MMA Junkie analyst Dan Tom breaks down the UFC’s top bouts. Today, we look at the co-main event for UFC 261.

UFC 261 takes place Saturday at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla. The main card airs on pay-per-view following prelims on ESPN and early prelims on ESPN+.

Zhang Weili (21-1 MMA, 5-0 UFC)

Staple info:

  • Height: 5’4″ Age: 31 Weight: 115 lbs. Reach: 63″
  • Last fight: Decision win over Joanna Jedrzejczyk (March 7, 2020)
  • Camp: Black Tiger Fight Club (China)
  • Stance/striking style: Orthodox/kickboxing
  • Risk management: Good

Supplemental info:
+ UFC strawweight champion
+ Wushu sanda background
+ Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt
+ 10 KO victories
+ 7 submission wins
+ 11 first-round finishes
+ KO power
+ Aggressive pace and pressure
+ Wide variation of striking arsenal
^ From fundamentals to spinning attacks
+ Strong inside the clinch
^ Elbows, knees, trips, tosses
+ Shows serviceable wrestling and scrambling
+ Solid transitional grappling
^ Works well from top and bottom

Rose Namajunas (9-4 MMA, 5-0 UFC)

Staple info:

  • Height: 5’5″ Age: 28 Weight: 115 lbs. Reach: 65″
  • Last fight: Decision win over Jessica Andrade (July 11, 2020)
  • Camp: ONX Labs (Denver,)
  • Stance/striking style: Orthodox/kickboxing
  • Risk management: Good

Supplemental info:
+ UFC strawweight champion
+ Taekwondo and karate black belts
+ Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt
+ 1 KO victory
+ 5 submission wins
+ 2 first-round finishes
+ Good feints and footwork
^ Manages distance well
+ Accurate and effective jab
+ Counters well with right hand
+ Improved wrestling ability
+ Solid top game/positional rides
^ Looks for/floats toward back
+ Active and attacking guard
^ Explosive hips/good leg dexterity

Point of interest: Output vs. opportunities

Mar 7, 2020; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Weili
Zhang (red gloves) fights Joanna Jedrzejczyk (blue gloves) during UFC 248 at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The co-main event for UFC 261 features a strawweight title fight that will pit offensive output up against potential fight-ending opportunities.

Though listed as a fighter who hails from a wushu sanda background, Zhang Weili might as well have been built in a lab given all the skills she possesses as a fighter. The reigning strawweight champion can either come forward aggressively behind a high guard or counter competently while staying light on her feet, all while using feints to open up kicks and hooking combinations.

Like many sanda practitioners, Zhang also is not shy in using spinning attacks when the positions call for it. Whether she’s corralling her opponents into turning sidekicks or countering outside-foot approaches with spinning backfists, the 31-year-old seems confident striking from multiple roles and ranges.

However, outside of a natural feel for distance and her previously mentioned high guard, Zhang has shown that she is not beyond being stung by hard counters during her aggressive engagements. With that in mind, I will be curious to see how the current champ handles a fighter who is very familiar with linear attacks and their associated counters.

Enter Rose Namajunas.

Despite usually being longer than the bulk of her contemporaries, Namajunas has steadily shown that she can accentuate her length as she steps into her jabs concisely.

More impressive than the accuracy of her jab is the fact that Namajunas does well with judging risk versus reward in regards to her options of following up with a cross or backing up out of range. The 28-year-old has also massively improved her ability to set things up off of feints under the tutelage of Trevor Wittman – a coach who has helped Namajunas hone in on her skills by sharpening her overall fundamentals.

Nevertheless, Namajunas will need to be on point early and often with her strikes if she means to stop the surmounting momentum of her fearless opponent.

Point of interest: Potential grappling threats

Between Namajunas’ slick submission acumen on the floor to her suspect game inside of the clinch, I will be curious to see how much Zhang looks to force grappling issues in this fight.

As we saw in her title-winning effort in Shenzhen, China, Zhang possesses the power to demolish durable opposition with hard knees and elbows within close quarters. The champion’s sanda background also comes in handy when hanging out in this space, showing the ability to hit slick trips and takedowns at the drop of a dime.

Zhang can shoot for takedowns in the open as well, but she tends to get her best work done along the fence. And if Zhang fails on an attempt, she is quick to strike off the break and look for more opportunities to attack.

When Zhang is able to establish any sort of control off of a takedown, the Chinese fighter is quick to make hay by both settling into position, as well as seeking out damaging strikes like short elbows. Zhang, at least when she’s not being overaggressive, seems very competent inside of scrambles with freakish back-take ability to boot.

Zhang can also fight well from her back, but I doubt she’ll want to test the improvements of Namajunas from negative positions.

After a crushing loss to Carla Esparza, Namajunas hit an immediate upswing in her grappling abilities, displaying that she had more to offer than just opportunistic submissions off of her back.

Utilizing offensive wrestling and top pressure, Namajunas began taking down her counterparts, exposing them to submissions underneath her suggestive shoulder pressure and slick transitions.

A superb back-taker, Namajunas has a knack for floating to or finding the back of her opponent in transit. And given that Namajunas is undefeated in fights in which she has scored a back-take, this will undoubtedly be the scenario to look for during grappling exchanges.

Point of interest: Odds and opinions

Zhang Weili became the first Chinese UFC champion when she steamrolled powerhouse Jessica Andrade in her home country of China at UFC in August 2019.
In her first title defense, Weili faced former UFC strawweight queen Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 248 in what would turn out to be an instant classic. Weili managed to inflict severe damage on Jedrzejczyk in the 25 minutes, causing a massive hematoma and some serious bruising on her face, on her way to winning a decision. (David G. McIntyre-USA TODAY Sports)

The oddsmakers and public are siding with the sitting champion, listing Zhang -190 and Namajunas +165 as of this writing.

Although I don’t disagree with Zhang being favored, properly capping Namajunas can be tricky considering that we’ve seen the proverbial steering wheel over-corrected when it comes to setting both odds and expectations for the former champ throughout her career.

Nevertheless, it’s hard not to see Namajunas as one of the livelier underdogs among UFC 261’s main attractions. Not only does Namajunas have championship fight experience to go along with a fantastic coach in Trevor Wittman, but her style – at least on the feet – carries some potential kryptonite that she could harness in hopes of exposing the current champ.

Focusing more on the fundamentals of footwork and feints, Namajunas has subsequently put more sting on her patent one-two’s (jab-crosses) down the pike. And given Zhang’s past history with counter-right hands, this will be the opportunity that Namajunas supporters will be looking for.

That said, right hands won’t be the only stylistic problem at play.

Despite still having to shore up holes defensively, Zhang appears to both take and recover from shots well given the insane conditioning and athleticism that accompanies her skills. In fact, when looking at Namajunas’ record a bit closer, it appears that superior athletes who can either competently wrestle or fight from the clinch tend to get the better of her.

Namajunas’ boxing-centric stylings also has traditionally left her available for leg kicks at a high clip, as I suspect that that part of Zhang’s game will have its moments throughout striking exchanges. Add in Zhang’s ability to answer the call with 25-minutes of aggression if need be, and I have a hard time picking against the more durable and well-rounded fighter.

Unless Namajunas – who only has one knockout to her name – can stop Zhang or meaningfully hurt her within the first two rounds, then I suspect that the Chinese champion gets the better of both grappling and striking exchanges down the stretch, forcing the judges to award the more damaging fighter. A stoppage wouldn’t surprise me considering Zhang’s proven power and the fact that Namajunas typically doesn’t wear damage well, but the official pick will be Zhang by unanimous decision.