Tuesday, June 28, 2022

The Two Strawweights Who Deserve A Seat With The MMA Giants

On March 7, 2020, Joanna Jędrzejczyk and Zhang Weili gave birth to a classic that will live eternally, despite being assigned a gender.

When fans think of the greatest fights in MMA history, some fights that come to mind are those sewn with brawn and blood, scraps like Jones vs. Gustafsson, McGregor vs. Diaz II, Lawler vs. MacDonald II, etc. Very rarely do you hear the names of women voiced into the discussion.

If ever there was a time for such a conversation to flow naturally, it was at the conclusion of Joanna Jędrzejczyk’s and Zhang Weili’s frenetic exchanges at UFC 248. Those two 115-pound women earned a seat with the giants at the “Best Fights in MMA History Table.”

In fact, if you ask your humble narrator, they aren’t sitting alongside them but are rather placed at the head of the table.

That’s right, approximately eight years after women were granted entry into a 20-year-old sport, two strawweights set the standard for epic fights. Indeed, Jędrzejczyk vs. Zhang had all the boxes checked when it comes to MMA classics.

Title Fight – ✅

Non-Stop Action – ✅

Grit, Resolve, Toughness – ✅

Coin-Flip Competitiveness – ✅

Heart-Racing Drama – ✅

Sometimes, the optics of blood can add to said drama, as it adds a tangible visual to the “heart, resolve, and toughness” box. Well, I’ll see your crimson mask and raise you a Rocky Dennis.

LOOK: Joanna Jedrzejczyk suffers grotesque hematoma in war with Weili Zhang  at UFC 248 - CBSSports.com
Copyright: 2020 Jeff Bottari

The fight had skill, technique, and was about as back-and-forth as a scrap could get. There was footwork, pocket trading, clinch battles, kicks, combos, and nonstop volleys in this war between proud soldiers of Poland and China. And at the end of the fight, with the crowd giving a well-earned standing ovation, there were two sentences that helped frame the narrative around this historic encounter:

Jon Anik: “Arguably the greatest fight in women’s mixed martial arts history, as predicted by the former champion, Joanna Jędrzejczyk!”

Joe Rogan: “I think we can safely say that was the greatest title fight in women’s MMA history.”

The problem with those quotes is that it restricts and labels a display that was, in actuality, transcendent beyond its peers. And the “peers” aren’t just other female fights, but rather any all-time classic in the pantheon of MMA classics.

Anik and Rogan may be the initial reactors with the largest and most immediate platform to frame this epic encounter, but fans and pundits worldwide have often, if not predominately, boxed the bout in as a WMMA classic. But in reality, it was, as Daniel Cormier indicated multiple times throughout the contest, as good as any fight of all time, regardless of gender.

Jon Anik and Joe Rogan did not frame the fight as a WMMA classic maliciously, and they are not misogynists who can’t bring themselves to allow Jędrzejczyk and Zhang a seat at the table with giants. Like others who have framed it as solely an WMMA classic after them, it is more than likely a subconscious categorization.

In fact, even our very own Harvey Leonard, who credits this fight for being the last straw that persuaded him to cover this sport, has admitted to unconsciously labeling it as arguably the best women’s mixed martial arts fight as opposed to arguably the best mixed martial arts fight of all time.

Weili Zhang Joanna Jedrzejczyk
Image Credit: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Why is that? We don’t label Robbie Lawler vs. Rory MacDonald II as one of the best welterweight fights of all time or Gaethje vs. Chandler as one of the best lightweight fights of all time.

Sure, those claims would be true, non-demeaning, and both are honorable distinctions. But instead, they are given full, unrestricted praise for the gender- and label-free classics that they are. And if Joanna Jędrzejczyk and Zhang Weili didn’t earn that same respect on the night of March 7, 2020, in front of that spellbound crowd, then that means all women are barred from the table.

And there is one other box that this all-time classic checked off: the “historic context” box.

This classic was on the final card held in front of a full crowd before the COVID-19 pandemic gave way to closed-arena shows. Given the lackluster main event that night between Israel Adesanya and Yoel Romero, it’s fair to say that it was Joanna Jędrzejczyk and Zhang Weili who gave new meaning to the expression, “sent the crowd home happy.”

That crowd inside the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas as well as the worldwide audience would be home for over a year with this fight branded in their memories. And it’s memories like these that Joanna Jędrzejczyk was insistent on creating, or not creating art at all.

Now that live crowds are back, so, too, is the Boogeywoman, prepared to once again shock spectators with the gore and glory of an epic, life-altering MMA fight when she re-enters the Octagon for another battle with Zhang Weili this Saturday at UFC 275.

Will they be able to outdo in three rounds what they were able to create in a full-five round championship fight? Nearly impossible. But as of March 7, 2020, neither have anything to prove when it comes to all-time MMA classics.

Because even the greatest, most celebrated giants of MMA history must bend the knee to the two queens who stand shoulder to shoulder with the kings.

You can watch MY #1 fight in MMA history below in its entirety.

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