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New is old, and old is new as Rose Namajunas and Zhang Weili set for rematch at UFC 268

Rose Namajunas battles Jessica Andrade in their strawweight

Rose Namajunas battles Jessica Andrade in their strawweight fight during the UFC 251 event at Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 12, 2020 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  Credit: Zuffa LLC/Jeff Bottari

Meet the new foe, same as the old foe.

That’s been the theme for Rose Namajunas’ career of late: a title fight, then a rematch against the same opponent.

The pattern continues when she defends her UFC strawweight title against Zhang Weili in the co-main event of UFC 268 on Saturday at Madison Square Garden, and Namajunas says she hasn’t tired of all the familiar faces just yet.

"Every training camp is just a little bit different, and I’m expecting Weili to be a little bit different as well," Namajunas told Newsday.

The champion hopes their fight Saturday goes much the same as their previous bout, as well as her prior championship rematches. Namajunas beat Zhang by head-kick knockout just 1:18 into their first fight last April, her third consecutive win in an immediate rematch, to claim her second UFC strawweight title.

"I don’t know for everybody else, but for me, I’m a really fast learner, and I feel like I do so well in rematches because I learn from my mistakes and learn from my opponent really fast," Namajunas said. "So experience for me I think helps more than most people, but it definitely helps anybody."

The rematch trend started with a pair of visits to New York in 2017-18. Namajuans shocked the Garden crowd with a first-round TKO against then-unbeaten champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 217, then defended against Jedrzejczyk in a five-round unanimous decision during UFC 223 at Barclays Center.

"Going into the rematch with Joanna, I was sort of expecting a similar version of herself, just more in shape, so I didn’t really change that much," Namajunas said.

That wasn’t the case for the next set of fights. Namajunas lost her title to Jessica Andrade as the clear road fighter at UFC 237 in May 2019 in Rio de Janeiro, being knocked out after Andrade slammed Namajunas on the back of her head. For their reunion at UFC 251 in June 2020, a three-round non-title bout after Andrade lost to Zhang, Namajunas started fresh.

"Everything from inside and out changed in the rematch with Andrade. Mainly because of the result. It wasn't just a loss. It was a really devastating loss for me. So it's one thing to lose a fight in a close decision. And then there's another thing to get slammed on your neck, that's a huge wake up call," Namajunas said. "There was so much change from top to bottom, or I should say inside and out, that I did. Internally, I had many changes and huge growth but eventually that outwardly manifested in change of team, change of training and approach to my technique and things like that."

This rematch with Zhang has a different dynamic. After such a quick KO in their first matchup, Namajunas isn’t sure she had enough time to truly assess the skills of Zhang. For her part, the China native said that she won't alter much strategically despite the poor result, but Zhang says she now has grown in her understanding of the sport and learned what small mistakes to avoid.

"It’s not about revenge or anything, it’s more about me as a brand-new fighter," Zhang told Newsday through her translator. "It’s very important for me to learn and change. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from the last fight and feel like I need to just adjust and make changes or add new things."

Whichever version of Zhang arrives at MSG, Namajunas’ success early in their first bout has her convinced she’ll have another dominant showing.

"As far as her strength, I could feel that she has some speed and explosiveness if you came at her and came into her range," said Namajunas. "So as long as I’m within my range and control my distance and do the things I’m training to do, it will be very one-sided in my favor and very difficult for her to do anything.

"Coming out of that fight, I just had so much more from my gameplan that I was ready to unleash and prepared to have to do, it just so happened that the setup to what I was about to do ended up finishing the fight."

New York Sports