- MMA columnist for ESPN.com
- Analyst for “MMA Live”
- Covered MMA for Las Vegas Sun
Before UFC 248, fans were still learning about the UFC’s new women’s strawweight champion.
Seven months earlier, Zhang Weili had dethroned Jessica Andrade in her home country of China in August 2019, becoming the first Chinese champion in UFC history. While that win was historic, that fight wasn’t held on the promotion’s biggest stage.
In her next title defense versus Joanna Jedrzejczyk, the two fighters would face off in the co-main event of a UFC pay-per-view card in Las Vegas. Headliners Israel Adesanya and Yoel Romero were getting all the attention, with a must-see billing.
One fighter was ready for the world to know her name. The other fighter — Jedrzejczyk had defended the same title five times before losing to Rose Namajunas at UFC 217 — was ready to remind the world that she is the greatest women’s strawweight of all time.
More than two years later, when the two fighters will step into the octagon Saturday for a rematch at UFC 275 in Singapore, we take a look back through the eyes of those who witnessed arguably the greatest fight in MMA history — and how a global pandemic almost prevented it from even happening.
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Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for clarity.
On Feb. 1, 2020, as COVID-19 cases surged in China, but not yet around the world, the UFC’s strawweight champion received news that flights between China and the United States were suspended. Zhang Weili would need to leave her native country immediately to ensure she could travel to Las Vegas for her scheduled title defense. She flew from the cold, dry climate of Beijing to the warm, humid climate of Thailand, only to be told less than a week later she needed to relocate again to Abu Dhabi — before eventually leaving for the U.S.
Zhang eventually arrives in Las Vegas on Feb. 22.
Zhang: The first thing that comes to my mind is that it was very difficult to get to Las Vegas because of COVID. Everyone was united with the same goal, to get to Las Vegas, but with all that happening and then getting to the U.S. just two weeks before the fight, I don’t think I ever really adjusted to the time differences. My mind wasn’t very clear, and I feel like I fought that night mostly on instinct.
Jon Anik, UFC commentator: There were probably more fist bumps than handshakes that week, but at the time, the only reason COVID was on my radar was because of the trials and tribulations the champ had gone through to get to the fight. Had I not been preparing for that call, I don’t think I would have thought about COVID. But I was aware of the impact it had on her.
Meanwhile, Jedrzejczyk enjoyed a relatively pleasant buildup to the event. It was her first 115-pound title fight since back-to-back losses to Rose Namajunas in 2017 and 2018 ended her dominant two-year run as the division’s champion.
Jedrzejczyk: I was just myself that fight week. I was super happy, which is surprising because I’m usually super tired because of the weight cut and the amount of work I put into every camp. I put 100 percent of myself into everything I do, but it’s surprising how every camp, 100 percent feels like more. And I’m grateful to the UFC Performance Institute, for helping me with the weight cut because they are making it easier, and I enjoyed myself that fight week.
Anik: Joanna said she expected it to be the greatest strawweight championship fight in UFC history. She said it multiple places, and she certainly said it to the broadcast team. The first time I heard her say it was during our fighter meeting, and I remember writing it down. That was why I said it on the broadcast. And within the first 10 minutes of the fight, you knew it would be.
Jedrzejczyk is one of the most talented strikers in the history of women’s MMA. Going into UFC 248, conventional wisdom is that it’s never a good idea to engage the former Muay Thai world champion in a technical stand-up fight.
But early on, it’s clear that Zhang intends to do so, prompting UFC commentator Joe Rogan to observe, “So far, we’re looking at a kickboxing fight.” According to UFC Stats, Zhang and Jedrzejczyk landed the same number of strikes (30) in the opening round.
Mike Brown, Jedrzejczyk’s head coach: Going in, I thought being elusive and moving in and out would be important. Using footwork and not getting hit. I remember I was a little worried about the clinch, but that wasn’t an issue. I felt Joanna did well in the clinch, dominating the pummeling and underhook battle. Weili’s strength and physical power in those positions were concerns I had beforehand, but Joanna was the one controlling the tie-ups.
Jedrzejczyk: When you see all these videos of your opponent’s training, kicking, hitting mitts, sometimes you think, ‘Oh, they are so strong, so powerful.’ But when you get there, and you’ve made the sacrifice for so many weeks, you are ready for this, you know? So, she didn’t surprise me with any power once the fight started.
Anik: There was a strike after the bell at the end of that first round. Joanna took issue with Weili hitting her at the buzzer, and she had to get one back in. And I remember thinking when that happened, ‘Man, these are just two bad asses who are fighting with a lot of attitude right now.’
Three minutes into the second round, Zhang lands a stinging right hand to the chin of Jedrzejczyk that backs her up. It’s a testing moment for the challenger. In the final 15 seconds of the round, she responds with a left front kick to Zhang’s chin. Immediately after the blow, Jedrzejczyk moves aggressively forward into a clinch and the two accidentally clash heads just as the round ends.
