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The Ultimate Fighting Championship apparently fancied its Uruguay event so much that the promotion elected to follow the blueprint. A women’s title fight in the headliner? Check. A co-main event between underrated welterweight bangers? Check. A bunch of fun bouts that are not immediately relevant? Check. UFC Fight Night 157 on Saturday in Shenzhen, China, should be an entertaining watch, and while it may be a little lighter on Chinese representation, it speaks volumes about the country’s talent that its fighters no longer look out of place on a fight card. Considering the odd start time -- 3 a.m. ET/12 a.m. PT -- those hardcore fans in the Western Hemisphere who happen to suffer from insomnia are in luck.
Now to the UFC Fight Night “Andrade vs. Zhang” preview:
UFC Women’s Strawweight ChampionshipJessica Andrade (20-6) vs. Weili Zhang (19-1)
ODDS: Andrade (-175), Zhang (+155)
In an era that has quickly filled with underappreciated champions, Andrade might top the list. Part of that is probably owed to Andrade’s odd career path towards championship glory. When Andrade made her UFC debut back in 2013, she had the double disadvantage of being both extremely raw and in the wrong weight class, as she was a jacked-up but physically undersized bantamweight. Andrade still had some success, but losses to Marion Reneau and Raquel Pennington gave her a clear ceiling as a prospect at 135 pounds. The thought at the time was that Andrade was a natural flyweight due to her muscled frame, which made it a bit of a surprise when she decided to drop all the way down to 115 pounds. The weight cuts have not been an issue, and Andrade’s power has certainly translated down to strawweight. Her physicality has provided most of the headlines during her time at 115 pounds, even overshadowing the impressiveness of her success. It took her all of three months to establish herself as a top contender with wins over Jessica Penne, Joanne Calderwood and Angela Hill. Unfortunately for Andrade, the nature of her loss to then-champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk has somewhat cemented the narrative that typecasts her as an unskilled powerhouse. Using her extreme reach advantage, Jedrzejczyk managed to play matador and keep Andrade at range for the better part of 25 minutes as the challenger simply kept charging forward. Since that fight, all Andrade has done is win, with her last two victories coming in extremely brutal fashion for a strawweight, male or female. Andrade needed all of two minutes to knock out the normally durable Karolina Kowalkiewicz, then took the strawweight crown from Rose Namajunas by slamming the champion directly onto her head. It has been an odd dynamic. While violence-bringers in a similar mold -- John Lineker comes to mind -- are usually celebrated, Andrade seemingly gets dinged points for not being a technically superior fighter; and like the Jedrzejczyk fight before it, the Namajunas fight only seemed to strengthen that thought, as “Thug Rose” was lighting up Andrade before the Brazilian put a definitive end to things. At some point, Andrade is going to do enough entertaining stuff to earn some widespread respect, but for now, she seems firmly entrenched in the UFC’s second tier of champions, even if she has some fun fights ahead of her.
First up on Andrade’s championship slate: China’s Zhang, who certainly deserves this shot, even if it reeks of the UFC rushing her along quicker than expected in an attempt to create some history. Zhang racked up an eye-popping record on the regional scene, winning 16 straight bouts after dropping her debut, and while she was obviously a UFC-level fighter, there was some question about exactly how much success she would enjoy upon hitting the Octagon. Wins over Danielle Taylor and Jessica Aguilar were fine enough in terms of establishing Zhang as a talent, but it was her March victory over Tecia Torres that showed championship-level potential, as she picked apart and overpowered a stalwart of the division. The thought was that Zhang would get another win or two to truly put herself over the top, but with no one contender knocking down the doors, the UFC decided to skip that step and see what “Magnum” can do against the champ.
There is plenty to like as it relates to Zhang’s chances to stop Andrade, at least relative to the Brazilian’s other potential challengers. A lot of the criticism of Andrade’s lack of skill comes from the fact that her game is rather simple, focusing on constant pressure and relying on her power and durability to eventually overwhelm her opponents. Jedrzejczyk and Namajunas used their respective reaches to keep Andrade at bay while staying laterally mobile, and while Zhang does not have the frame to pull that off, there are some lessons to be learned. For one, Torres -- one of the few strawweights as stocky as Andrade -- enjoyed some early success through her speed alone, and Zhang showed the ability to meet that pace when she met “The Tiny Tornado” some five months ago. When you add in Zhang’s kicking game, particularly the push kicks of which she is quite fond, the challenger certainly has the ability to stay on her bike, keep Andrade at bay and work her way to a decision victory. The main issue is that Zhang has to fight against type to do so. At her core, Zhang is still a forward-moving fighter, and that is a quick way to fall right into the type of fight Andrade will love. While Zhang is quite muscular herself, she has not proven to be an overwhelming wrestler, which suggests Andrade should still be able to overpower her. Whether it was Kowalkiewicz’s chin or Claudia Gadelha’s strength, Andrade has managed to overcome whatever physical advantages her opponents may bring to the cage, and Zhang looks to be no exception. This is certainly a significant opportunity for Zhang to become a breakout star, regionally or otherwise, and while she is capable of making the type of leap in performance needed to win the title, that type of jump has to be seen before it can be predicted. The pick is Andrade via third-round stoppage.
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