In 2020, Zhang Weili was on top of the world, beating Joanna Jedrzejczyk in the Fight of the Year. Last year was a step back for “Magnum,” but she pushed through with a violent 2022 to remember.
After losing two in a row and the UFC strawweight title to Rose Namajunas in 2020, Zhang was between a rock and a hard place. What was she to do to get back to the top? Zhang ended up having such a memorable year that she has been named The Sporting News Women’s MMA Fighter of the Year.
The UFC struck gold with the first Zhang vs. Joanna fight, and round two was more of the same. This time, Zhang ended the rivalry with a brutal spinning backfist. Jedrzejczyk retired soon after. That was the first sign that Zhang was back!
Zhang followed up that performance with an utterly dominant win over Carla Esparza to regain the UFC strawweight title. She outstruck Esparza 37-6, submitting her in the second in what could be seen as a sign of mercy. It did help that she was the -360 favorite to the -280 underdog in Esparza (per Caesars at the time).
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Back on the throne, the strawweight queen has several challengers to choose from next year, including Amanda Lemos, Yan Xiaonan, and a third fight with Namajunas. She also has an interest in moving to flyweight to challenge Valentina Shevchenko. Motivated, if Zhang can repeat her violent performances from her revenge year, there’s no telling what 2023 will bring for her.
Congratulations to Zhang Weili, The Sporting News Women’s MMA Fighter of the Year.
Runner-up: Amanda Nunes
Julianna Pena shocked the world when she submitted Amanda Nunes in December 2021. Her first loss since 2015, there were plenty of questions surrounding Nunes’ status. Not one to back down from a challenge, “The Lioness” proved all of her doubters wrong and mauled Pena in the rematch.
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At UFC 277 in July, Nunes recaptured the UFC bantamweight title, battering Pena with strikes while tiring her out on the ground. It was a much more vintage performance for Nunes, who became a double champion again.
With a new year comes new challenges. An active Nunes could mean trouble for the UFC’s bantamweight and featherweight divisions, the latter currently in limbo.
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