Keith Peterson, referee of the fight: It was a very insignificant head butt, almost like a bull charge. Joanna was trying to grab onto her, and it happened with maybe 10 seconds left in the round. The swelling on Joanna’s forehead didn’t start until late in the third round, so I don’t think that caused it, and there was nothing to do about it from an official’s perspective. It was a collision you see in college wrestling when both guys shoot simultaneously.
Michael Bell, NSAC-licensed judge: That clash of heads, I’m sure that’s what started the swelling. You could see a bump in the third round, and then as Weili landed strikes on it, it grew.
Regardless of what caused it, a significant hematoma has formed on Jedrzejczyk’s forehead in the third round. “Look at that swelling on her forehead, that is nasty,” Rogan said.
Jedrzejczyk: The hematoma was hurting, but I knew I couldn’t be slow, so I took her punches and countered immediately. I get swelling. It’s normal. And when you cut all these carbs, rehydrate and then fight, it’s normal for me to swell. It is what it is. I think it cost me big, because the judges probably thought she was more powerful than me, but she was not. It was just a hematoma.
Zhang: I didn’t notice much in the cage. But later on, her forehead was swelling and I noticed it. After the fight, we were in the hospital, and I saw it was very big and felt very sorry. Many people thought I was aiming at it, but they thought that because Joanna has good posture and knows how to protect herself. Her chin is very well protected. So, whenever I went to hit her face, I couldn’t find it, and many of my punches landed on her forehead.
Brown: The swelling was crazy. At one point, she looked like a completely different person — because it was evenly dispersed across her head. She looked a little weird, but that shows Joanna’s heart and determination to battle through that. It’s probably the largest hematoma I’ve ever seen in a combat sports event.
Bell: It never seemed to affect Joanna. She never grabbed it or tried to shy away from it. She just kept punching through it. I can’t honestly say it affected her performance at all.
Jedrzejczyk: People look at the pictures and say, ‘Oh, you got beat up so bad,’ but they misunderstand something: Watch the fight and see how much I actually got hit. I was told a small vein just popped. Our bodies are smart, and our bodies protect us from destruction. My body was protecting me, you know? It looked bad, but it wasn’t that bad.
Despite the swelling, all three judges scored the third round for Jedrzejczyk, the only round all three will agree on in the entire fight. The two have already thrown a combined 428 total strikes into the final two championship rounds.
Megan Olivi, UFC reporter: Every time another round started, they kept having the most incredible fight I’ve ever seen. I remember thinking, ‘There’s no way this is going another round.’ You just knew that one would get exhausted, that they were throwing everything they had. And I remember after one of the rounds, I looked at [UFC matchmakers Mick Maynard and Sean Shelby] and the rest of the commentary team, and we were all thinking, ‘This is something historic.’
Anik: There were so many strikes being landed that as a broadcaster, any time Joe Rogan would acknowledge a shot by Weili, I felt myself needing to recognize a shot by Joanna. That happens in fights that are so back and forth. So many strikes landed that I felt I had to make sure that both athletes got their due for offense on the call.
Jedrzejczyk: I was giving everything I had. After the third and fourth rounds, I was like, ‘What can I do better? What can I change to win this fight?’ And then I answered myself, ‘Change? Joanna, you are giving all you’ve got! Physically, mentally.’ I felt proud of myself, even in the middle of the fight. I knew there was a chance it could go either way, because I knew neither of us would give up.
The high pace continues in the fourth round — in fact, it increases. Both Zhang and Jedrzejczyk throw more strikes in this round than in the previous three. Rogan and fellow commentator Daniel Cormier both acknowledge that Jedrzejczyk seems the ‘fresher’ fighter. Zhang is still throwing with power, but Jedrzejczyk’s cardio appears to be an advantage. However, Zhang responds with the most offensive output of her career by throwing a career-high 103 total strikes in the final round.
Anik: That was crazy. All of a sudden, she started winning the fifth round. Just when it felt like the fight was slipping away for one of them, that provided a perfect capstone to that kind of fight. Just when we thought we were getting into a flow of one getting the better of the other, she came roaring back.
Brown: You see that sometimes. Sometimes the athlete may be fading, but they have to keep pace. Everyone is pacing themselves just enough to not run out of fuel. When they’re in danger of running out of fuel, they pull back a little bit or get slower, but when they see the finish line is right there, they can empty the tank. They can say, ‘Alright, I have this much left. I’m going to use it all now.’ I think that’s what we saw with Weili. She saw the finish line and gave it her all. She got more aggressive. I thought she’d been counterpunching for most of the fight, but then she started to lead the dance in the final round.
Zhang: I was never feeling very tired. Maybe I felt it a little at a certain point, maybe I felt it a little, but once I got over that feeling, I was OK because we trained for five rounds. It’s normal for me to lose a little steam in the third round, and I remember the coach saying, ‘She’s tired, she’s tired.’ But, when I finished the fifth round, I thought it was the wrong round. I thought there was one more round to go, and my coach told me, ‘It’s over, the whole fight is over.’
Jedrzejczyk: I didn’t expect her to be this ready with her conditioning. I thought she would gas out a little, but she proved she was the champ for a reason, and she can stand five rounds.
