Namajunas essentially tied Zhang, who is from China, to communism. She said, “Weili is red; that’s what she represents.”
It was hardly Colby Covington-level taunting. Zhang admits, though, that it had its impact. The talk threw her for a loop and she didn’t perform, getting knocked out in the first by a Namajunas head kick.
They will meet again on Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 268 at Madison Square Garden in New York, with Namajunas defending the strawweight belt she won from Zhang. It will be a vastly different Zhang — a slight -115 underdog at BetMGM — who walks into the cage to try to regain her belt.
“I was bothered by what she had said,” Zhang told Yahoo Sports. “The political comments Rose made got the audience not to support me. It was beyond [fair play]. It crossed a line. I don’t feel as friendly toward Rose as a fellow mixed martial artist as I did before. I have a lot more training and I have had a lot more focus on myself.”
One of the things she did to prepare for the rematch was to fly to Arizona to train with the retired former two-division champion Henry “Triple C” Cejudo. There is video of Zhang powerfully taking Cejudo down.
If it seems like an unlikely alliance, perhaps, but they became friendly at UFC 227 in Los Angeles on Aug. 4, 2018. That was the night of Zhang’s UFC debut and when Cejudo won the flyweight title from the legendary Demetrious Johnson.
Cejudo had won his Olympic gold medal in wrestling at the 2008 Games in Beijing and had picked up a few words of Mandarin Chinese. The event was Zhang’s first fighting outside of China and it was, in some ways, terrifying.
Cejudo saw her and said hello to her in Mandarin. That broke the ice. They met again in Abu Dhabi and that led to a friendship that saw Cejudo help Zhang prepare for Namajunas.
Zhang lost her pro debut, then reeled off 21 consecutive victories, including 17 by finish, before losing to Namajunas. She’s already at the top of her game but adding a little of Cejudo’s magic couldn’t hurt.
“Obviously, him being an Olympic gold medalist, there is a lot he could teach me about wrestling,” Zhang said of Cejudo. “But he understands [MMA] so well and he helped me in more ways than just [learning to wrestle]. I am better because I have worked with him.”
Physical skills alone usually aren’t enough to defeat Namajunas, because she’s so well-rounded and exceptionally prepared. Being strong mentally is a plus, as well.
Zhang thought she was ready for whatever Namajunas would deliver after defeating Joanna Jedrzejczyk in one of the great fights, male or female, in UFC history at UFC 248 on March 7, 2020.
Jedrzejczyk did plenty of trash talking, but it had little impact on Zhang, who just smiled. She admits it was different with Namajunas.
“Joanna is very direct and blunt, but Rose is more fake and not very direct,” Zhang said. “Joanna is direct as could be, and I knew what I was dealing with. But Rose had a different way and it crossed a line. But it’s got me motivated.”
A motivated Zhang is a dangerous Zhang, and she feels she is on the precipice of doing something great. She’s long carried the pressure of massive expectations of China on her back and concedes she’s felt that.
She eased some of them by winning the belt, but she believes a win over Namajunas on Saturday would be even bigger than winning it the first time.
“It will show the spirit I have to overcome problems and find a way to be successful,” she said. “I am confident I will do it. Rose lost the belt and then regained it, and I feel I can do that, too.”