UFC 268 delivered a great card. From early prelims up to the main event, there were a ton of amazing battles inside the Octagon. All in all, it’s an easy contender for one of, if not the, best fight cards in 2021.
It was also, strangely, more politicized than what you’d normally expect from a mixed martial arts event. UFC 268 headlined two great championship fights in the co-main and main events, both rematches between the two top competitors in their respective divisions.
In the main event fans were treated to the reunion between incumbent champion Kamaru Usman and the challenger, Colby Covington. On one side of the aisle, the son of immigrants who rose from humble beginnings to the highest of peaks. On the other, a proud MAGA supporter who was ready to prove that the first fight was the fluke he claimed it to be.
Their personas outside the ring couldn’t be more diametrically opposed, but their skills inside the cage gave fans one of the most compelling championship fights of the year. Much like their first encounter, it was a back-and-forth battle. It looked like Usman was going to finish things in the second, until Covington rallied late in the fight to turn the tide.
When the dust settled, Kamaru Usman’s hand was raised, and only a few fervent Colby fanboys could be heard whining about the decision.
Things were similar, but decidedly different, in the co-main event. Like the headliner, the co-main was a rematch between two fierce competitors. The champion Rose Namajunas wanted to prove that her knockout victory in their first encounter wasn’t a fluke, while the challenger Weili Zhang sought her redemption.
And like the main event, this championship fight brought an unexpected political charge to it. Rose Namajunas infamously stated before her first fight with Zhang that it was “better dead than Red,” using the fact that Weili comes from a communist country as extra inspiration heading into their battle.
Some fans defended the sentiment, while others felt it unnecessarily politicized the fight. After suffering her first-round knockout loss at UFC 261, Weili stated that she believed Rose’s comments turned the crowd against her. There was even a minority of fans who believed that the fight was stopped early due to favoritism for the American fighter over the Chinese one.
Many fans were hopeful to put aside the politics and have some definitive answers after the rematch at UFC 268. Did that happen? Absolutely not. Quite the opposite.
The fight was a memorable, back-and-forth battle between the two best women’s strawweight fighters on the planet. Each competitor had their moments, with each round of the early rounds being decided by the slimmest of margins.
When it was time for Bruce Buffer to read out the scorecards, there was a sense that either fighter could have won. The scorecards, in some sense, reflected that with a split decision. Weili Zhang won on one card, 48-47, while Rose Namajunas was granted the victory by taking the other two cards, 48-47 and 49-46.
It was the 49-46 card, specifically, that had people scratching their heads. It took no time at all for the word “robbery” and accusations of corruption and favoritism to start circulating.
If we’re being honest here, the term “robbery” has become one of the most overused phrases in the MMA fandom lexicon. Robberies used to be when a fighter that clearly won somehow lost a decision. Nowadays, it gets thrown around for every close fight. And when it comes to the rematch between Namajunas and Zhang, it doesn’t get much closer.
Hindsight is 20-20, but upon closer examination, the consensus seems to be that Rose should have won 48-47. Nobody disagrees that Rose won the 4th and 5th round, which were the clearest rounds of the fight. However, UFC fights don’t score like Pride fights, so the final rounds don’t weigh more heavily in the scoring. The people who believe Zhang won gave her the first 3 rounds, reflected in the judge’s scorecard that gave her the 48-47 nod.
Since the first three rounds are the points of contention, those are the ones we’re going to take a closer look at. In the first round, Rose landed 20 of 36 significant strikes compared to 22 of 38 for Weili. However, Weili scored a takedown with just over a minute of control, solidifying the round for her.
The second round is truly the crux of the fight. If Rose won the second round, she won the fight without question. If Zhang won the round, there’s a more than solid case that she deserved to be crowned champion again.
You can’t tell the complete picture of a fight simply by looking at the statistical breakdown, but for consistency, Rose outlanded Weili, 20 of 45 significant strikes compared to 16 of 39. Both women landed a takedown but didn’t get much out of them other than just over 30 seconds of control.
The moment that made this round so difficult to judge was at the 1:52 mark, where Rose entered the pocket at distance with a left hand. Zhang slipped to one side and appeared to land a devastating left that would have been the most impactful strike in the fight to that point.
Judges in real time don’t have the benefit of slow-motion replay, but careful examination of that moment reveals that it was a clash of heads rather than a legal strike that stumbled Rose for a moment. Weili’s left hand landed on Rose's armpit, not her head. Rose also recovered instantly, landing a beautiful sidekick to Zhang’s face that stung the Chinese brawler as she swarmed in, hopeful for the kill.
If that moment had been a legal strike, Zhang probably should have won the second round and thereby the fight. However, since it was a clash of heads, the fighter didn't benefit from the damage it caused, edging the round in Rose’s favor. This solidifies the scorecard that gave Rose the nod, 48-47.
Even still, the 49-46 scorecard for Rose is questionable. Round 3 was Weili’s best round, outlanding Rose 25 significant strikes to 14 and scoring a takedown. The first round was closer, but the judge with the 49-46 card gave Rose the third. It’s impossible to know what’s going through a judge’s mind in real time but giving Rose the third is a bit perplexing.
Regardless of whether favoritism played a role in that judge’s decision, Rose winning the fight was the right call. There’s a clear line for Rose winning the 2nd, 4th, and 5th rounds, with Zhang winning the 1st and 3rd.
So, was Weili Zhang robbed? No. She lost the fight fair and square, making the accusations of political favoritism and corruption baseless. The term “robbery” should take a step back into its original role of being designated for fights where there was a clear winner instead of getting thrown around every single closely contested bout.