Weili Zhang is here and she has about a billion-and-a-half supporters behind her.
That might be a slight exaggeration, but the fact is that Zhang challenging for a world title in her home country of China is an unprecedented opportunity for the UFC to grow, and given that she’s won her last 19 fights, it’s not hard to imagine that she makes it an even 20 this Saturday in Shenzhen.
Standing in her way is recently crowned strawweight queen Jessica Andrade. The 27-year-old Brazilian’s 11 UFC wins are tied with Amanda Nunes for the most by a female fighter in company history, yet there are still some who question whether the success of Bate Estaca is due to her skill and technique or if it’s her immense physical gifts that have carried her to the top.
It’s a “cant lose” main event for the UFC as either Andrade builds up her championship resume by halting Zhang’s impressive win streak, or Zhang makes history as the first Chinese fighter to capture UFC gold.
The co-main event is not without stakes either, as sleeper contender Elizeu Zaleski searches for his eighth straight win against Li Jingliang. The way Zaleski has performed lately, it seems like this is just a formality before he is given a booking against a top-10 opponent that is overdue, but if he falls prey to Jingliang’s freewheeling style, it could be “The Leech” who finds himself in a more high-profile bout soon.
In other main card action, Kai Kara France and Mark De La Rosa jockey for position in a resuscitated flyweight division, Yanan Wu looks to get a win streak going against former Invicta FC and DEEP standout Mizuki Inoue when they collide in a 129-pound catchweight bout, and welterweight sluggers Kenan Song and Derrick Krantz face off.
What: UFC Shenzhen
Where: Universiade Sports Centre in Shenzhen, China
When: Saturday, Aug. 31. The entire card will air on the ESPN+ streaming service with the seven-fight preliminaries beginning at 3 a.m. ET and the five-fight main card starting at 6 a.m. ET.
If you want to know how one wins 19 consecutive fights, simply analyze how Weili Zhang conducts herself. She’s a compact fighter who gets a ton of torque with that right hand when she loads it up and she’s steady like a metronome once that cage door closes, just walking down her opponents and forcing them to engage on her terms.
That kind of poise is essential when dealing with a killer like Jessica Andrade. Whether you think Andrade’s success is the product of hard work, mental maturation, or that she’s simply a winner of the genetic lottery, there’s no denying her effectiveness. Andrade makes the most of her impressive strength, as Rose Namajunas found out when Andrade slammed her into unconsciousness at UFC 237 to take her title.
Zhang can pull off an upset of Andrade by following the blueprint laid down by Joanna Jedrzejczyk (and Namajunas before she was felled by that fateful slam): Maintain perfect distance, keep her jab in Andrade’s face, and be constantly aware of Andrade’s one-punch KO potential.
The margin for error is so low here and even though Zhang is clearly an elite strawweight, she’s yet to face anyone nearly as dangerous as Andrade. It will be a shock to her system when she gets her first taste of Andrade’s fists and she’ll be scrambling to get her senses from there. Zhang might not get finished in the first, but I’m predicting that Andrade puts her away before the championship rounds.
This co-main event could end up stealing the show.
Li Jingliang is a ton of fun to watch and he faces his biggest test yet in the form of would-be contender Elizeu Zaleski. Is Jingliang more than just a brawler who’s tempting fate with his style or can he be a dark horse in a crowded welterweight division?
Either way, I don’t expect him to break through against Zaleski on Saturday. “Capoeira” is as creative in the cage as his nickname suggests, and in addition to his arsenal of strikes he also has legitimate Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt chops. It will take him time to find the range and he’ll have to be wary of an initial rush from Jingliang, not to mention his resilience in the later rounds should this fight not end early.
That said, I do expect Zaleski to get another finish here, perhaps taking advantage of a fired-up Jingliang wanting to put on a show in his native country. Blessed with power in both hands, you have to believe that Jingliang will be chasing a knockout finish to cap off what should be a memorable week for him. If Zaleski wants to ensure that his head stays on his shoulders, he’d be wise to get this one to the mat where he can maneuver into back control and choke Jingliang out.
Zaleski by second-round submission.
Mark De La Rosa is a talented grappler who’s run in the UFC has been marked by inconsistency, though some of that has been out of his hands. He’s best suited for the flyweight division, but by the time he and his team realized that, the fate of the division came into question and he’s only competed (and won) once at 125 pounds since joining the UFC.
On the other side is New Zealand’s Kai Kara-France. He has a minimalist striking style, which is to say he doesn’t waste any energy hunting for a finish if it isn’t there. He’s a solid puncher, though he likely doesn’t have the pop to stop De La Rosa, who will be looking to take Kara-France down early and often. Lateral movement will be key for Kara-France’s success, as will his ability to scramble out of bad positions on the mat.
Kara-France can hang with De La Rosa on the ground. I’m not sure if the same can be said about De La Rosa’s chances should he decide to stand and bang. Let’s go with the versatility of Kara-France to triumph over De La Rosa’s submission skills.
Yanan Wu vs. Mizuki Inoue
It’s a shame that Yanan Wu missed weight for this fight, since Mizuki Inoue did her a favor by coming in on short notice to keep Wu on the card. Wu came in three pounds over the flyweight limit and that extra poundage could matter given that this portends to be a grappling-heavy affair.
Wu is more than comfortable on the feet, showing good springiness and agility, and she has a significant height and reach advantage over Inoue as well. Inoue’s game plan has to be to make this one ugly, using pressure against the cage and clinch work to open Wu up for takedowns. She has an active guard, but it’s probably not a smart move to have the larger Wu on top of her for any extended stretch. Her kickboxing background will be a factor in keeping Wu on her toes in the standup so that Inoue can pursue a trip or double leg when Wu is least expecting it.
At 23, Wu is the youngest fighter competing at UFC Shenzhen and that’s one reason I have to give the edge to Inoue for her abundance of experience competing against a higher level of competition. Wu could very well be a legitimate contender at 125 pounds someday, but I think she falls just short in the judges’ eyes here.
With the last-minute removal of a featherweight bout between Lu Zhenhong and Movsar Evloev, it’s Kenan Song and Derrick Krantz who are stepping up to the main card in what promises to be a fan-friendly fight.
Krantz has walked a rocky road to the UFC. After making a name for himself as a longtime contender in the Legacy Fighting Alliance, he finally got the call to make his UFC debut in May, only to have it come with less than one week’s notice to fight Vicente Luque, one of the welterweight division’s rising stars. Krantz lost that bout inside of a round and now he heads into enemy territory to fight Song.
There’s no secret to what Krantz wants to do. In 34 pro bouts he’s only gone to a decision five times. He’s going to go right at Song (just like he did against Luque, for better or for worse) and they’re going to spend most of this fight in the pocket trading punches. That makes this one of the more difficult fights to predict on the card, but I’ll lean towards Song due to him having a fresher chin, a little more speed, and home court advantage.
My other prediction is that someone is getting a bonus, either for both men for being part of a Fight of the Night winner, or for whoever it is that pulls off a violent finish.