Zhang and Jedrzejczyk Set New Bar for Women's MMA After Classic at UFC 248

Kelsey McCarsonFeatured ColumnistMarch 8, 2020

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 07:  Weili Zhang punches Joanna Jedrzejczyk to a split decision win at T-Mobile Arena on March 07, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

The bar was raised for women's MMA Saturday in Las Vegas after Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk threw down for 25 brutal minutes in an epic five-round war that ended with judges awarding the split-decision victory to Zhang (47-48, 48-47, 48-47).

Heck, the bar was raised for MMA in general. It's a shame that neither UFC 248 main event fighter, Israel Adesanya or Yoel Romero, seemed to get the message. 

Because while Adesanya and Romero stunk it out in one of the most appalling championship fights in UFC history, Zhang and Jedrzejczyk did credit to the entire MMA world by providing some of the most scintillating action that had ever been seen inside the Octagon. 

The two women entered their co-main-event battle counted among the top women's strawweights in MMA history, and both fighters' profiles should only be raised. 

Kevin Iole @KevinI

One of the best fights -- MALE OR FEMALE -- ever.

Zhang, 30, was making the first defense of her women's strawweight title. There was an idea beforehand among some in the sport that the first UFC champion from China might be too strong an opponent for even Jedrzejczyk to muster a defense against. 

Those people were wrong, but they had decent reasons for thinking the way they did. After all, Zhang entered Saturday on a 20-fight win streak. She had gone 4-0 in the UFC, and her overall finish rate of 85 percent told the tale about as well as any stat ever could. Zhang wrecked people. 

Perhaps that's why she seemed to have already become one of UFC President Dana White's most beloved stars. Part of that, of course, might simply be because Zhang's continued dominance would open the door for UFC to gain more of a foothold in the coveted Chinese market, where the company could offer its sensational product to nearly 1.4 billion people who would have a champion to honor. 

She's the "Trojan Horse for the UFC in China," as Yahoo Sports' Kevin Iole put it. 

But the bigger part is probably just how amazing a fighter she is. 

"Have you watched her training?" White asked reporters earlier this week, per Iole. "They had a video of her punching the other day. And I'm telling you right now, she throws punches better than 99.9 percent of the men that I've ever known in my entire career."

All of Zhang's talents were on display against Jedrzejczyk.

But Jedrzejczyk's legacy was on the line in Las Vegas, and she fought like it. 

Sure, the 32-year-old from Poland had been the longest reigning women's strawweight champion in company history. She was the first UFC champ from Poland. She had claimed the most UFC wins, at 10, in the history of the division. She had landed the most significant strikes among all women's strawweight at 1,447. Better than that, Jedrzejczyk entered her contest fifth in UFC history in the same category among all fighters in all weight classes. 

So Jedrzejczyk wasn't just fighting for street cred. She's had that for years. But what she was fighting for was placement among the Mt. Rushmore of women's MMA. Ronda Rousey. Amanda Nunes. Cris Cyborg. Jedrzejczyk carried similar accomplishments into UFC 248 as those greats, but with much less of the accompanying accolades. 

Why was that?

Jedrzejczyk won the strawweight belt from Carla Esparza in just her third UFC fight. She defended it five times. She put together a run of 966 days wearing UFC gold around her waist from March 2015 to November 2017.

Shouldn't she be on that same list?

But Jedrzejczyk possesses something none of the other all-time great women's MMA fighters do. She competed in one of the all-time great fights in UFC history against another all-time great fighter. 

The action was mesmerizing. 

"It just seems like they're both landing, and they're landing at the same time," Daniel Cormier said as he called the action alongside Jon Anik and Joe Rogan during the ESPN+ pay-per-view. 

UFC @ufc

WARRIORS. 👊 Weili and Joanna putting it all on the line for the right to be called champion! 🏆 #UFC248 https://t.co/uav5jTjn4B

Jedrzejczyk's defense, slight edge in distance fighting and overall volume gave Zhang problems she never had to solve before. But Zhang fought through those puzzle pieces to offer her own wrinkles to the violent game of attrition that unfolded. 

The two traded punches, kicks, elbows and knees for the first round. Zhang's strikes carried more power, but Jedrzejczyk threw more of them and had the longer reach (65.5 inches to Zhang's 63) with her 5'6", 115-pound frame. 

They only briefly went to the ground in the second round. Zhang's left hook was particularly powerful and started to show its mark on Jedrzejczyk's face. But the Polish powerhouse didn't back down. If anything, every time Zhang rocked her, it encouraged more volume from the former champion.

Zhang tripped Jedrzejczyk twice in the third and dragged her down about a minute later, but Jedrzejczyk always got back to her feet fast. After proving a high kick could land with some force and regularity during the same round, Jedrzejczyk switched to the southpaw stance almost exclusively for the rest of it. 

Zhang was tired. She looked hurt, haggard and reeling. By the time the championship rounds came, Jedrzejczyk still had energy to burn. But the champion's defining moment came, and she kept throwing bombs at an incredibly high rate despite appearing gassed. 

Zhang really seemed to shine in the fifth frame. Her vastly more powerful punches had done serious damage to Jedrzejczyk's face. Moreover, Zhang seemed to tap into an inner reserve that only the grittiest champions have at their disposal. 

By the end of things, Zhang had done so much damage that Jedrzejczyk didn't even look like herself. Zhang's left hooks were the centerpiece, but there were plenty of other fine works of art placed around them too. 

Crooked nose. Bulging head. Whatever. The Polish Muay Thai gangster kept thrashing toward the champ, and Zhang kept punishing her for it. 

"Joanna has a Frankenstein forehead right now," Rogan exclaimed with one minute left in the fight. "It's bad. It's real bad."

And it was bad. 

But it was also good, and in a way maybe never seen inside any cage anywhere in the world in any women's division MMA fight ever. 

And even if it had been, it had never been done between two historically accomplished greats who both seemed to be operating in their primes.

Zhang and Jedrzejczyk shook up the world at UFC 248. The power of their performances seemed even greater in proportion to how atrociously reserved the men fought in the next bout.  

Zhang retained her title in a close contest that could have been scored either way, but both should be considered champions. 

Great champions.