No. 1 contender Rose Namajunas will try to topple China’s only UFC champion on Saturday when she challenges women’s strawweight titleholder Zhang Weili in the co-main event of UFC 261 in Jacksonville, Florida.
Zhang won the strawweight crown when she defeated Jessica Andrade in 2019, then defended that title with a split-decision win over Joanna Jedrzejczyk last March.
Communism comments cause controversy
That means it’s been over a year since Zhang (21-1) has stepped into the UFC Octagon. She’ll face a dangerous counterpuncher in Namajunas (9-4), who previously held the strawweight title. But a match that could have generated hype for its interesting stylistic differences has instead generated more attention from comments made by the challenger in the leadup to the fight.
Namajunas – who lives in America, but whose family is from Lithuania – told Lithuanian media that she drew inspiration from the documentary The Other Dream Team, about the 1992 Lithuanian men’s national basketball team. In referencing that film, she repeated the “better dead than red” Cold War anti-communist phrase, suggesting that Zhang is a “red” and that she sees freedom as a huge motivator for the fight.
Namajunas later stood by those comments.
“If you’re confused about any of my opinions, you watch the documentary and you could get a good idea as to what my family had to go through,” Namajunas told Ariel Helwani. “I’d probably have a really different life if it wasn’t for everything in that documentary, how Lithuanians had to struggle with [communist] oppression.”
|Zhang Weili vs. Rose Namajunas Odds (via DraftKings Sportsbook)|
|Zhang Weili: -200||Rose Namajunas: +165|
|Method of Victory|
|Zhang by KO/TKO/DQ: +250||Namajunas by KO/TKO/DQ: +600|
|Zhang by Submission: +1400||Namajunas by Submission: +700|
|Zhang by Decision: +150||Namajunas by Decision: +375|
Namajunas made it clear that it’s not personal between her and Zhang, who shares the same manager.
“I love Weili,” Namajunas said. “I know she wants to be friends and all that stuff. It would be great to get to know her, if we could, if it’s possible.”
Zhang enters as favorite over Namajunas
In the actual fight, Zhang comes in as a -200 favorite over Namajunas (+165), according to DraftKings Sportsbook. Namajunas has suggested she might look to focus more on clinching and jiu jitsu to combat Zhang, but the champion doesn’t believe that’ll be the case.
“I believe Rose will fight the same way she has always fought,” Zhang told the South China Morning Post. “She won’t stay in the same spot to trade with me, or to clinch with me. She will want to keep moving around.”
Zhang’s power will probably show over the course of a five-round fight. But Namajunas possesses the ability to finish the fight at any time, and could simply overwhelm the champion early. While that scenario may seem unlikely given Zhang’s recent dominance, the challenger says she’s ready to reclaim the belt that was once hers.
“It would mean that I’m right in what I believe, and that when I do my best, I am the best,” Namajunas said at the pre-fight news conference. “It means if God wants me to be the champion, I’ll be the champion.”