedrzejczyk over 5? She might not be a prospect outside of traditional definitions, but she shows the rate of improvement of one.
David: Wait a minute. Hold up. How can I trust you, Phil? How do I know one of your British ancestors didn’t send a two-hundred year old Castillo railway money during the Pastry War? We were supposed to be allies! Are you a f’ing chiva man?! Sorry. If that lame bit doesn’t make sense to the casual observer, it’s because you missed Rose’s transformation from Mad Max cosplayer to political weirdo.
If Rose wants to take pride in her Lithuanian heritage, that’s fine. But there’s a difference between respecting history, and internalizing struggles that don’t belong to you. It’s 23 and Me bullshit wrapped up in performative patriotism. Does this have anything to do with the fight? To Rose it does. And that’s a shame because this matchup deserves a better class of shit-talking (or...ya know, none at all).
Phil: Holy shit Viggo Mortensen was in Carlito’s Way? I never knew! In answer to your question: yes, I am a chiva man. The chiva-est. Rose has always been a weirdo, but it’s normally been fairly internalized. To see her come out with some McCarthy-era Commie talk was a puzzler, especially delivered with her trademark laconic whatever-isms. I guess it’s always been a crapshoot as to what will get to Rose: she seemed perfectly comfortable with Joanna’s mindgames, but for this fight she’s been taking this weird culture-clash angle. Maybe she feels like she needs some hostility from the opponent? Who knows.
What’s at stake?
David: Besides the pride of Lithuania?
Phil: Seeing as the UFC has stuffed the prelims with relatively unknown Chinese fighters, gotta figure that this is the one where they want to really springboard into the region with a Zhang win.
Where do they want it?
David: Zhang’s style looks brutish on the surface. From the outside, she pokes and prods with kicks, and then crashes in with strong combinations. Her skills beyond that are fairly minimal. I’m not sure I’d describe her as a cage-cutter, but she doesn’t simply hang back. She moves forward incrementally and, to pressure, she has access to side kicks, clinches, and threatens with the overall package of striking hard when she comes in, and countering hard when opponents come in. She doesn’t necessarily have counterstriking skills, but her ability to simply take shots, and fire right back achieve something functionally similar. I feel like we’re still learning about her despite Zhang having established herself as the division’s best. Earlier in her career, she had more a midrange-slash-inside, Muay Thai approach to striking. As she’s gotten better, she’s displayed more movement, and more angles.
Phil: I think Zhang has developed more and more into an aggressive counter puncher over her time in the UFC, and her development in general has been consistent. Together with Connor I talked about the lack of a left hook in her game... and then she showed a great one in the Jedrzejczk. She still doesn’t have much of a range closing game, coming in as she does behind a stepping low kick, which will be an interesting puzzle against someone as mobile as Rose, but once she is in exchanges Zhang is hard-hitting and accurate. She’s very good at defending kicks, whether it’s catching or countering, and is of course a physical force in the clinch.
David: Rose started out a fluid, unfocused pressure fighter. Now she’s a fluid, focused pressure fighter. She’s one of the more agile strikers in MMA, shifting – almost phasing – off the centerline to keep the strikes coming from all angles. She does a good job of really mixing up her punch entries, pumping the jab on her front and back foot, leading with a straight right, keeping the counter left option open, etc.
In some ways – despite whatever manufactured historical grudge their socia-economic bloodlines carry – they’re a lot alike. Both fighters hold an equal balance of proactive and reactive lines of attack in their disposal. I don’t think the ground will factor in this fight for the sole reason that Zhang is hard to take down, Rose isn’t a forceful wrestler, and both would probably prefer to get violent in the clinch.
Phil: Rose is an intriguing, frustrating mixture of great and underwhelming. Her timing and rhythm control are among the best in WMMA, and she does a fantastic job of hiding the jab with the hook, or throwing away right hands to set up jabs, or simply sitting down on her right hand. Courtesy of her wide base and long frame, she’s one of the most mobile fighters in the division, and her Wittman-trained punching mechanics mean that she hits shockingly hard. She’s a nasty clinch fighter and sprint sub grappler, but as soon as clinch or grappling exchanges go past one layer, she’s often in trouble.
The same is generally true for Zhang: if she’s consistently put on the back foot in the striking she starts to run out of ideas, physically trying to shove the opponent back to safer range, and starts to get tired. In general she’s an incredible offensive force who needs some time and distance to recharge. She’s gotten better at managing that trait (Jedrzejczyk, Andrade 2) but it’s still there.
Insight from past fights
David: Their respective fights with Joanna are the obvious comparison. I think that’s an important point of reference. Both struggled to pull ahead for different reasons: Zhang, because Joanna was able to keep landing at a high rate until the final bell; and Rose, because Rose’s output couldn’t compete with Joanna’s. However, against Andrade, I think we got a closer glimpse into how this fight could be sequenced. Zhang has more structural similarities to Andrade than Jedrzejczyk.
What stood out to me in Rose’s rematch with Andrade is how she seemed to fade pretty hard in the final two rounds. Part of that is a credit to Andrade who really adjusted well, and kept her attack telegraphed (punches moving forward), but not predictable (never looping the same strikes on her entries). But another part is Namajunas wanting to put on a clinic, when she should be going ‘Dr. Giggles’ on an opponent. Her game has gotten too clean over the years. There are merits to that. But at the highest levels, where every tactical/strategic inch can make the difference (i.e. McGregor vs. Poirier 2)....
Phil: The Joanna fights also show something interesting about how the two of them manage their gas tanks: Rose is famously not the most durable fighter, but one of the stories of that fight was how she came out hot to start every round, often building up an unassailable lead over Joanna, even when Rose faded later. Conversely, Zhang would often start rounds looking knackered, and then gather a second wind a couple of minutes in and pulling back into it. It could make for some really, really back and forth round dynamics.
David: While Rose has done what she can to muster animosity for ‘The Other’, it’s clear that one documentary and a few stories around the family campfire won’t derail her attitude going into the fight. Psychologically, there was more fire from Joanna before their first bout, and Namajunas went in guns blazing, and blitzed her out in the first round. For Zhang’s part, she seems to be taking the correct approach to Rose’s fast food chronicles: ‘who gives a shit?’
Phil: Rose is just always an X-Factor. After the Andrade fight and the bus incident, it sounded like she genuinely might not want to be in the sport any more. Zhang, conversely, has been a bastion of happy confidence. I have zero doubts in her commitment.
David: I struggle with this one. I could honestly see Rose running away with this fight. She has the cleaner entries, the cleaner exits, with speed and power that doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Zhang has predictable counters, and telegraphed combinations. Simply using the grit, grind, and grease of combat to beat your opponent can work, but will it? It worked against Jedrzejczyk because Jedrzejczyk has to sit down for her combinations, and doesn’t exit as quickly. Not only that but I think Rose’s entering straight right, and exit left hook may be the best strikes in the fight. Zhang has the power to win. And more importantly, she has the durability to hit with power in the rounds I expect Rose to struggle with. But I expect a case of ‘too little too late’. Rose Namajunas by Decision.
Phil: I also think this one is genuinely hard to pick. On the one hand, Zhang is quite plodding and hittable, and Rose can cover distance and then get out in a way which Joanna simply couldn’t. She is just not reliant on her reach as much as Joanna, and hits way harder. On the other hand, Rose has not been un-counterable and just can’t be wholly trusted against any powerful, consistent athlete. Zhang has also shown technical improvements every time out. I think I’ll also take Rose, just for the ability to pick up and early lead, and for her ability to recover between rounds and start them strong, but it’s a very, very difficult fight to call. Rose Namajunas by unanimous decision.