Almost exactly a year to the day the division was announced, the UFC will finally crown a women’s strawweight champion on Friday night.
After working their way through the battlefield that was The Ultimate Fighter 115-pound tournament, Carla Esparza and Rose Namajunas have emerged as the finalists and are set to throw down on Friday night with the winner being named the first-ever UFC strawweight champion. Both women had to fight tooth and nail to win three straight fights against their peers at the top of the division in order to get to this point. Now, they have the chance to make history.
This is one of the rare occasions where a title fight is being given away on free television, but the UFC didn’t slouch on delivering an entertaining undercard to back up the new division. A featherweight scrap between ranked competitors Jeremy Stephens and Charles Oliveira is set to co-headline the event, and the main card has been fleshed out with fun fights featuring K.J. Noons taking on Daron Cruickshank and Yancy Medeiros battling Joe Proctor.
To top it off, the preliminary card has been loaded with nearly every other woman that didn’t make the tournament finals. This time, fighters like Randa Markos, Jessica Penne, Joanne Calderwood and Tecia Torres are going to be competing for a spot in the UFC rankings instead of a spot in a title fight.
The Ultimate Fighter 20 Finale takes place on Dec. 12 in Las Vegas. The first two bouts will take place on UFC Fight Pass at 6 p.m. ET. The festivities will then move to Fox Sports 1 for the remainder of the prelims at 7 p.m. ET and the main card at 9 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Sal DeRose and Vince Carey break down this historic card in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Carla Esparza and Rose Namajunas advanced through the house and made it to the finals, but the house can be a different beast compared to a fight where an athlete gets a whole camp to prepare. Will former Invicta champ Esparza pick up where she left off as an elite fighter and slide past up-and-comer Namajunas with ease in this more traditional setting, or will Namajunas prove that her run of wins in the TUF house was no fluke?
DeRose: The short answer to Esparza continuing as an elite fight: yes. Esparza’s skill set was perfect for TUF. She was able to use her wrestling to earn easy victories and escape the house relatively unscathed.
Namajunas is a great fighter in her own right, and she certainly has a shot to win this whole thing. The thing about Namajunas is that she is crazily offensive off her back with submission attempts, as seen in her fight with Joanne Calderwood. If Namajunas wins this fight, it’ll happen because of her work from the guard. She has the ability to submit Esparza, who will almost definitely bring the fight to the ground. Namajunas may also be able to steal the fight on the feet with her aggressive, in-your-face style of striking, but I’m absolutely confident this will be contested primarily on the ground.
Even with a full camp, Esparza is still the clear-cut favorite here, though. She was the 115-pound Invicta FC champion and the No. 1 seed in the tournament for a reason.
Namajunas didn’t string together fluke wins in the house. She legitimately defeated Calderwood, Alex Chambers and Randa Markos, a fighter who came on strong in her own right in the house.
I fully expect Namajunas to fight for the title again eventually—maybe even in the next year if this fight with Esparza is close enough—and be one of the top young contenders for the title along with the likes of fighters like Paige VanZant.
Carey: I can’t say I’m surprised that these two made it all the way to the finals, but I’m really glad they did, because this should be an extremely entertaining battle to watch on the mat.
Sal broke this fight down better than I could have, and it’s pretty clear that this match-up is going to come down to Esparza’s top control against Namajunas’s submission skills off of her back. In Invicta and inside the house, Esparza’s bread and butter has always been her wrestling skills. It seems unlikely she’s going to abandon that approach at this point, even against someone as crafty on the mat as Namajunas. However, while I do believe Namajunas is the better striker, I don’t think she’s good enough to keep Esparza at a distance and try to pick her apart for 25 minutes on the feet.
This fight kind of reminds me of last weekend’s lightweight title fight between Anthony Pettis and Gilbert Melendez, where Melendez had a clear wrestling advantage and looked to grind out a win but ended up getting caught by a crafty Pettis during a scramble. Esparza is going to look to implement a very similar strategy as the one Melendez used last week, but as long as Namajunas stays active off of her back, she has a chance to duplicate Pettis’ performance.
I went with Pettis in a similar situation and it worked out for me, so I’m going to take a flyer on the underdog and pick Ms. Namajunas to take home the inaugural belt on Saturday. It might take a couple of rough rounds where she’s fighting off of her back the majority of the time, but my gut feeling says she lands a submission at some point and becomes tournament champion.
Charles Oliveira and Jeremy Stephens are set for a featherweight clash in the evening’s co-headliner. Both fighters have struggled with consistency throughout their UFC tenures, but they’re still borderline top-10 fighters. Is either man capable of taking the next step and challenging for the title?
Carey: The UFC decided to fire up the DeLorean and take us back to the early 2000s—admittedly, not the best use of a DeLorean—and bring us a classic striker-vs-grappler match-up for this one. Both fighters play to their strengths very well inside the cage and are among the most dangerous in the division when they get to implement their game plan, but it’s where they struggle that has kept them (and will continue to keep them) out of the featherweight title picture.
