Preview and prediction for Weili Zhang vs. Rose Namajunas at UFC 261.
The UFC will be bringing three title fights with it to the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, FL, on April 24, as UFC 261 will be the promotion’s first event in front of a full, live crowd in over a year.
While Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal have control over the main event, there are also two women’s title fights, both of which are arguably more anticipated than the main event. And in what is perhaps the fairly unanimous early choice for Fight of the Night, the co-main event will feature the return of Weili Zhang, as she defends the UFC women’s strawweight title against former champion Rose Namajunas.
Having not lost since dropping her MMA debut, Zhang ran through Danielle Taylor, Jessica Aguilar and Tecia Torres before dominating Jessica Andrade in a 42-second TKO to win the UFC’s 115-pound title in her home country of China. Zhang’s only title defense since was her bloody, back-and-forth war with Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 248, with Zhang winning by split decision in what would be named 2020’s Fight of the Year.
Namajunas won the 115-pound gold from Jedrzejczyk at UFC 217 in a historic upset fashion before retaining it in a rematch at UFC 223. Namajunas lost the title in a second-round, slam-KO loss to Andrade at UFC 237. She didn’t compete for over a year until returning at UFC 251 in July, where she edged out Andrade in a rematch via a split decision.
Who will win at UFC 261: Weili Zhang or Rose Namajunas?
Namajunas will have slight physical edges, holding an inch in height and two inches in reach over the defending champ.
Looking at the FightMetrics, both women have high striking outputs, with Zhang’s numbers being quite higher — though her defense numbers also are clearly worse than Namajunas’. Some of that could be attributed to the brutal battle Zhang had with Jedrzejczyk.
Namajunas averages just under two takedowns per 15 minutes, and she’ll have an edge there with Zhang pulling off just a 23 percent of success in her takedown attempts thus far in the UFC. Zhang has had just three takedown attempts come at her, and she’s stopped them all.
Zhang brings about some great striking and pressure in the Octagon, and she seems quite willing to stand-and-trade in there with anybody. What’s going to be big in terms of Zhang’s performance here is the amount of damage she took in the fight with Jedrzejczyk and the time off she’s had since due to the pandemic.
What won’t help her is that the challenger has the physcial advantages. Combine that with a crisp boxing skillset, the battles she herself has had with Jedrzejczyk and Andrade — in spite of her own long breaks between fights — and her work under Trevor Wittman, Namajunas has a very realistic chance of pulling off a victory in this one.
Namajunas needs to use a couple of inches in reach she has to keep her distance and outbox Zhang while looking for timely opportunities to score takedowns. Zhang will need to keep that same takedown defense success she’s had in this fight (might be harder to say than do, but Zhang may be able to hold her own on the ground and/or stop most of the attempts) and continue to bring the heavy pressure she usually brings.
This fight is too close to call and probably too close to predict. Both women have their perfect arguments as to why they will win, and both have their questions.
If there’s one prediction that can be made more assuredly than the winner: This truly will be the UFC 261 Fight of the Night.
Prediction: Zhang via split decision
UFC 261 takes place on Saturday, April 24, 2021, live from the VyStar Arena in Jacksonville, FL. Follow along with FanSided for all your live news and highlights.