June 16, 2019

UFC on ESPN+ 15: Choosing Weili Zhang Over Michelle Waterson Is UFC Business As Usual

By Raphael Garcia

The UFC has a constant need for new stars to populate its divisions. Everything from injuries to waning desire to opportunities outside of fighting can and will pull exceptional fighters away from the Octagon, so it's important for the promotion to leverage the stars currently on its roster for maximum financial benefit. In the UFC, what's best for business usually takes precedent over the "sport" aspect of MMA. If sport were the only consideration, bantamweight Michelle Waterson would be next in line to face the champion, Jessica Andrade, rather than the current challenger, Weili Zhang. Business was the factor that put Zhang in this position, but honesty from the UFC about that fact would go a long way.

After UFC 238 ended, the conversation over who would face Andrade next seemed to focus on Tatiana Suarez and Waterson. Suarez was coming off an important win over Nina Ansaroff which added another victory to her undefeated eight-win career with. Waterson, the former Invicta Fighting Championships atomweight champion, is riding a win streak of her own, a three-fight run which includes a win over a former title challenger in Karolina Kowalkiewicz. Given the state of the women's bantamweight division, it's understandable that people were expecting the UFC to select one of these two women for the title shot. But in classic Street Fighter fashion, “Here Comes A New Challenger.”

Weili Zhang is an intriguing challenger in her own right. She has put on some impressive performances since joining the UFC in 2018. She’s won all three of her fights in the Octagon, which continues a winning streak that has spanned nearly her entire career. After dropping her professional debut in November 2013 via unanimous decision, Zhang hasn’t tasted defeat, winning 19 straight fights, including 16 by some form of stoppage. Zhang is a threat to the champion, and sooner or later she would be viewed as such by MMA fans.

But why was she selected as the challenger sooner, rather than later? In part, it's because Tatiana Suarez is dealing with a serious neck injury -- one that threatens her quality of life, let alone her ability to fight -- so it’s understandable that taking time away from the cage to recover would be a greater priority for her than an opportunity to fight for the belt. That should have made Waterson the frontrunner for the title shot, but UFC President Dana White, when asked about it by MMA Junkie at the UFC 238 post-event press conference, expressed different sentiments:

“Michelle Waterson? Not Michelle Waterson. Michelle Waterson doesn’t even want to fight until like September or October or something, and she’s ranked too low.”



That’s quite an asinine statement when it’s broken down. At the time that White made those statements, Zhang was ranked #6 by the UFC's promotional rankings, and Waterson was ranked #7. Andrade is scheduled to defend her title on August 31st; September 1st is the very next day. If Waterson was plotting a return in September, we're talking a difference of a couple of weeks, perhaps even a couple of days. White's statements just don't add up. But what does add up is that the August 31st event, UFC on ESPN+ 15, takes place in Shenzhen, Guangdong, China, and Zhang is from China, which is a country and a market that the UFC has made considerable effort to penetrate.

In recent years, the UFC has struggled to establish a foothold in Asia or find a star worthy of building its promotional efforts around in that region. The organization has lost several Asian prospects, including Kyoji Horiguchi, one of the best fighters in the world today, who just this weekend captured Bellator MMA's bantamweight title. If Zhang finds a way to defeat Andrade -- an admittedly tall task to be sure -- that would give the UFC a native-born champion to market to fans in the Middle Kingdom. And regardless of whether she wins or loses, headlining a China card is a tremendous promotional opportunity for both her and the UFC.

Decisions in the UFC about who receives title opportunities are based on a variety of factors -- not just wins and losses. Sometimes fighters are unavailable to fight on dates that the promotion has targeted for title bouts. Sometimes the company has a specific plan to break into a market that it believes will be lucrative in the future, and a particular fighter is instrumental in those efforts. Sometimes, naked favoritism comes into play. But whatever the UFC's reasons may be, the promotion's decision to offer Weili Zhang a title shot before Michelle Waterson is more about business than merit. And telling fans anything different is an affront to everyone’s intelligence.

UFC on ESPN+ 15
Jessica Andrade vs. Weili Zhang (UFC Women's Bantamweight Championship)

UFC on ESPN+ 15 takes place August 31, 2019 at Universiade Sports Centre in Shenzhen, China.

Click HERE for more UFC on ESPN+ 15 Pre-Fight Analysis


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