Peterson: It’s the most volume of kicks and punches in a fight that I’ve ever reffed — by a lot. And one of the things that made the fight so exciting is there was a lot of counterpunching. You rarely see that, when both people counterpunch so well. Also, it was a pretty clean fight for that amount of volume. From an official’s standpoint, there were no eye pokes, accidental low kicks or cage grabs.
The fight ends with the announced attendance of 15,077 fans on their feet. Anik calls it ‘arguably the greatest fight in women’s mixed martial arts history, as predicted by the former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk.’ He adds that he’s thankful Rogan and Cormier’s scorecards will not be necessary, as the entire booth has repeatedly commented on how difficult it will be to score throughout the fight. The only scores that matter now belong to the judges: Michael Bell, Derek Cleary and Eric Colon.
Bell: We all got together immediately and said, ‘How did you have it and which rounds?’ And it was no surprise. The only round we agreed on was the third. It was just one of those where you said, ‘OK, it was an amazing fight. It was close. We all know it was close.’ We asked each other what they gave credit to. I knew even before we talked that if I was on the other end of a split decision, I told myself, ‘I’m not gonna give myself a hard time with it because it was just that close of a fight.’
Brown: I thought the fight was difficult to score and that scores would be all over. I said, ‘I won’t be surprised with any outcome.’
Zhang: In that moment, when the fight is done and you did your best, I don’t feel like winning or losing is that important because we already have given the best we both could.
Bruce Buffer announces a split-decision victory for Zhang, the Chinese champion’s first successful title defense. Jedrzejczyk respectfully applauds the decision and heads backstage, where she embraces family members, including her father, who has flown to the U.S. for the first time to witness his daughter’s attempt to recapture the UFC championship. As the world weighs in on the fight on social media, both women are eventually transported to the same local hospital.
Olivi: I was thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to have to interview them after the fight,’ and I was trying to think of how I was going to get them to answer questions about X’s and O’s after a fight that just turned into a battle for the ages. And I remember thinking, ‘However I start the interview, I want to make sure they know that every person in the building was lucky to be there for that.’
I was Octagon-side and went straight backstage to grab those interviews, and they [event staffers] said, ‘Hey, they’re being transported to the hospital. You’re not talking to anybody.’
Brown: I remember being bummed out. It was a hard one. It’s such a long battle back to a title shot. Joanna is so talented and accomplished, but at that moment, winning the title or not — it’s like, you know you’re not going to get an immediate rematch. It takes a long time to get back there. Who knows what’s going to happen? You pour everything into it and come up just short, and it’s a long battle back. And the reward for second place is minimal compared to the reward for first. It was tough, but she handled it well. She’s one of the most mentally strong people I’ve ever met.
Bell: I enjoy being a part of the moment, but I’ve got to tell you — as far as emotion and adrenaline, I was spent after that fight. I didn’t even pay any attention to the main event. I was cageside, talking to another judge from Zhang-Jedrzejczyk, and he said the same thing. We were just zoned out. Not all fights do that, and I knew I was done for the night and could detach myself, but that was one of those mentally draining fights to score. The amount of focus you use when there is a fight at that pace — not many fighters can carry a rate like that. And they did it for 25 minutes.
Jedrzejczyk: She was like wanting to train with me, blah, blah, blah. I was like, ‘What the heck? I’m not thinking about training! I’m thinking about Moscow mule!’ Now, it’s Kyiv mule. I was training so hard for three months. I was like, ‘What the heck is she talking about?’ I also knew there was a real possibility we would meet again, and now it’s happening.
Zhang: I remember that very clearly because we were in the same room and there was only a curtain between us. I told her I wanted to travel with her, and in the future, she said she would follow my career and watch my journey. So, I think we left with mutual respect between two martial artists, and I felt very moved by that.
Jedrzejczyk: She said later in interviews that I was crying. I was crying because of the pain. It was not only the hematoma; the doctors also kept checking on me, and I just wanted them to leave me alone. I just wanted to be with my family. I was not crying like some biatch, ‘Oh, I lost my fight.’ No, it wasn’t like this.
There have been expectations of an encore between these two women since before the first fight finished. When a fight in combat sports is instantly a classic, there’s a good chance it will happen again. However, this rematch took on an even greater significance on May 7 when then-champion Rose Namajunas surrendered the UFC’s strawweight title to Carla Esparza. Namajunas had previously defeated both Zhang and Jedrzejczyk twice. Had she remained champion, there was no guarantee the winner of this fight would move on to a title bout. But now that the division has a new champion in Esparza, it’s widely expected the winner of this fight on Saturday will receive the first crack at dethroning her.
Jedrzejczyk: After Carla Esparza won at UFC 274, I knew that anything and everything was possible. I knew I had made the right decision a few months before, to be back. I feel like the universe is behind me, and I am the right person at the right time. I went back to the gym that Monday, and instead of doing two trainings, I did four. I just wanted to push as much as possible, and I am going for the belt.
Zhang: I want a fight as hard as the first fight. I even think this could be more exciting and challenging than the first. You know, I never feel nervous about having another fight like that.
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