Zhang Weili has been the fighting pride of female Asian mixed martial arts ever since she arrived to the UFC in 2018. And now, fourteen months after surrendering her championship title to Rose Namajunas, China’s most decorated mixed martial artist in the UFC, is making her rise to the top once again.
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During her journey to becoming the first-ever Chinese champion in UFC history, Weili skyrocketed through the women’s strawweight rankings at an unprecedented rate. Three fights into her UFC contract and she was facing a savvy veteran in Tecia Torres, to then go on to defeat Jessica Andrade in emphatic fashion (via TKO).
Whilst some may argue that Weili was receiving her title opportunity after five fights was rushed, she was undoubtedly prepared for the task as she defeated Joanna Jedrzejczyk to make Chinese MMA history and become the newly crowned champion.
Weili is ready to emulate her past success and have another shot at Ultimate Fighting Champion (UFC) strawweight gold.
After losing two back-to-back championship bouts versus now-fellow former champ Rose Namajunas, Weili returned to her winning ways against a familiar foe.
The first meeting became an instant classic that will live on forever in the UFC’s library as one of the greatest 115lb bouts of all time, so it was fitting when the matchmakers booked the rematch for Joanna vs Weili at UFC 275 on June 11, 2022.
However, Weili left no doubts this time, displaying a highly improved offensive wrestling ability in round one, to then finish Joanna with a brutal – highlight reel – spinning back fist knockout.
UFC President, Dana White, stated before the contest that the winner of the rematch was likely to receive a chance at the champion, Carla Esparza.
As the old combat sports saying goes, ‘styles make fights, and when Carla Esparza grinded her way to earn a second career fight versus Rose Namajunas, Phoenix, Arizona opened its doors for UFC 274, where the highly anticipated rubber match would take place.
Esparza had already defeated Namajunas earlier in their careers; she was the first-ever strawweight champion. It had been a long grind for Esparza, fighting through a talent-stacked division, but she made it, and she got the job done.
Many critics doubted Esparza’s chance of success, and it was no surprise when she entered the contest as a betting underdog. Arizona sports betting is always busy when the UFC is in town, but those backing the champion were on the wrong side of history.
Esparza cashed the underdog ticket, and although it was an underwhelming performance, she’s unquestionably a problematic matchup for Rose.
Fast forward, and now the ‘styles make fights’ reference can be used again because I believe that Zhang Weili has all of the tools and more to outclass the current champ completely.
It’s a good job that fighters don’t book their fights because Carla Esparza has made it publicly clear she doesn’t want to face the former champ.
Weili had publicly suggested that UFC 281 in Abu Dhabi would be an ideal location for the two, but Esparza shot that thought down saying. ‘we’ll fight when I’m ready’.
A week following those comments, Esparza is now backtracking, suggesting that other fighters within the division are more deserving of the title opportunity.
“I don’t think Zhang is more deserving,” Esparza told MMA Fighting. “I think that Marina has won five straight; I think she’s beaten the top-level competition. She’s been staying active, and for me, she’s proven herself. She deserves a title shot. But for whatever reason, I’m sure there’s a lot that goes into it, and Weili is getting the shot.
“For me, I fight whoever’s put in front of me, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I think it’s fair or was the right call as far as the athlete goes.”
I would never suggest that a fighter is scared because they’re competing in the purest form of combat on the planet. However, I believe that Esparza recognises that Weili is the most difficult challenge for her stylistically, and she’d like to defend her title at least once.
To conclude, Dana White isn’t likely to go back on his pre-presser words from UFC 275, and we should expect Esparza vs. Zhang to be booked in the near future.
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