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Considering the circumstances that preceded the event, one could have forgiven Weili Zhang if she didn’t perform up to her usual standards at UFC 248.
As the coronavirus initially took hold in her homeland, Zhang was forced to relocate her training camp from China to Thailand and finally, Abu Dhabi. Preparing to face Joanna Jedrzejczyk, perhaps the greatest strawweight in promotion history, would have been difficult enough by itself. The upheaval that occurred as a result of a burgeoning pandemic made things even more challenging.
"I flew to Abu Dhabi on Feb. 7 after spending a week in Thailand," Zhang told ESPN prior to UFC 248. "At the time, I was a bit frustrated and very emotional because I had just got used to Thailand.
"In Thailand, I had two local coaches that I could talk to, at least. But I knew nothing about Abu Dhabi, so I was really upset and stressed out. Then I called my mom and told her I was upset. She told me there were a lot of people in China fighting the virus, and I shouldn't be the one complaining just because I needed to travel around. She said those doctors and nurses didn't even have time to sleep, and that I should be grateful and overcome the difficulties. My mom's words gave me a lot of confidence at that time.”
As it turned out, a little adversity didn’t faze the strawweight champion. When the dust settled on March 7 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Zhang and Jedrzejczyk had collaborated to put on what many were calling the greatest female fight of all-time.
“It’s one of the best fights I’ve ever seen,” UFC president Dana White said at the event’s post-fight press conference. “Right here, off the top of my head, I would have to say yes, best women’s fight I’ve ever seen, one of the best fights I’ve ever seen.
“That’s definitely a Hall of Fame fight. 100 percent. My phone was going crazy during that fight. Everybody was blowing me up, saying it’s the greatest fight they’ve ever seen.”
It holds up, too: Now more than nine months in the rearview mirror, Zhang vs. Jedrzejczyk is still a clear-cut selection for Sherdog.com's “Fight of the Year” for 2020, comfortably surpassing a late bid from the flyweight championship headliner between Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno at UFC 256 on Dec. 12.
It was only fitting, then, that an all-time classic such as this one would turn out to be the last UFC fight held in front of a capacity crowd in 2020.
From the outset, it was clear that neither Zhang nor Jedrzejczyk would back down from exchanging. Zhang appeared to have the power edge, as she backed her Polish opponent up on multiple occasions with powerful counters in the opening stanza. The left hook and straight right were the weapons of choice for the Chinese star, who would prove she was capable of going into deep waters after claiming the strawweight throne with a 42-second stoppage of Jessica Andrade in August 2019.
“You can see the power difference,” UFC analyst Daniel Cormier said on the broadcast. “It’s big, man.”
Despite absorbing heavy punishment, Jedrzejczyk was plenty resilient. The former champion consistently fired back with punching combinations and kicks, appearing to grow stronger as the bout progressed. A hematoma would begin to form on Jedrzejczyk’s head after Zhang caught a kick and landed a counter right late in Round 3.
Over time, the swelling would grow to freakish proportions.
“Joanna Jedrzejczyk has a Frankenstein forehead right now,” veteran UFC commentator Joe Rogan quipped.
It still wasn’t enough to slow the woman once known as “Joanna Champion,” who actually landed with greater volume than Zhang. According to UFCStats.com, the American Top Team standout held a 186-to-165 advantage in significant strikes over her Chinese opponent after 25 minutes. However, statistics alone do not account for Zhang’s impactful punches, and many of the rounds were too close to call. In three frames — Rounds 1, 3 and 4 — both fighters landed an identical amount of significant strikes.
Down the stretch, Zhang put one more lasting stamp on the bout. With Jedrzejczyk’s hematoma still growing, the champion landed a left hook in the final round that mangled her adversary’s nose. Jedrzejczyk responded with one final salvo, wobbling Zhang with a spinning backfist in the waning seconds. When the horn sounded, Jedrzejczyk looked in the direction of White and rubbed her fingers together, the universal symbol for “money.” Any witness could agree that both women earned their paycheck — and then some.
Ultimately, it was Zhang who emerged with a split-decision triumph, but Jedrzejczyk’s stock — already plenty high from a lengthy championship reign of her own — was raised in defeat. In an interview in the Octagon, Zhang’s translator needed a moment to compose himself, and he was counseled by Rogan in a comical moment amid the post-fight euphoria. Eventually, he was able to relay Zhang’s words to the masses.
“I wasn’t really sure [what the scorecards would say],” Zhang said. “It was a great performance.”
An understatement, to say the least. Though understandably disappointed, Jedrzejczyk was all class in defeat.
“She did great. There was something missing, but I felt all the punches,” Jedrzejczyk said. “The swelling was bothering me. Congrats champ, and I’m very happy that we gave a good fight.”
Neither Zhang nor Jedrzejczyk would fight again in 2020, but after the show they put on in March, rest was well deserved. It seems inevitable that they will cross paths again someday, though an immediate rematch may not be in the cards. What is clear is that the promotion seems to have big plans for Zhang.
“There’s a certain pattern when you’re building someone and you’re trying to build them into a star,” White said. “We did it with Conor McGregor, we’ve done it with Ronda [Rousey], we’ve done it with all the greats. And we’re gonna do it with her.
“She’s gonna be a massive star. The fighting sport is so crazy you gotta keep winning. If you keep winning, you’re gonna be a star.”