2020 was a terrible year. If the purpose of this article was to identify the worst year in recorded history, this year would, at the least, get an honorable mention. But that's not why we're here. We're here to pick the best mixed martial arts bout of the year and, despite all of the tragedy and turmoil we've endured since January 1, there's a long list of contenders.
Josh Emmett's June defeat of Shane Burgos deserves a nod. Thanh Le's October win over Martin Nguyen warrants consideration. Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno's recent draw should certainly be in the conversation. So too should Dan Hooker's February win over Paul Felder, as should his June loss to Dustin Poirier. Of all the incredible fights we've enjoyed during this agonizing year, though, there's one clear front-runner: Weili Zhang's defeat of Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
Zhang and Jedrzejczyk met in the co-main event of UFC 248 in March, back in those blissfully ignorant days when none of us quite fathomed the misery to come. Zhang was defending the UFC strawweight title she won with her August 2019 mugging of Jessica Andrade. Jedrzejczyk was looking to reclaim that belt, having held it in a vice grip through five defences between June 2015 to November 2017.
Heading into the matchup, predictions were all over the place. Some expected Zhang's power to put the former champion to bed early. Others expected Jedrzejczyk to reclaim the title with her trademark combination of volume and accuracy. What we ended up getting was a violent cocktail of both, as the two women bombarded one another with a combined 366 strikes over five rounds—a ridiculous 351 of those being deemed significant.
The action began immediately, and continued to the final bell. There was not a single round in which either woman landed fewer than 20 strikes. In fact, the second was the only round of the entire fight in which either woman landed fewer than 30 strikes, with Zhang landing 23—a massive number compared to most rounds in most fights.
Both women had plenty of reason to quit, too.
By the end of the third round, Zhang's face was plum purple. Jedrzejczyk, meanwhile, looked like somebody had jammed a bicycle pump into her ear and inflated her head with no regard for the possibility that it might explode. Contrary to the unbelievable damage both women sustained, however, the action rolled on for the full 25 minutes, at which point the three cage-side judges were left with the unenviable task of declaring a winner.
In the end, the judges scored the fight 48-47, 48-47, and 47-48 for Zhang, meaning she left the Octagon with a split-decision win, and with the belt still wrapped around her waist. While not everybody agreed with that verdict, it almost didn't matter.
It was the kind of fight with no real loser. Both women performed so admirably, with such determination, that they couldn't possibly be criticized. They dispelled every doubt and every question that dogged each of them ahead of the fight.
Zhang proved that her win over Andrade was not a fluke; that, despite the fact that she'd only battled a few truly elite opponents up until her UFC 248 war with the former champion, she was truly the best fighter in her weight class. Jedrzejczyk, on the other hand, silenced a growing crowd of naysayers who believed that her recent losses to Rose Namajunas and Valentina Shevchenko signified that she was a fighter on the decline; that she could not longer be counted among the best strawweights on earth.
When it was over, both women knew what they'd accomplished. According to Zhang, they shared an emotional post-fight moment in the hospital, offering each other props from their beds.
"After the match, Joanna and I, we both met at the hospital. We arrived at the hospital almost at the same time. There was just a curtain between us," Zhang told South China Morning Post a week after the fight. "She kept crying for hours. I felt very sad. I especially wanted to comfort her. But the language barrier, I can only tell her, 'Good job! You did very well. You are very good.'
"When she left [the hospital]—I am waiting for the examination—when she left, she told me this, and I was particularly moved. She said: 'Keep defending and I will watch you. It will get harder and harder.' I almost shed tears. At that time, I felt the warrior should be like this."
Jedrzejczyk made the long flight back to her native Olsztyn, Poland, with a badly swollen face and bruises that wouldn't disappear for weeks. Zhang ended up getting stuck in Las Vegas for six weeks, as new COVID-19 travel restrictions prevented her from flying home to Hebei, China.
When both women finally made it back to their respective beds, however, they could sleep soundly with the knowledge that they had earned the adoration of fight fans everywhere, and also have confidence that, even with nine months still remaining on the calendar, they'd engaged in one of the year's best fights.
On December 21, after a long list of thrilling brawls in cages and rings all over the world, it is undeniable that Zhang and Jedrzejczyk's wasn't just one of the best fights of the year; it was the best outright.