MMA Junkie’s 2022 Comeback Fighter of the Year: Zhang Weili

When the calendar flipped from Dec. 31, 2021 to Jan. 1, 2022, Zhang Weili was on a two-fight skid with an uncertain path back to title contention. Fast forward a year, and she’s back on top of strawweight throne.

That’s quite the comeback.

Weili (23-3 MMA, 7-2 UFC) capitalized on her 2022 campaign in violent and dominant fashion with finishes over former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk and then-champion Carla Esparza en route to a UFC title clinch.

The first highlight added to her reel was Jedrzejczyk, who unwillingly became Weili’s most violent finish to date. The bout took place at UFC 275 in June and was pegged by promotion president Dana White as a title eliminator.

A spinning back elbow put Jedrzejczyk out cold – the first loss of its kind for the Polish fighter. That’s a feat within itself for Weili. After the fight, Jedrzejczyk retired.

Five months later in November, Weili challenged Esparza for the UFC women’s strawweight championship at UFC 281, an event which took place at Madison Square Garden in New York.

After a successful first round, Weili turned up the tempo in Round 2 as she finished Esparza with an unusual modified rear-naked choke to win back the title – and solidify a much different year than she had in 2021.

Weili’s bounce-back from consecutive title losses and retaking of the throne makes her MMA Junkie’s 2022 Comeback Fighter of the Year.

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MMA Junkie's 2022 Female Fighter of the Year: Zhang Weili

Honorable Mentions

Drew Dober

Drew Dober entered 2022 off back-to-back losses. In three fights this year, he went 3-0 with finishes of Bobby Green, Rafael Alves, and Terrance McKinney to potentially earn him a major matchup in 2023.

Patricio Freire

Patricio Freire was somewhat humiliated when he was starched by A.J. McKee in July 2021. Nine months later, however, he seemed to make everyone forget the loss happened when he defeated McKee in a rematch. The win was his biggest of 2022 but he added a successful title defense against Adam Borics and a crossover victory against RIZIN featherweight champion Kleber Koike to go 3-0.

John Hathaway

It was eight-and-a-half years in between fights for John Hathaway – and unprecedented gap caused by ulcerative colitis. Through surgeries, medications, and patience, Hathaway finally returned in October when he defeated Andre Ricardo by unanimous decision at OKTAGON 36.

Karolina Kowalkiewicz

Many fighters are cut when they lose five fights in a row, but the UFC stuck by Karolina Kowalkiewicz – and she proved the promotion correct in their decision-making. After a win over fellow veteran Felice Herrig, Kowalkiewicz defeated Silvana Gomez Juarez by decision in November.

Christian Lee

Christian Lee entered 2022 without a belt – and exited it with two. Not only did Lee avenge a late 2021 welterweight title loss to Rae Yoon Ok, he defeated middleweight champion Kiamrian Abbasov. Both title victories were by TKO.

Brennan Ward

Brennan Ward returned from a near five-year layoff in February when he defeated Brandon Bell at Bellator 274. But it wasn’t just the time away he had to overcome. Ward revealed to MMA Junkie in a tell-all feature interview announcing his comeback that he spent most of his career addict to drugs, but finally turned his life around. In 2022, he went 2-0 with two TKO finishes.

Story originally appeared on MMA Junkie