Rose Namajunas retakes UFC strawweight title by defeating Chinese star Zhang Weili

Rose Namajunas retakes UFC strawweight title by defeating Chinese star Zhang Weili

Rose Namajunas retakes UFC strawweight title by defeating Chinese star Zhang Weili

By Amy Qin, The New York Times

Rose Namajunas knocked out Zhang Weili to recapture the Ultimate Fighting Championship women’s strawweight title Saturday night in Jacksonville, Florida, during what was billed as the first full-capacity sporting event held indoors in the United States in more than a year.

Around 15,000 mostly unmasked spectators were in the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena to watch the bout, in which Namajunas took Zhang down with a left head kick just 1 minute 18 seconds into the opening round. Namajunas first won the title in 2017 when she knocked out then-undefeated champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk in New York to win the 115-pound belt. Namajunas is the first woman in UFC history to regain her title, the company said.

“I did it again,” Namajunas, 28, nicknamed Thug, said through tears after her victorySaturday. “I am the best.”

The bout was one of three title fights on the UFC 261 card Saturday. Kamaru Usman successfully defended his welterweight title, cutting Jorge Masvidal down with a hard right hand jab in the second round. It was the second time in two years that the 170-pound champion, known as the Nigerian Nightmare, had beaten Masvidal, further cementing his legacy as one of the best welterweights in the history of the sport. The victory extended Usman’s UFC win streak to 14, now the longest among active UFC fighters.

“Jacksonville, Florida — y’all said you wanted violence?” Usman, 33, said to the crowd after the fight. “You’re welcome.”

Valentina Shevchenko retained her women’s flyweight title in a dominant performance against Jessica Andrade, landing seven takedowns before finishing the Brazilian fighter off just over halfway through the second round.

After the fight, the 125-pound Shevchenko told the crowd — and future opponents — not to bother looking for a weakness in her game.

“Don’t waste your time,” Shevchenko, 33, said. “There isn’t one.”

Zhang, of China, had been the favorite among bettors heading into Saturday night’s showdown. Although Namajunas is seen as a more precise, technically skilled fighter, Zhang is known for her strong kickboxing skills and sheer physicality, the product of a strict conditioning regimen. Zhang, who lost her debut professional fight in 2013, captured the UFC strawweight title in 2019 with a stunning knockout win against Andrade.

In her last bout, in March 2020, she successfully defended her title in a brutal five-round battle against Jedrzejczyk that was widely seen by UFC fans as the fight of the year. After that victory, Zhang, 30, the daughter of a coal worker, became a symbol of women’s rights and a national hero in her home country, with the state-run news media hailing her as “the most capable female fighter in China” and the “woman warrior of the East.”

Namajunas, who is Lithuanian-American, recently stirred controversy by framing the fight with Zhang as an ideological contest between freedom and Communism. “Better dead than red,” Namajunas said at one point, using a McCarthy era anti-Communist slogan. She later walked back her comments, saying she had never meant to personally disrespect Zhang.

As the bout got underway Saturday, the two fighters exchanged several kicks and jabs before Namajunas dropped Zhang to the mat with a left head kick. Namajunas then jumped on Zhang and started pummeling her with right hammerfists before a referee jumped in to declare a knockout victory. The loss ended Zhang’s 21-fight career win streak.

Immediately afterward, Zhang voiced frustration with the call, saying she thought it had been made too soon. Among commentators, though, and even among Zhang’s fans on Chinese social media, most agreed that it had been the right call.

Zhang later congratulated Namajunas in a post on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform.

“Only by defeating a great champion can I become a legend, and only by defeating a legend, can I become a new person,” she wrote. “Before, I aimed to win the UFC championship, but now I have a higher goal than the championship.”

“I hope UFC can arrange a second fight as soon as possible,” she added.

Rose Namajunas walks away from the ...
Gary McCullough, The Associated Press

Rose Namajunas walks away from the octagon after a UFC 261 mixed martial arts victory, Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Jacksonville, Fla. This is the first UFC event since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to feature a full crowd in attendance.

Dana White, the UFC president, also teased the possibility of a rematch.

“Obviously, the rematch — that’s a fun fight,” White told reporters at a media briefing after the event. “I think a lot of people would be excited about that fight.”

Such a rematch would draw great interest in China, where the UFC has been actively expanding its presence.

In recent years, the company has signed 14 Chinese fighters and several major partnerships with Chinese companies and organizations, including a deal with the Chinese Olympic Committee to help train the country’s athletes for the upcoming Summer Games in Tokyo and the Winter Games in Beijing next year. Much of that training is taking place at a $13 million training facility in Shanghai that the UFC unveiled in 2019.

The heavy promotion for Saturday’s event appeared to have paid off in China. Zhang’s fight was among the top trending topics on Weibo. After the fight, the platform saw an outpouring of support for Zhang, along with many calls for a rematch.

“We are all rooting for your comeback,” one user wrote in a message that was liked more than 4,000 times. “Fight on!”

Saturday’s event opened with two bouts that ended in TKOs due to stoppage. In the first bout, Anthony Smith defeated Jimmy Crute in the first round with a crushing kick to the back of Crute’s knee that appeared to turn his leg into jelly.

The second bout took even less time. Chris Weidman’s leg cracked in half as he opened the fight with a leg kick to Uriah Hall’s knee, in what some described as among the most gruesome injuries in UFC history. Weidman was taken out of the octagon on a stretcher to applause from the stunned crowd. White tweeted that Hall was the first fighter in UFC history to win without a single strike having been thrown.

“I hope he’s OK. I wish his family well,” Hall said after the fight, in an interview that was widely praised on social media. “Whatever rank I am in the future, if he gets well, I owe him this fight and I hope he can come back from it — you’re still one of the best, Chris.”

Rose Namajunas retakes UFC strawweight title by defeating Chinese star Zhang Weili