Zhang, Jedrzejczyk, Suarez — Who will rule over the Strawweight division in 2020?
After reading the headline, you may want to argue that the list of contenders is more extensive than just the three names mentioned above; but there really are no right or wrong answers in this debate. And for me, the depth of the 115-pound division right now stretches as far as the two fighters scheduled to fight each other for the belt in March, and the next most dangerous competitor right below them.
With the belt having switched hands three times in the last seven months, as of today, Zhang Weili (20-1) is the clear cut favorite — in my opinion — to be the next woman to enjoy a long reign over the division, just like her next opponent, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, did a few years back.
The Chinese superstar has got all the tools necessary in her arsenal in order to assert her dominance at her preferred weight class and beyond in the coming years. She hits hard. She’s composed. And she always seems to manage to force the style and tempo in her fights. But, there are some massive tests coming Zhang’s way in the near future which will help determine the brand new Strawweight queen’s championship pedigree.
The aforementioned Jedrzejczyk (16-3) looked like she was all but done not that long ago, but all of a sudden, it feels like perhaps there is one more run at the gold in the gritty Pole. After snatching the title from Carla Esparza in 2015 and going on to defend it five times, it felt as though Jedrzejczyk had burned out a little.
Rose Namajunas came along, fierce and not intimidated by the champ, and Jedrzejczyk, who we can probably all agree is the greatest Strawweight of all time, was not able to crack her. She lost back-to-back title fights and did not look all that good in either of them. She had finally met her match after two years of undisputed dominance, and it was time to go back to the drawing board.
Jedrzejczyk tinkered with her options and even tried her luck against the mixed martial arts machine that is “The Bullet” Valentina Shevchenko at flyweight, to no success, before getting her mind set on another attempt at getting her crown back at 115.
And it looks like perhaps the fire that she’s been looking for has been reignited. Jedrzejczyk looked back to her relentless and brutally precise self in the unanimous decision victory over Michelle Waterson in October of last year. The Pole’s shots were crisp, they were all landing, and her footwork was once again razor sharp. Waterson had no answers. And you just knew after that performance and the glimpses of greatness we saw that “JJ” would be getting a crack at the belt sooner rather than later (March, 7 at UFC 248).
At the beginning of 2019, the Zhang-Jedrzejczyk matchup would be of little interest to most. The majority of fight fans would probably feel like the former champ would get steamrolled by the heavy hitting Beijing native. But now, there is a sense of intrigue about this bout.
Jedrzejczyk’s slippery movement and the volume with which she strikes could pose problems for Zhang. It’s certainly a style and caliber of opponent that she has not yet had the pleasure of facing, and it’s going to be a real test — both physically and mentally. This is going to be a real championship clash in the fighting capital of the world, and a lot of questions will be answered about both competitors and their respective future’s that night.
Once all that is resolved, then there is the undefeated Tatiana Suarez (8-0) waiting in the wings and chomping at the bit to get her first shot at the UFC gold. Suarez is a completely different proposition altogether. Stylistically and in terms of experience.
The 29-year-old is a wrestler. The nickname “Female Khabib” has been thrown around here and there during some of her previous fights and it certainly does Suarez’s fighting style justice. She’s dominant. Perhaps not as violent as her male Dagestani counterpart when in top position just yet, but you still get the feeling that once she secures the takedown, whoever is on the receiving end of it is about to be in a world of trouble.
Compared to Zhang and Jedrzejczyk, Suarez is also by far the least experienced. But what’s worth noting is that her current record is the same as Jedrzejczyk’s when she got her hands on the belt four years ago. The only difference is that Suarez arguably possess the more favorable base style for both of those potential matchups.
Suarez also has a few impressive scalps in the UFC on her resume already. She dispatched Alexa Grasso and Carla Esparza via stoppages and Nina Ansaroff via unanimous decision in her last three fights, with the latter being even more impressive due to Suarez’s ongoing injury.
That’s where the asterisk over Suarez’s name comes into play. She has been suffering from a neck injury and disk issues for some time now, and the timetable for her return to full fitness is unknown. It’s likely to be at some point this year, but the recovery has been far from smooth sailing thus far.
But with that said, Suarez is seemingly never out of the gym despite the pain. The frequent Instagram video updates would suggest that she is hard at work trying to polish out her game, including the striking, which might very well be the final component to Suarez becoming a human freight train in the Strawweight division. But the injury is a dangerous one and it may still be a while before we see her back in action.
So, for now, all eyes are on Zhang and Jedrzejczyk as they prepare for their early spring clash. Will it be the kind faced Chinese sensation who will come out victorious and kick off a new reign of dominance at 115-pounds? Or will it be the former queen, confident and outspoken as ever, clawing her way back to the throne? It’s tough to call right now. The betting odds are unlikely to be too far apart come fight week, but that’s exactly what every fight fan would have hoped for when thinking of Jedrzejczyk’s return to the elite. And this fight between two of the very best in the world should be one carefully marked on everyone’s calendar.
Sports journalist based in CA, USA.