Few fights are truly great.
Great fights don’t just entertain, but have both fighters display technical prowess. There have to be high stakes involved, limiting the selection to title bouts or those with historical significance like Griffin vs. Bonnar. The fights which check all three boxes are slim pickings indeed.
Well, Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk put on one of the greatest MMA fights in history.
The champion Zhang shouldn’t have even received her original title shot. Jessica had knocked Karolina Kowalkiewicz senseless with a right hook and then slammed Rose Namajunas to win the title. So giving a title shot to Zhang after winning a decision over a skidding Tecia Torres seemed a bit daft. Well, the moment Michael Bisping uttered the words, “she can’t stay in the pocket!”, Zhang did just that. She caught Andrade with a couple of clean shots before lighting her up with a counter right hook and then kneeing her into oblivion.
Joanna’s credentials need no mentioning. Undefeated in her first 14 fights and defending the title 5 times, Joanna is the greatest strawweight in history. A world champion Muay Thai fighter, Jedrzejczyk is WMMA’s premier volume striker. At range she’d pick opponents apart with long kicks and straight punches until they wilted. Many women would desperately try to smother her, tiring themselves against her takedown defense while eating elbows and knees. A pair of losses to Namajunas and an ill-fated move to flyweight stunted her momentum, but a win over Michelle Waterson moved her next in line.
The opening rounds saw Joanna fighting as only she can; long punches and combinations punctuated by stinging leg kicks steadily accumulating damage. But Joanna found herself at a significant power disadvantage. Zhang didn’t have great combination striking, but she sat on her punches and picked her shots well. And after eating multiple kicks, Zhang caught one and fired a hard right hand down the pipe. Her kicks came with far less frequency than Joanna’s, but landed with depth and a weighty “thud.”
But, reminiscent of the Namajunas rematch, Joanna’s leg work paid off in rounds three and four.
Zhang was still dangerous, but she’d slowed visibly. Plus, she had the habit of jabbing once or twice before firing her right hand. Solid fundamentals to be sure, but predictable with a bit of observation. And Joanna, multiple world champion striker that she was, noticed. Joanna rarely had to worry about a right-hand lead, so she could be sure the first punch of a combination was a jab. She’d prep, wait, and then slip under Zhang’s right cross and counter. Zhang still got shots in, but the fight was 2-2 heading into the fifth.
Unfortunately for Joanna, the fight resembled the Namajunas rematch in another way as well.
Joanna showed a susceptibility to the left hook; it was two leaping hooks that stole her title and left hooks that hurt in the rematch. And it was Zhang’s left hook that made the difference. Despite losing rounds 3-4 to Joanna’s combination blows, Zhang landed several huge left hands. Whenever Joanna slipped under her right hand, Zhang would torque her body back around for a left hook. I’m not exaggerating when I say Zhang won every right-left hook trade she engaged in.
And this is all on top of the Frankenstein hematoma that Zhang inflicted with one of her few landed right hands in the third round.
Oh, and I believe Joanna now when she said the knockout loss to Namajunas was due to a weight cut. Those Makunouchi Ippo style left hooks could have knocked Magneto’s fillings lose and Joanna still kept coming. Her chin is validated. But Justin Gaethje, Chuck Liddell, and Mark Hunt will tell you that you can’t trade on your chin forever. And towards the end of the fourth round, Joanna slowed down. Not from fatigue, but sheer trauma.
Joanna fought the fifth round bravely but she couldn’t withstand Zhang’s power. She could no longer slip the right hands, instead eating them on the edge of the range. The left hooks that had shook her to her heels now crushed her nose across her face. Zhang, to her credit, caught a second wind and proceeded to drill Joanna. And the challenger (feels weird to say that), to her credit, survived.
Because WMMA has a smaller number of fights, participants, and shallower talent pool (for now at least) overall, it struggles to produce truly great fights. Well not only did Zhang and Joanna produce a great fight, but they also produced one of the greatest of all time.
Let me put it this way: what did either fighter really do wrong?
Shogun Rua had no business winging wide right hands against such a compact power puncher like Dan Henderson. Gray Maynard never should have let Frankie Edgar rest for a round after crushing him in the opener. Even the legendary Robbie Lawler vs. Rory MacDonald rematch involved the latter desperately throwing elbow shots from outside range and eating several fight altering shots in return.
Zhang and Joanna, on the other hand, fought as well as they possibly could. Joanna ate so much punishment not because she made mistakes, but because Zhang was just that good. And Zhang whiffed on a lot of shots in the middle round because Joanna was targeting her legs so much. We watched two of the greatest fighters in WMMA put on as close to a perfect as they could.
A fan’s dream. I’ll remember where I was when I watched this. And so will everyone else.