Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) women’s Strawweight elites Carla Esparza and Zhang Weili will collide this weekend (Sat., Nov. 12, 2022) at UFC 281 from inside Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.
What a wild and strange ride it’s been for “The Cookie Monster.” Joanna Jedrzejczyk stole her title and sent her to the “Prelims” in 2015, and it’s not like Esparza bounced back immediately. It wasn’t until 2019 that Esparza began her current win streak, fighting each step up the rankings until she somehow defeated Rose Namajunas a second time in the strangest (generous term) title fight of all time. It’s rare that a single performance can rebound a fighter from consecutive losses into a title fight. It’s especially rare when considering that Strawweight is actually a solid division with multiple contenders — it’s not women’s Bantamweight! However, after watching Weili toss Jedrzejczyk around like a sack of potatoes then knock her cold, there was only one option for the next title shot.
Let’s take a closer look at the keys to victory for each woman:
Key Wins: Rose Namajunas (UFC 274, TUF 20 Finale), Marina Rodriguez (UFC Fight Island 3), Alexa Grasso (UFC Fight Night 149), Yan Xiaonan (UFC Vegas 27), Michelle Waterson (UFC 249)
Key Losses: Tatiana Suarez (UFC 228), Claudia Gadelha (UFC 225), Joanna Jedrzejczyk (UFC 185)
Keys To Victory: Esparza deserves a lot of credit for returning to the top of the ladder. Though she definitely made some improvements to her boxing game, Esparza’s ability to chain wrestle and control her opposition on the canvas is responsible for a majority of her wins.
Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: Zhang Weili don’t play that s—t. There is no way Weili is going to hang back and actively choose not to pursue her advantages like Namajunas did. Esparza is going to have to walk through the fire here, because that heat will be coming her way.
Fortunately, hope is not lost. Weili has immense physical gifts, but she tends to rely a lot on her strength and athleticism. In her rematch with Namajunas, this did wear down “Magnum” by the championship rounds, resulting in extended top control time for “Thug Rose.”
Esparza has to accept that she’s likely going to lose some early wrestling exchanges, but that’s okay if it keeps Zhang wrestling. Over time, the tide can turn, and a single stint of top control could really exhaust some of the sting from Weili’s strikes.
Key Wins: Joanna Jedrzejczyk (UFC 275, UFC 248), Jessica Andrade (UFC Fight Night 157), Tecia Torres (UFC 235), Jessica Aguilar (UFC Fight Night 141), Danielle Taylor (UFC 227)
Key Losses: Rose Namajunas (UFC 261, UFC 268)
Keys to Victory: Weili is a terror. She does a single camp with Henry Cejudo and company, and suddenly she’s tossing around Francis Ngannou and showing off genuinely excellent chain wrestling against “Joanna Violence,” the best counter wrestler in Strawweight history? It’s unprecedented and incredible, but hopefully her takedown defense also skyrocketed.
As mentioned, Weili is going to walk Esparza down. She’s not a passive fighter, nor should she be. Wrestlers are less effective when forced to shoot from too far or from the back foot, which is likely going to be Esparza’s situation after a few connections from the Chinese athlete.
Despite some huge technical and athletic advantages, Weili still cannot be sloppy. If she just chases massive right hands, Esparza definitely has the skills to duck beneath and put her on the canvas. That’s exhausting, and working back up is just a poor use of her energy.
A bit of patience will go a long way. Use that side kick, target the mid-section, and let the knockout come naturally.
The Strawweight title is on the line!
Esparza is probably going to remain the underdog in title fights. She really was an afterthought in the title picture until the storyline and her win streak almost forced the second Namajunas fight. Now she has the belt, but public opinion hasn’t exactly changed. Fortunately, that’s not her job: Zhang Weili is enough of a challenge. Still, I think even the most jaded fight fan would offer begrudging respect to a seven-fight win streak capped off by back-to-back wins over Namajunas and Weili.
That’s hard to argue.
On the flip side, Weili has a chance to become a two-time champion. Stopping Esparza returns her to her pre-Namajunas pedestal, and that rubber match isn’t quite on the horizon just yet. At one point, Weili was also in talks to head up to Flyweight and challenge for a second title, so perhaps that’s another option that opens back up.
Otherwise, Amanda Lemos seemingly awaits the winner.
At UFC 281, Carla Esparza and Zhang Weili will go battle over the Strawweight title. Which woman will leave the cage strapped with gold?
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 281 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard (on ESPNEWS/ESPN+) at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.
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