Zhang Weili, Joanna Jedrzejczyk steal show at UFC 248 as Israel Adesanya vs. Yoel Romero fizzles

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
(L-R) Zhang Weili of China kicks Joanna Jedrzejczyk of Poland in their UFC strawweight championship fight during the UFC 248 event at T-Mobile Arena on March 7, 2020 in Las Vegas. (Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

LAS VEGAS — There may not have been five better fights in the 26-plus-year history of the UFC than the classic that strawweight champion Zhang Weili and former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk delivered on Saturday before a deliriously happy crowd of 15,077 at T-Mobile Arena in the co-main event of UFC 248.

Zhang won a split decision in a bout that immediately became the front-runner for Fight of the Year and left nearly everyone in attendance standing and roaring.

And then, minutes later, middleweight champion Israel Adesanya and Yoel Romero entered the cage for what turned out to be one of the biggest duds of a main event in the nearly 20 years that Dana White has run the promotion.

“That fight sucked, man,” White said glumly.

He practically guaranteed that Adesanya’s next fight would be a lot more like Zhang-Jedrzejczyk than the disaster with Romero. Adesanya will fight unbeaten Brazilian Paulo Costa whenever Costa is healthy and ready to return, probably in July at UFC 252.

Costa was disgusted by what he saw from Adesanya.

“Adesanya is the most shameful champion I have seen ever,” Costa said. “He just runs. He’s nothing. Nothing. He’s scared. He doesn’t deserve that I talk about him. I will make him cry.”

The fans were the losers in that one, though Romero was heaping all of the blame on Adesanya. When the fight began, Romero stood in the center of the ring with his guard up high and didn’t move for at least 30 seconds.

It was the start of what would be a bout filled with boos and catcalls. An angry Romero called Adesanya a ghost.

“Every time I wanted to engage, he disappeared,” Romero said.

Adesanya, of course, fired right back. He noted all the epic fights he’s had in his brief UFC career and pointed out the difference was that Romero stayed on the defensive most of the night.

“I came to fight,” Adesanya said. “He came to merengue.”

(L-R) Yoel Romero of Cuba taunts Israel Adesanya of Nigeria in their UFC middleweight championship fight during the UFC 248 event at T-Mobile Arena on March 7, 2020 in Las Vegas. (Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

There was no question, though, what Zhang and Jedrzejczyk were there to do. They fought with an uncommon passion and courage, sacrificing their bodies in pursuit of victory.

Jedrzejczyk’s forehead was grossly swollen and misshapen from the right hands that she ate repeatedly from the UFC’s first Chinese champion. But Zhang had to be at her absolute best because Jedrzejczyk was on top of her game.

“Joanna comes to fight,” White said. “She’s incredibly talented. She comes to win. She comes to hurt you. She comes to bust you up. She’s one of the baddest to ever do it.”

But as good as Jedrzejczyk was, Zhang matched her punch for punch. Zhang had much to deal with in the build-up, and that has nothing to do with all the expectations that were heaped on her at home. She left China because of the coronavirus and went to Thailand. But the virus showed up in Thailand and so she went to Abu Dhabi for a brief stopover before heading to Vegas.

She fought at a blazing pace for each of the five rounds despite having so many interruptions to her camp.

It’s one of dozens of reasons why the UFC brass is so high on her.

“We knew she was special and we started moving her the way you move somebody you think is special,” said White, who said she’d likely fight in New York next. 

Mike Bell and Derek Cleary had it 48-47 for Zhang, while Eric Colon saw it 48-47 for Jedrzejczyk. No matter whose hand was raised, it was deserved after one of the UFC’s best ever fights.

White and many on his staff believe Adesanya can become one of the promotion’s best champions ever, but this fight isn’t going to be one on his highlight reel. He made the point, correctly from this vantage point, that it was hard to do much given Romero’s only plan was to land the big left. Otherwise, he seemed reluctant to engage.

He also was emotional from having lost his pet cat during camp. It was hit by a car and died, and his walkout in which women threw rose petals on the ground, was in part inspired by the cat.

“I’m grieving,” he said.

Adesanya looking forward to Costa bout

He was also looking forward. The one thing he knows is that Costa is going to attack him, and that will almost certainly make for the kind of fight in which he’ll shine. He and Costa have risen to the top at about the same time and have developed an intense rivalry.

Costa tried to enter the cage Saturday to confront Adesanya, but security removed him from the arena. Adesanya vowed not only to pummel him, but to taunt him in the build-up.

“I’m going to roast him like a Sunday pig,” Adesanya said of Costa.

Just a guess, but White probably would have liked to have seen him roast Romero in the cage on Saturday. But he kept his belt and White isn’t all that concerned fans will turn on him.

“The fighting sport is so crazy and you’ve got to keep winning,” White said. “If you keep winning, you’re going to be a star.”

And so he may ultimately bloom as a star, but that’s a story for another day.

The story on this day was that the women stole the show. And in a way, it’s good for Adesanya and Romero that they did, because it will take at least some of the attention away from what failed to happen in their bout.

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