One fighter walks into the cage with a 9-2 record, a successful Invicta title reign under her belt and no losses in over three years. The other has yet to compete in more than a handful of professional fights, sports just a 2-1 record and suffered her first loss in her last official pro bout. On paper, determining the favorite and the underdog seems like it’s a pretty obvious decision. The first fighter, Carla Esparza, has over twice as much experience as the second fighter, Rose Namajunas, and Esparza has the championship pedigree and resume to back up any doubts about her ability to compete at the highest level. As for Namajunas, well, outside of her “Submission of the Year”-winning armbar in 2013, the only thing fight fans could possibly point to while predicting a Namajunas victory is a three-fight stretch on a reality series. That’s the same show that also featured Esparza having the exact same amount of success.
Fans and analysts alike watched Namajunas pull off a quick submission win to secure her first victory on The Ultimate Fighter 20. They gradually started to believe the Milwaukee native could be the one to knock off Esparza. Namajunas only added strength to that theory with her “Fight of the Season” win over highly touted Joanne Calderwood. By the time she knocked off Randa Markos with her third submission win in a row to reach the finals, it seemed like 80 percent of the MMA community — myself included — had taken a giant swig of the Rose-flavored Kool-Aid and were predicting a UFC title would be around her waist a few days later.
Meanwhile, as fans were left drooling over Namajunas and her spectacular run through the house, Esparza did exactly what she was supposed to do as the heavy favorite: she took care of business. After dispatching Angela Hill in under a round to kick off the competition, Esparza took a decision victory over Tecia Torres (the only fighter to defeat Namajunas up to that point point) in order to reach the semifinals. While Namajunas was left to fight the dark-horse No. 14 seed Markos, Esparza defeated former Invicta atomweight champion and No. 4 seed Jessica Penne by decision. Esparza secured her spot in the finals with her second straight win over a fighter ranked as a top-four seed and proved to be the dominant fighter of the tournament.
In hindsight, the fact that Esparza went from the alleged heavy favorite to a betting underdog in the 48 hours between the reality show’s final taped episode on Wednesday and the live TUF Finale on Friday is almost comical. Esparza had a better record, a better resume and defeated better competition on the show, yet somehow Namajunas came out of the show looking like the more promising fighter and the future of the strawweight division. In what universe does that make sense?
Let’s be clear, none of this should be misconstrued as a shot at Namajunas. The way the Milwaukee native worked her way to the finals by tapping out everyone in sight was impressive, to say the least, and there’s no doubt that she more than earned her right to be in the inaugural title fight opposite Esparza. She has the potential to be a fixture near the top of the division, too. However, The Ultimate Fighter environment is a terrible setting to judge the effectiveness of fighters. After her dominant run on the show, the public started to view Namajunas through rose-colored glasses.
It’s been said a hundred times, but the TUF house is a pressure cooker. Throwing 16 highly trained athletes into a house is great for television and provides plenty of drama. For many competitors, the time spent in the TUF gym enables them to grow as fighters at a rate much faster than if they continued in their normal training environment. But, for all of its positives, the rapid-fire schedule that the fighters are forced to compete under during the show’s filming makes it extremely difficult to actually determine which fighter is truly the best of the bunch.
During the six and a half weeks in the house, Esparza and Namajunas each fought three times. That averages out to a fight roughly every two weeks if the UFC was able to make the schedule work perfectly. To top it off, even with the bracket firmly set at the beginning of the show, there was no way for these fighters to have any idea as to whom they would fight next until both they and their opponent had advanced to the next round.
Compared to a normal fight camp, that amount of time to prepare is next to nothing. Things like studying tape and game-planning specifically for an opponent are all but thrown out of the window. For fighters that possess dominant skills in a certain area, like Esparza (wrestling) or Namajunas (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu), this can be a huge advantage. They can play to their strengths and not really worry about their opponent knowing their tendencies and having a game plan to stop them. When given an actual fight camp and time to prepare for an opponent, it’s a whole different ball game. Esparza made that pretty clear when she seemingly had an answer for every move Namajunas attempted to make when they fought at the live event.
Namajunas may have looked like an assassin on the mat during the show, but it seems like the MMA community was woefully uneducated when it came to these fighters and their histories. That much was obvious when the final was announced. For most of those familiar with the pre-TUF performances of Namajunas and Esparza, Namajunas was a fun pick to pull off the upset on the heels of her hot streak in the tournament. However, her three fights prior to the show indicated that she still had a ways to go before she could properly match her skill set to that of Esparza, who was a proven veteran with title-fight experience. Since it’s likely that most of the fans watching TUF were getting their first taste of the 115-pound division, it’s not hard to see why picking Namajunas would seem like a viable option to most of them, especially when she opened as the underdog on the betting lines.
Namajunas is a top-tier women’s strawweight, there’s no doubt about that. But through a mixture the misleading TUF gauntlet and an overall ignorance about her weight class, fans gave her a bit too much credit heading into her UFC debut. Her hype train ended up getting derailed barely two days after it got started. Unable to stop the relentless wrestling attack brought forth by Esparza, Namajunas was thoroughly dominated in their bout. Now, she is likely going to have a long climb up the strawweight ladder in order to get back into contention. However, she’s a perfectly legitimate top-10 fighter in a new division. Once people get over the ridiculously high expectations that were set for Namajunas in her debut, she’ll be able to earn a more reasonable reputation in no time.
Getting called the “next Ronda Rousey” before your first official UFC fight is a lot of pressure for any fighter to handle. Now that the hype has died down and she’s become just another fighter on the UFC roster, Namajunas can avoid all of the talk and act like what she actually is for a change: an upstart fighter with a boatload of potential.