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Zhang reloaded for rematch

0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China Daily, May 12, 2022
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Joanna Jedrzejczyk poses for the cameras during the weigh-in for UFC 248 in Las Vegas on March 6, 2020. The Polish fighter will take on China's Zhang Weili (right) on June 11 in Singapore, with the winner likely to earn a shot at the world strawweight title against newly crowned champ Carla Esparza of the United States. [Photo/China Daily]

Recovered and recharged from her biggest career setback, Chinese MMA star Zhang Weili believes the painful process of losing the world title was an important learning experience for her as she readies for a mouth-watering rematch against Joanna Jedrzejczyk next month.

Both Zhang and Jedrzejczyk have suffered back-to-back defeats to Rose "Thug" Namajunas in the past when UFC's strawweight belt was on the line. Now they are primed for the sequel of arguably the greatest female MMA fight in history-an epic five-rounder won by Zhang via split decision in her first title defense against the Polish star in Las Vegas two years ago.

A month out from the June 11 rematch at UFC 275 in Singapore, Zhang is locked into her mission of becoming a more complete fighter following her two defeats to Namajunas last year.

"I think to go through the whole process of having been there, lose it and then go for it again, kind of makes an MMA fighter's career more complete and makes the athlete a true champion," Zhang, 31, told China Daily on Tuesday in an online interview from her training camp in Phuket, Thailand.

"If you look at all the top fighters in the division, from Rose to Joanna, they have all experienced it and I feel like I am right in the process now," said Zhang, who wrested the women's 115-pound (52-kilogram) belt off Brazilian brawler Jessica Andrade in August 2019 to become the Las Vegas-based organization's first world champion from China.

"After punching my way to the top and getting knocked down, I've learned and grown a lot to face any new challenges with a calm mindset and more resilience."

Jedrzejczyk defended the strawweight title five times before losing it to Namajunas in November 2017, a defeat which ended the longest reign the division has ever seen. With both women knowing each other's styles so well, Zhang is planning to deliver a fresh approach on this occasion.

"For sure, we both need to bring something new into the Octagon to take control in the rematch," said Zhang, an exceptional striker who owns a 21-3 win-loss record.

"I've been working on my wrestling very hard to combine my standing strikes with ground skills smarter and more efficiently.

"My goal is to dominate with a more all-round fight."

Jedrzejczyk, who is also an impressive striker with a solid background in Muay Thai and kickboxing, hopes to rely on her renowned striking skills.

"For this upcoming fight, I'm back to my roots," Jedrzejczyk told mmamania.com on Monday. "I will use my kicks, my combinations more. This is what made me so successful back in the day in Muay Thai and in MMA as well.

"So definitely I will use my old weapons more often because I know how good my ground game is, so I don't have to worry about being taken down like I was in the beginning of my career. I feel like after so many years, I'm a complete MMA fighter, not only a striker anymore."

Zhang's preparations in Phuket over the last two weeks have placed an emphasis on all-round skills, part of a longer-term vision to add more weapons to her arsenal beyond her ferocious striking.

The Chinese star spent eight weeks training at former two-division UFC champion Henry Cejudo's camp at Fight Ready in Arizona last year for her rematch against Namajunas.

Although losing that bout via split decision in November, Zhang showed her progression on the ground with plenty of takedowns and grapples at New York's Madison Square Garden.

Jedrzejczyk, however, believes she has what it takes to counter Zhang's improvements.

"Our last fight was very close, the decision could go either way," said Jedrzejczyk, who owns a 16-4 pro record and has not fought since losing to Zhang in March 2020.

"She was the champ, you have to do more to beat the champ… I am a very gifted athlete. Maybe I am not the champ right now, but I know my legacy, I know where the mistakes were made. I need to stay calm to bring all my tools to the Octagon in Singapore."

The ever-intriguing strawweight division served up drama on Saturday when veteran Carla Esparza (20-6) dethroned Namajunas (12-5) via split decision at UFC 274 in Rio de Janeiro. The shock result saw Esparza reclaim the belt seven years after losing it to Jedrzejczyk.

Whoever prevails in next month's rematch is likely to earn a title shot at Esparza, as revealed by UFC president Dana White last week.

"Of course I am always looking forward to winning the belt back," said Zhang. "I am just gonna have to start with preparing for the rematch as best as I can."

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