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Rose Namajunas has a tough task ahead of her. The former champion makes a bid for a second title reign on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+ PPV) at UFC 261 in Jacksonville, Florida, against strawweight queen Zhang Weili.
Zhang lost her pro debut, a bout she says she never even thinks of now, and then reeled off 21 wins in a row. The last of those was an epic unanimous decision at UFC 248 on March 7, 2020, against Joanna Jedrzejczyk in what is arguably the greatest fight in UFC history.
Zhang hasn’t fought since that night, but she says it’s not why you may think. The UFC’s first Chinese champion said she was ready to return far sooner than she did despite the bruising nature of the bout.
“It’s not that I needed time to recover, because all I had was some bruises on my face,” Zhang told Yahoo Sports. “It was because of the pandemic. It was hard to travel out of China during that time, so I couldn’t do it. But I was fine not too long after the fight and ready to go. My job is to fight and that’s what I love to do.”
That’s the challenge that Namajunas faces. Not only will she meet an incredibly talented opponent, but she’ll see a physically tough and mentally strong one as well.
Zhang is -200 at BetMGM, while Namajunas is +165.
Namajunas thinks a lot, which in the fight game can be harmful. She was knocked out at UFC 237 on May 11, 2019, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, by a brutal slam from Jessica Andrade. Namajunas briefly considered not returning after that bout.
But when she made the decision to return, she specifically asked for Andrade, because she wanted to get the memories of that violent finish out of her mind.
She defeated Andrade by split decision on July 11, 2020, in Abu Dhabi at UFC 251, holding on after jumping out to an early lead.
“That was precisely my reasoning for asking for Jessica before I got to this fight [with Zhang],” Namajunas told Yahoo Sports. “I wanted to be all conscious and clear-minded going into this one knowing that I have everything it takes to beat Weili.”
Namajunas has had an up-and-down MMA career. She’s 7-3 in the UFC, but is 2-2 in title fights. She’s had the highest of highs, such as wins over Andrade, Jedrzejczyk (twice), Angela Hill, Michelle Waterson and Paige VanZant, but she’s also been at the bottom of the barrel when she was KO’d by Andrade.
As good as Zhang is, though, Namajunas believes in herself so completely that she feels she has numerous advantages over the champion.
It’s one of those things that makes her so difficult to beat.
“I think I have the advantage in many different aspects and ultimately, it comes down to me being the best version of myself,” she said. “When I do that, it doesn’t matter who I’m fighting. I’m the best in the world. But [maintaining my confidence] is, of course, a daily struggle. [Coach] Greg Nelson calls them ANTs. I forget what the acronym is for, but I think it’s 'always negative thoughts.'
“You have those negative voices and those doubts that creep in your mind sometimes, but you beat those up by consistent preparation, position affirmation and knowing what you are. For me, my communication with God is the most important thing. That’s how I’m able to do what I’m able to do.”
At the level that Zhang and Namajunas are at, though, it’s possible to be at one’s best and still lose.
Zhang, though, won’t admit to anything but confidence and positive thoughts. She’s used to winning and won’t think of anything but. She’s become famous in China and can’t walk down a street these days without being recognized and stopped by fans.
She insists the fame hasn’t changed her and said that while she believes Namajunas is “excellent,” Zhang’s confident of victory. UFC president Dana White told Yahoo Sports that if Zhang and flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko win their bouts Saturday, he’ll likely pair them next in a superfight between champions.
Zhang, though, wouldn’t even consider a match with Shevchenko at this point, not even hypothetically.
“When you start thinking about anything other than the opponent in front of you, that’s when you face problems,” she said. “The only thing I think about until this fight is over is Rose. I don’t let anything else get into my head. It’s Rose and only Rose. That’s how it works best for me.”
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