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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Fight Night 157’s Jessica Andrade and Weili Zhang

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Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Strawweight queen, Jessica Andrade, will throw down with Sanda specialist, Weili Zhang, this Saturday (Aug. 31, 2019) at UFC Fight Night 157 from inside Shenzhen Universade Sports Centre Arena in Shenzhen, Guangdong, China.

This is really a match up of two athletic powerhouses. Andrade pushes straight forward and looks to impose her will with regularity, blasting foes at range and slamming them with horrifying regularity. Last time out, Andrade may have been technically outmatched, but that didn’t stop her from wearing Namajunas out a bit then dropping her on her face.

Zhang is perhaps a bit more graceful in the application of her athletic gifts, but make no mistake, the Chinese athlete dominates because her foe’s can rarely match her speed or strength. Zhang is perfect in three trips to the Octagon, and she’ll look to become China’s first UFC champion by taking out “Bate Estaca.”

Let’s break down the skills of both women.

Striking

Beginning with the champion, Andrade is a mauler. On the feet, Andrade frequently draws comparison to John Lineker with good reason. Though Andrade does not quite possess Lineker’s boxing craft, the two share a love of aggressively swinging for the knockout with wide hooks and overhands and make use of body-head combinations with regularity.

Andrade does not hide her intentions. The Brazilian is going to charge forward on a straight line, swinging hooks and eventually crashing into her opponent. That lack of subtlety does mean Andrade is rather easy to counter. In all of her recent fights, her opponents have found success by sticking Andrade with straights as she steps forward, then simply side-stepping the big hook that followed.

In particular, Jedrzejczyk and Namajunas did a fantastic job with this strategy.

The problem is that Andrade is not determined by a few right hands. She will absorb the blows and keep coming. Perhaps the most important development to Andrade’s approach is her commitment to body shots (GIF). Andrade may still be winging hooks through the air, but the mid-section is a much larger target. Body shots ruined gas tanks and make active footwork far more difficult, meaning each hook to the ribs further increases the amount of time Andrade will enjoy in the pocket. Furthermore, there’s the obvious benefit of causing an opponent’s hands to drop, which can create the opportunity for a knockout blow (GIF). Similarly, an extra focus on low kicks has aided Andrade in tracking down foes.

There is a large group of people who believe that Andrade’s victory over Namajunas was a fluke, and it’s frankly embarrassing. Namajunas was ahead at the time of the slam, sure, but Andrade’s aggression, body work, and low kicks were all doing what they were supposed to: turning the tide.

Contrary to Andrade’s stalking approach, Zhang likes to fight from the outside. As is sometimes common with fighters of a more traditional martial arts background, Zhang does not frequently move laterally so much as bounce in place. That consumes a lot of energy, but it does allow Zhang to hide her explosions quite well.

Much of Zhang’s offense comes from her lead side, beginning with the left leg. By shifting her weight and bouncing in place, Zhang can pretty easily hide a quick foot replacement that allows her to fire the left leg. Often, it’s thrown as a side kick, but Zhang will also throw a left round kick to the leg, body, or head. Later in the fight, Zhang will use this lead leg step to instead spin into a back kick.

When Zhang is able to control the distance with her lead leg, she really thrives. Once that happens, she’ll begin to tie punches and kicks together. Often, she still does a lot of work with the jab and left hook, punctuated by the occasional cross/overhand. Either way, Zhang does a wonderful job of alternating kicks and punches in a difficult to predict pattern.

One of the benefits of Zhang’s bounce-in-place style is that it can easily be used to draw out strikes from her opponent. She’s basically always showing her opponent false starts, which can result in a strike thrown at nothing or momentary freeze up when her foe wrongly believes a real burst is coming. When Zhang gets her foe to bite on nothing, she will capitalize by stepping forward with really punches.

Lastly, Zhang’s physicality in the clinch is impressive. I’ll talk about her takedowns momentarily, but Zhang is commonly looked to wrap her foe up and slam home knees and elbows. While the techniques may be the same as most other fights, Zhang’s strength and the impact of her blows are simply different.

Wrestling

Andrade’s wrestling has become dramatically more effective since dropping down to face opponents who are not much, much larger. Extremely powerful with a low center of gravity, Andrade looks to trap her opponent along the fence under that whirlwind of powerful hooks, at which point she’ll lower her level even further and drive into the hips with a shot.

Though she tends to prefer the high-crotch takedown, it doesn’t seem to matter whether her head is on the outside (GIF), inside (GIF), or chasing the double leg (GIF). The last time Andrade fought, we broke down the fundamentals of picking up an opponent — the video only became more relevant since Andrade won the title via slam KO, so let’s take another look:

In this realm, Zhang is actually quite a bit less technical than Andrade. For all her muscle, Andrade’s understanding of good position while on the shot is equally important when it comes to lifting an opponent. Zhang, meanwhile, prefers to chain together rapid clinch throw and trip attempts.

Most women who seek the clinch takedown as aggressively as Zhang would be reversed, but that athleticism makes all the difference.

Generally, Zhang begins her takedown attempts with a power headlock throw — always a risky move, but Zhang is better at it than most. If that attempt fails, Zhang will immediately turn into her foe and dig for underhooks. Depending on her opponent’s reaction, Zhang might attempt to jack up the underhook and run a knee pick, or she may look to switch to the tight waist and beat the knee to drag her foe down.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

A jiu-jitsu brown belt, Andrade has finished seven of her opponents via tapout. At her more natural weight class, Andrade proved her grappling by avoiding the submissions of Claudia Gadelha and generally dominating from top position. Plus, a big benefit of Andrade’s high-octane style of finishing takedowns is that she often lands passed the guard.

Offensively, Andrade’s signature technique is the arm-in guillotine. Overall, guillotines account for all but one of her tapout victories. Like the rest of her game, the technique here is not particularly complex, but that doesn’t make it less effective. After wrapping up the arm and neck, Andrade does a very good job of throwing her hips at her opponent, ensuring she’s able to secure guard and squeeze (GIF). Opposite Larissa Pacheco, Andrade used the same squeeze and heavy hips to finish the hold from top position half-guard (GIF). That’s generally a difficult position to finish the guillotine, and again it emphasizes the power of “Bate Estaca.”

Zhang is a jiu-jitsu purple belt with seven submission wins to her credit. Inside the Octagon, she landed an excellent armbar to finish Jessica Aguilar, so that’s the sequence I’ll focus on.

After taking her foe down into side control, Zhang aggressively looked for the crucifix position, dropping elbows and splitting open Aguilar in the process. “JAG” defended that position, but as a result Zhang was able to drive her knee across the waist into mount. Aguilar looked to escape out the back door beneath a hail of elbows, but Zhang latched onto one arm, ensuring she would fall into a position that threatened the triangle.

Aguilar’s second arm was still somewhat trapped as well, complicated the hold, but Zhang adapted well. Immediately, she grabbed her own shin and readjusted the triangle, gaining a better angle. After briefly pulling down on the head in pursuit of the finish, Zhang instead delivered a brutal series of elbows to her already bloody foe. When Aguilar covered up, Zhang latched onto the arm and extended for the tap (GIF).

Conclusion

This may not have been the title defense fans expected for Andrade, but it’s opposite a worthy challenge and should prove a very exciting fight. There’s much to gain for both women: Andrade can solidify her hold on the title and potentially open up super fight opportunities, whereas Zhang has an opportunity to make history in her home country.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.