Rose Namajunas solidified attained her mantle as the UFC strawweight champion with a second consecutive win over Zhang Weili at UFC 268 in Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.
The first time Namajunas won the title was in Madison Square Garden, where she stopped Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Having since lost the belt and won it back, she returned to the Big Apple to rematch Zhang, the fighter whom she took the belt from earlier this year.
Namajunas has long struggled with anxiety, but making her way to the Octagon in New York, she shrugged it off. She was audibly chanting to herself “I am the best, I am the champ, I am the best.”
And she was the best again on Saturday night.
Namajunas looked strong and comfortable to start the fight, but Zhang quickly began attack with low leg kicks, which eventually set up a takedown. Namajunas escaped to her feet and closed the round with a front kick and straight right that stung Zhang, making it a close round.
The second round saw Namajunas start with a lot of fluidity. She bobbed and slipped, even shucked off a Zhang takedown attempt, appearing to shift into another gear. But that was when Zhang staggered her and took Namajunas to the canvas. They returned to their feet, where Namajunas drove a straight right hand into Zhang’s face and tripped her to the canvas, but couldn’t do much with the position before the round ended.
Namajunas appeared to take a bit of control in the third round, as Zhang got a little wild with her punching early and Namajunas took advantage with targeted strikes. She even dropped Zhang late in the round. But Zhang turned the tide as the round closed, taking Namajunas to the canvas and landing in full mount as the round came to a close.
The fight was razor thin going into the fourth round, where Namajunas started strong with her punching, while Zhang continued to pepper her legs with low kicks. Zhang clinched and moved to Namajunas’s back, dragging her to the canvas, but Namajunas eventually turned the tide. She spent the final two minutes of the frame driving punches into Zhang’s ribs.
Namajunas really showed her mettle in the final round. She cast all respect for Zhang’s power aside, powered her way into a beautiful takedown and kept the former champion on the canvas for the better part of five minutes. Namajunas was tenacious, constantly dropping punches on Zhang, standing and dropping down just to land a single punch, all the while keeping Zhang in a defensive posture. Namajunas mauled Zhang throughout the final frame, securing her status as the undisputed UFC strawweight champion of the world.
It was a narrow decision with two of the judges scoring the bout 48-47 and 49-46 in favor of Namajunas, while a third judge scored it 48-47 in Zhang’s favor.
Holloywood superstar Halle Barry slung the UFC belt around Namajunas’s waist, as the champ and Zhang hugged in a tremendous show of respect.
“It was a tough fight. I was pretty confident that I won it, but I wasn’t worried about the result,” Namajunas said after the fight, showing a confidence that has often been lacking in the past.