The UFC is expected to have strawweight champion Jessica Andrade defend her belt for the first time against Weili Zhang on Aug. 31 in Shenzhen, China. News of the matchup caused many fans to question why Zhang, ranked No. 7 in ESPN’s 115-pound rankings, was selected over other options, including Tatiana Suarez, Michelle Waterson and even a rematch with Rose Namajunas.
Zhang (19-1) has won 19 fights in a row, three in the UFC, after dropping her professional debut in 2013. She is coming off a unanimous-decision win against Tecia Torres at UFC 235 in March.
Did the UFC get it right? Our ESPN MMA team — Brett Okamoto, Ariel Helwani, Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim and Phil Murphy — gives its take.
Helwani: It depends on what you mean by “get it right?” Does it make sense to have a Chinese fighter challenge for the belt in China for the first time in UFC history? Of course it does. It makes great business sense. I have said on numerous occasions that I think Zhang is one of the best young prospects in the sport. She has impressed in her first three UFC fights. That said, I am quite certain that if the UFC didn’t have a show in China coming up that she wouldn’t be next in line for a title shot. Was there any talk of her being next for Andrade before this news broke? No way. It came out of nowhere.
Now, we know Tatiana Suarez will be out for a while with an injured neck and Rose Namajunas isn’t ready to come back. So with that in mind, I would have given the shot to Michelle Waterson, who is one of the promotion’s most popular fighters and is on a three-fight winning streak. But I guess it’s hard to turn down the allure of a potential Chinese champion. Let’s be clear: This isn’t an egregious call by any stretch. Zhang is good and on a roll. Far less deserving fighters have fought for the belt. It just seems a bit off because it was so unexpected and feels like a decision based largely on capitalizing on a (potentially very lucrative) market more so than anything.
Raimondi: It really depends on your definition of “right.” From a business standpoint, the UFC headlining its third-ever card in mainland China with the first Chinese-born title challenger in promotion history is a stroke of genius. The UFC is aiming to make big strides in China over the next few years, including the opening of its second UFC Performance Institute in Shanghai soon. So, yes, Zhang in a title fight in Shenzhen is terrific promotion.
Is it terrific sport? Well, that’s a different story. Zhang is legitimate, a real threat in the women’s strawweight division at 3-0 in the UFC and 19-1 overall. She has not lost since her pro debut in 2013. However, based on résumé, Tatiana Suarez and Michelle Waterson have a better case for a title opportunity right now. In the UFC’s official rankings, there are five women ahead of Zhang, including former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who already owns a win over Andrade.
Zhang getting the nod here isn’t nearly as bad when you consider Suarez has a neck issue she reinjured last weekend at UFC 238 against Nina Ansaroff and won’t be ready. It’s just pretty transparent why it’s happening now.
Okamoto: This is not a matchup many expected (at all). So, of course, the immediate reaction is that it doesn’t feel right. But speaking to the parties involved, I understand how we got here. And I’m not opposed to it.
For starters, the UFC was not opposed to an immediate rematch between Andrade and Rose Namajunas, but Namajunas is dealing with an injury and is not available. Tatiana Suarez is deserving, but she’s also injured and (as I wrote in my ‘What’s Next’ column this weekend), I think Suarez would benefit from one or two more fights before a title shot. Her game is still developing, and I want to see her at her best in a championship fight.
Michelle Waterson is certainly in title contention, but I never thought she solidified herself as the No. 1 contender. She’s on a very nice run, no doubt, but there are several names ranked ahead of her. If anyone is being wronged here, it’s probably Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who is still ranked highest, despite three losses in her past four fights. A very important piece in all of this though, according to multiple sources, is the UFC was having a hard time finding Zhang a fight. They wanted to book her in China (obviously), but none of the strawweight contenders would accept. Andrade was willing to take the fight, so the UFC jumped on it.
Zhang is not a household name, but she’s won 19 fights in a row and do not mistake her for an easy out here. All things equal, I think Jedrzejczyk is the “right” No. 1 contender at strawweight, but taking all things into account, this decision is not as “out of left field” as it may initially seem.
Wagenheim: There’s a maxim in real estate that the three most important factors in home-buying are location, location, location. (Right, Al Iaquinta?) Well, this matchup would not have been made if the UFC weren’t headed to China this summer or if Weili Zhang were from Canada or Croatia. It’s a business decision.
However, this is not an egregious money grab like what Dana White was trying to pull off with cash cow Brock Lesnar and an unearned heavyweight title shot. Zhang is 19-1 and a legit No. 7 in ESPN’s strawweight rankings. She’s just not as worthy as No. 4 Tatiana Suarez, who remained undefeated with Saturday’s win over fifth-ranked Nina Ansaroff. It all comes down to the almighty yuan.
Murphy: We need to distinguish between analyzing whether the UFC got Jessica Andrade’s first title defense right and whether it got it wrong; it’s not binary.
None of Rose Namajunas, Tatiana Suarez or Joanna Jedrzejczyk, for varying reasons, are the clear-cut next in line. Rose looked incredible for the entirety of UFC 237’s main event before getting knocked out, but she needs time to rehabilitate her neck. Suarez is unbeaten and the apparent next big thing, but she admits she needs to address a neck injury of her own. Joanna is the all-time strawweight queen and holds a dominant win over Andrade, but she is 1-2 in her past three fights at 115.
Weili Zhang won the sweepstakes, mostly because the target card is in her home country of China. But Zhang isn’t ill-deserving. She’s 3-0 since joining the UFC. Like Joanna, Zhang holds her last strawweight win over Tecia Torres. Unlike Rose and Suarez, Zhang is healthy. She’s riding an active 19-fight win streak, longest in any women’s division, with 16 stoppages, very high for a strawweight.
Maybe all Andrade-Zhang accomplishes is building Andrade’s star in a dominant win while allowing other contenders to hash out their differences on adjacent cards. That doesn’t make Zhang the right challenger. But it doesn’t make her the wrong one, either.