We’ve seen Stephens compete inside the Octagon for nearly a decade now, and the majority of his bad performances came when he was stuck on the mat against a superior grappler. When “Lil’ Heathen” is on the feet, he’s one of the scariest fighters in the featherweight division with his one-punch knockout power. But, while his submission defense and ability to prevent the fight from getting to the mat have both improved over the years, he’s never shown the ability to avoid getting overwhelmed by a high-level grappler. That could spell disaster in this fight against Oliveira, who is one of the division’s premier submission specialists, but it also makes it impossible to see Stephens as a true title contender at 145 pounds until he proves he’s overcome his past weakness on the ground.
On Oliveira’s end, he’s possibly even more dangerous on the mat than Stephens is on the feet, but the problem is his striking defense, which is likely the most glaring weakness possessed by either fighter. Oliveira’s been fortunate in that he’s only fought two or three truly dangerous strikers in his UFC career, but he’s struggled against all of them and it’s been worse against those with knockout power rivaling Stephens. Both Donald Cerrone and Cub Swanson sent Oliveira packing in less than a round after putting some hands on the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specialist, and any fight that Oliveira has been unable to get to the ground has resulted in a loss. Once he gets the fight to the floor, Oliveira is one of the most dangerous fighters in the entire UFC, but his inability to defend himself against top-notch strikers is going to continue to keep him away from the title scene.
This fight is a toss-up for me, but my gut tells me that Stephens will be a little bit bigger on fight day and that size will help him ward off the endless takedowns that are bound to be thrown his way by Oliveira. My guess is “Lil’ Heathen” defends a few shots and then starts finding his range on the feet, and since I’m still not entirely convinced Oliveira can take a punch, I think he gets finished inside of five minutes.
DeRose: Oliveira has certainly had his chances to take that next step up. Just take a look at his losses: Frankie Edgar, the aforementioned Swanson and Cerrone, and Jim Miller. Oliveira had the chance to take that next leap, but he has failed more than a few times. However, he is still only 25 and could certainly take that next step eventually. He still has an entire career ahead of him, so I don’t want to rule him out just yet.
Stephens is another guy who will be interesting to watch. At 28 years old, Stephens can certainly still take that leap as well. Much like Oliveira, Stephens had a ton of opportunities at to be a top-10 fighter—at lightweight—but failed to ever seize the day. At featherweight, he had that shot in his last fight, but he lost to Swanson in a “Fight of the Night” performance.
As of right now, Stephens is sitting pretty at No. 10 in the UFC rankings. Oliveira is No. 14 on that list. A win here for Oliveira certainly gets him a step up in competition, probably against someone in the top eight. If he wins that fight too, then I can certainly see Oliveira prompting some title talk. Stephens, though, is in a different boat. His last fight was a loss, and he needs to string a few wins together to even get into title contention.
I’m picking Oliveira in this fight. He has what it takes to get this fight to the ground and submit Stephens.
We saw the vast majority of the UFC’s new strawweight division on this season of The Ultimate Fighter. Out of the 14 fighters that were unable to reach the finals, which women do you think will end up right back in the title mix following this weekend?
DeRose: I’m keen on Randa Markos. Over the course of the show, she really developed as a fighter. Markos was much like Esparza on the show, using her wrestling to mix things up against Tecia Torres and Felice Herrig. Her time on TUF allowed her to show her heart. She wanted to get two training sessions in, despite the fuss from other fighters regarding her presence. Markos was able to go from the No. 14 seed all the way to the semifinals in a tournament filled with top talent.
A couple more wins could bring Markos to the forefront of the division, and Jessica Penne is a great fight for her to really test how she responds to facing top talent who get a full camp and their own coaches backing them up come fight time.
Not so much in terms of the title mix, but I’m also high on Justine Kish, who didn’t get a chance to fight on the show due to injury. It all depends on how she rebounds from her knee injury. That type of injury could really hamper a striker like Kish.
Kish is 18-2 in kickboxing and could have been a game changer in the house if she had been able to compete against Bec Rawlings. Kish holds a win over Markos as well, and she isn’t just a striker either. Kish has two victories by way of submission and could be a great contender with her well-rounded ability.
I would like to see a buddy cop movie starring Kish and Penne as well. That would be wildly entertaining, as their personalities just mesh amazingly together. Maybe a Shanghai Knights sequel, starring Penne and Kish, is in order?
Carey: I had Joanne Calderwood pegged as a finalist heading into the tournament. Despite a disastrous performance against Rose Namajunas on the ground in the quarterfinals, I still see her as a future title contender.
The TUF house is a tough environment. If you’re a fighter who has a fatal flaw like Calderwood did with her mat game, it can be damn near impossible to prepare properly for a strong wrestler or jiu-jitsu specialist. Given the proper time to prepare for a specific opponent, “JoJo” is going to prove why she earned the No. 2 seed in this tournament to begin with. And with some work on her grappling game, she can be a strong title challenger within the next year.
I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Felice Herrig end up in a high-profile fight within the next 12 months. While she wasn’t the most talented fighter in the house, she was one of the most popular heading into the show and is likely going to continue to cultivate a large following as she progresses in the UFC. She has a solid shot at winning her UFC debut against Lisa Ellis this weekend. Don’t be surprised if another win or two pushes her into the spotlight, especially when paired with her ability to market herself .
