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Coach: Florida boo-birds made Zhang Weili lose focus against Rose Namajunas

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In a wide ranging interview, Zhang and her coach discuss all the difficulties they faced leading into their failed title defense at UFC 261.

UFC 261: Zhang v Namajunas Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

When Zhang Weili and Rose Namajunas faced off at UFC 261 last month, people were expecting a knock-down, drag-out war. Instead, the fight ended just 1:18 into the first round after Namajunas faked going downstairs before unloading a perfect headkick that flattened Zhang (watch highlights). A quick follow up of ground-and-pound forced the referee to stop things and let me tell you, Zhang was not happy with the stoppage immediately after.

Now back home in China with a bit of time to digest the loss (and shave her head), Zhang appeared in a live stream interview to discuss the fight.

“Regarding the stoppage, when the referee pulled me away, I really couldn’t accept the fact,” Weili said. “I was not reconciled at all. I worked hard for a long time, and I trained very hard every day. And I brought a big team of mine to America, yet the match ended this early. Deep inside, I couldn’t accept this fact.”

“It’s because I put in so much effort to prepare for this fight, and it was very tough for me every day. But because of one misjudgment that I made, I thought she was doing a low-kick, and I had a defense for the low kick, but she made a high-kick instead. And it was very sudden, very quick. And it’s not like we went for three rounds and she overpowered me, or even after one round if she overpowered me and I lost, then I would admit that my skills weren’t as good. But this one is really.. you know. I didn’t have a chance to show what I’ve got. So I felt wronged.”

UFC 261 was the first UFC event to be held in a packed arena since the Coronavirus hit in March 2020, so there was a rowdy Jacksonville, Fla., crowd that was all-in on “Thug Rose.” They didn’t hesitate to boo Zhang ... and that seemed to shake her a bit.

“Last fight with Joanna, even though she trained in America, she isn’t American,” she explained. “So we were quite equal, and neither of us got any boos. But this time, because Rose is from America, and Florida is a bit like that.. So when I showed up in the event... wow the boos were really loud. It was my first time experiencing the situation. And I didn’t expect it to be so serious.

“Even if she had 70 percent of the audience on her side, and just a small amount on my side, it wouldn’t have been that loud,” she continued. “When my music started playing even before I showed up, it was already loud. And so I couldn’t even hear what the referee or coach said.”

Her coach, Xuejun Cai, also stepped into the interview to share his thoughts on the boos.

“I think Weili performed quite well in the beginning,” he said. “There was a huge psychological disadvantage fighting amongst a hostile crowd, so Weili wanted to relax more and be less nervous. But when she tried, she didn’t relax. Instead, she lost focus. So at that moment, she was actually not fully there. So I would say Weili wasn’t focused enough. We wanted her to be in her vacuum of focus from the moment of her entrance. But we let the boos overwhelm us.”

“I want to emphasize that we are not making any excuses [regarding the loss],” Zhang said later. “We accept the result. I am talking about the boos, the location, and the uncertainty of who I’ll face, not because I am making excuses for my loss. We are just discussing the problems encountered. So if people think I am making excuses, that’s not the case.”

Zhang also made it clear that they’re gunning for a rematch.

“We are also waiting for the second fight,” she said. “Depends on the schedule. Ideally, we would like it to be held in Abu Dhabi. This location is neutral to both parties. But, now Rose is the champion, so it might not be up to us. The table has been turned.”

As for her feelings on Rose, which seemed pretty positive up until Namajunas kicked her in the face?

“I don’t want to comment on Rose,” Zhang said. “I wanted to touch gloves with her in the fight, but she didn’t do it. So I think ... I wanted to make friends through MMA, but the other person doesn’t think like that. So oh well. Joanna, I think Joanna is quite cute. She is good. She is cute. She makes things clear and not tries to hide anything. But Rose, she is smart. Very smart.”

For some reason, that doesn’t sound like it was meant as a glowing compliment.