A dominant champion who batters opponents senseless, knocks them out and rearranges their faces. A tough, hard-nosed fighter who can pull of a flying armbar submission in all of 12 seconds. A bright, photogenic young fighter who combines potential with a great personality and brought the UFC more mainstream exposure by appearing on a popular reality show. And now, one of the most talented young fighters signed with the UFC to compete against these fighters and others.
After reading these descriptions, you would think this division in the UFC sounds like the most exciting one around and one that deserves a big spotlight. But would you believe I just described UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk, her fellow 115-pounders Rose Namajunas and Paige VanZant and recent UFC signee Alexa Grasso?
The division certainly had an eventful summer. Jędrzejczyk and her biggest rival, Claudia Gadelha, were coaches on the latest season of The Ultimate Fighter, which wrapped up last month and featured strawweight fighters who competed for a UFC contract. Jędrzejczyk and Gadelha also met for the strawweight title at the season finale and put on another classic battle in which Jędrzejczyk came out on top.
To end the summer, the UFC inked one of the most talented young fighters to compete against Jędrzejczyk, Namajunas and others. That fighter would be the aforementioned Grasso, the Invicta FC strawweight star who signed with the UFC earlier this month. The undefeated Grasso will make her Octagon debut in November and is regarded as one of the most talented fighters in all of Invicta, regardless of weight class.
— UFC (@ufc) August 12, 2016
Judging by all these recent happenings within the strawweight division, not to mention the UFC’s season of The Ultimate Fighter that introduced the weight class to UFC fans — it would be understandable to think the UFC provides the strawweights more than enough of a spotlight. But is this really the case?
Top to bottom, the strawweight division is one of the deepest in all of the UFC. It’s on par with the men’s featherweight and lightweight divisions. It is definitely deeper than its sister division, women’s bantamweight. However, on the whole, the strawweight division is still underrepresented outside of fights where Jędrzejczyk defends her title.
According to this spreadsheet created by researcher extraordinaire Suzanne Davis, the UFC put on 49 women’s strawweight fights since the division’s inception in 2014, compared to 87 fights in the men’s bantamweight division and 183 fights in the men’s welterweight division. While those other divisions are home to several talented fighters, the depth of talent in either one isn’t close to the strawweights.
Besides a lack of strawweight fights overall, there is a noticeable lack of headliners featuring strawweights that aren’t named Jędrzejczyk. Meanwhile, the UFC puts on top-billed fights featuring the likes of Yair Rodriguez, Alex Caceres, Gunnar Nelson, Rick Story and Ryan LaFlare. No offense to those guys, but while their main events were on Fox Sports 1 fight cards and not pay-per-views, FS1 or Fox cards would be the perfect avenue to instead shine a brighter spotlight on the depth of talent in the UFC’s women’s strawweight division.
The UFC even tried this once before, sort of, when Jędrzejczyk defended her title against Jessica Penne in the main event of an exclusive UFC Fight Pass card last year. The UFC has been at the forefront of the streaming revolution with Fight Pass, so it would behoove both the organization as a whole and the strawweights to make these ladies a focal point of the service going forward. The UFC will continue to have a steady stream of talented strawweights headed its way, as Invicta develops talented fighters like its own strawweight champion, Angela Hill, and other rising contenders like Jodie Esquibel, Livia Renata Souza and Mizuki Inoue.
Women’s MMA has come a long way since the UFC decided to bring it to the masses in 2013. Introducing new stars like Jędrzejczyk, VanZant and Grasso can only help continue to grow a sport where women still don’t compete on an equal playing field. Just like vegetation needs light to grow, the strawweights need more of the spotlight to really show what they can do. The UFC needs to give the weight class a chance to bloom.