UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion Jessica Andrade will make her first title defense on Aug. 31 at UFC Fight Night Shenzhen in China against Chinese contender, and No. 6-ranked Weili Zhang. Despite the insinuations that the UFC is giving Weili the nod because the event is taking place in her home country, which is in a market where the promotion seeks to gain a deeper footprint, the 29-year-old is the sensible choice from a pure fighting standpoint.
Usually, the UFC and other combat sports promotions look to schedule local fighters to compete in their home states, regions or countries when possible. It helps engagement and attendance for the events thereby increasing revenue and exposure. Because Weili is still a bit of an unknown to most MMA fans, and because we’re aware of the UFC’s efforts to further establish itself in Asia where ONE Championship is currently having great success, it makes sense for members of the fighting community to have some initial skepticism about the matchmaking.
While the questions are understandable, make no mistake about it, Weili is a real contender. She’s currently 19-1 with a 3-0 record in the UFC with wins over Danielle Taylor, Jessica Esquibel, and Tecia Torres. That resume doesn’t read like a who’s who of the best strawweights in UFC history, but when you consider everything involved, it’s good enough for Weili to get the shot at a title.
If you take a long look at the current title picture in the women’s strawweight division, you can see there may only be one other opponent as or more deserving of a shot at Andrade’s title–and there is a good reason she isn’t getting the opportunity.
Let’s break it down.
Andrade just emphatically defeated Rose Namajunas to win the title in May at UFC 237. Namajunas was dominating the fight in the first round with her boxing and length advantage, but the powerful Brazilian was able to secure a slam that landed the champion on her head and knocked her unconscious. Because Namajunas was the reigning champion and winning the fight definitively at first, you could make the argument she is deserving of an immediate rematch.
However, according to Namajunas’ manager Brian Butler, she isn’t quite ready to return to the Octagon. Namajunas had a neck injury heal prior to the Andrade fight, and the slam landed her awkwardly on that area of the body. They aren’t reporting a serious injury from the fight, but it makes sense Namajunas would need some additional time to recover mentally and physically after the first stoppage loss from strikes in her career.
That pretty much eliminates the No. 1 contender.
Claudia Gadelha is ranked one spot ahead of Weili at No. 5, but she has a fight set up with Randa Markos for July 6. Aside from that, Gadelha is a perennial contender who has had one failed shot at the title against Joanna Jedrzejczyk back in July 2016. Gadelha lost her last fight in December to Nina Ansaroff, and you’ll almost never see a fighter get a title shot coming off a loss–unless they are a late replacement or getting an immediate rematch after losing the title.
Also, Andrade has already beaten Gadelha in September 2017.
Even if she hadn’t already lost to Andrade, the hesitancy to give a fighter coming off a loss a title shot probably would have taken Gadelha out of the running, as well as No. 3 Ansaroff (who just lost to No. 2 Tatiana Suarez on Saturday), and No. 4 Jedrzejczyk. In Jedrzejczyk’s defense, her loss came in a different weight class as she challenged Valentina Shevchenko in a battle for the vacant Women’s Flyweight title. Still, it was a loss and Jedrzejczyk has already lost to Namajunas twice.
It’s tough to give Jedrzejczyk a trial at the title before Namajunas gets a reasonable amount of time to prepare for her rematch, which according to Butler, she still wants.
The fighter with the strongest case to get the opportunity before Weili is Suarez. She came into Saturday’s fight with Ansaroff as the No. 2-ranked fighter in her division. A win over the No. 3 contender would seemingly make her next in line for the championship. Suarez has certainly earned a title shot in her next fight with the win over Ansaroff, but there are just 11 weeks between Saturday’s bout and the scheduled defense for Andrade.
Not everyone will comply or is capable of the kinds of quick turnarounds we saw from Donald Cerrone and Angela Hill on Saturday at UFC 238. Suarez powered through a neck injury during the win over Ansaroff, so there is even more reason to believe August 31 might be too soon for her to take on Andrade. During the post-fight interview on Saturday, she expressed the desire to heal the injury before returning to the Octagon.
The UFC could have waited for her, but they are still running a business, and matching a worthy challenger like Weili, in her home country, against Andrade was too good to pass up. Suarez will get her time to challenge for the title, but for now, Weili was the right choice.