Oh, and as far as that Shanghai Knights sequel goes, I’m 100 percent in if we cast CM Punk as the villain. What better way to test his skills than to make him the nemesis to these two 115-pound women?
After dropping his UFC debut to Donald Cerrone, K.J. Noons has won his last two fights against Sam Stout and George Sotiropoulos. Daron Cruickshank had any easy time against Anthony Njokuani in his last fight on the way to a unanimous decision victory. Which fighter continues their streak? Is either fighter a name to build off of to get to that next level in competition?
Carey: These two men have the potential to put on a fight that looks more like a kung fu movie than an MMA bout. At the very least, I’m expecting the best striking battle of the night from Cruickshank and Noons.
Cruickshank has looked extremely good over the last year, scoring a pair of head-kick knockouts and proving he can at least hang with a borderline top-10 fighter in his decision loss to Jorge Masvidal. His latest win over Njokuani was basically a showcase of his overall skills. He showed off some wrestling ability to go along with his highlight-reel striking game. Those wrestling skills could play a major part in this fight if “The Detroit Superstar” starts to get uncomfortable on the feet against Noons, who’s a fantastic striker in his own right.
In fact, after struggling to earn a win in his UFC debut against Cerrone, Noons turned up the heat on his last two opponents and dispatched the two longtime UFC veterans with relative ease with his striking skills. After dominating Sotiropoulos in order to get his first UFC win, Noons became the first man to ever put away longtime brawler Stout with punches when he finished the Canadian striker in just 30 seconds earlier this year. That win should provide Noons with a ton of confidence heading into a bout with another highly regarded striker.
If I thought this was going to end up as a straight kickboxing fight, I’d have a harder time choosing the winner. However, I think Cruickshank made it a point to show his well-rounded abilities in his last fight for a reason, and I’m expecting him to continue to mix things up for his next few fights.
Noons has one-shot knockout power, but Cruickshank isn’t far behind him in that department and the Michigan native’s own counter striking skills should prevent Noons from being able to completely open up and hunt for a finish. I haven’t quite given up on Cruickshank as a potential top-10 lightweight, but he needs an A+ performance on Saturday against another top-20 fighter in order for me to keep that faith.
DeRose: I like the idea of the kung fu equivalent of MMA here. I just hope it’s not a remake of Karate Kid like the one starring Will Smith’s son.
I like what Noons has done lately. He has been very impressive. The end of his Strikeforce career wasn’t spectacular. In fact, it was littered with losses to guys the 31-year-old should have been able to beat. Now, here he is with a 2-1 mark and a two-fight winning streak inside the UFC’s Octagon.
My esteemed colleague mentioned the victory over Stout. Although it isn’t what it once was, a win over Stout is still very impressive. Knocking out the veteran is no easy task, but Noons figured out a game plan and landed the kill shot.
That being said, I have Cruickshank winning this fight. He is much more well rounded and is more likely to work in some takedowns to throw Noons off his game. Noons has the chance to knock out Cruickshank, but Cruickshank most likely won’t keep the fight standing and risk that outcome. Instead, it will be a mixture of wrestling and strikes to set up the shot for Cruickshank.
Noons was a top fighter and perennial contender in Strikeforce. Those days are long behind him now. In the UFC, he is more of a lightweight gatekeeper than anything. Cruickshank, on the other hand, has a decent shot at the top 10 early next year if he can beat Noons here and beat somebody in the first half of 2015. The 29-year-old has been very impressive recently, but I don’t know if Noons is the victory that propels him into the top 10. Cruickshank isn’t even in the UFC’s top 15 at lightweight, but a win over Noons puts him in that area.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
DeRose: Honestly, every fight on the undercard is a sleeper.
This card houses almost the entire 115-pound division, sans a few fighters. Any of these women could potentially be one of the first up for a title shot next year against the newly crowned champion. The Ultimate Fighter 20 was filled with a ton of great fights as well. Using the show as a litmus test, any of these fights will be worth the watch.
If I have to choose just one, though, it’s hard. I think both Joanne Calderwood and Angela Hill are exciting fighters. Calderwood, who fights recently signed South Korean star Seo Hee Ham, always brings an exciting fight with her striking. Hill, who meets Emily Kagan, is also a striker and looks very capable of making an entertaining fight. Their separate fights are tailor-made for them to shine.
Carey: I agree. I’m excited for pretty much every fight between the TUF contestants on this card. However, the fight that really catches my eye is a lightweight scrap between Yancy Medeiros and Joe Proctor.
Medeiros looked awesome in his last fight against Damon Jackson. He worked his striking in a style that resembled his training partners, Nick and Nate Diaz, en route to battering his opponent and eventually finishing the fight with a rarely seen bulldog choke. While his UFC record leaves a bit to be desired right now, his quality of competition has been extremely good through four fights in the Octagon. After scoring such a dominant win, Medeiros should be riding high on momentum this weekend.
And Medeiros will need all the momentum he can get against Proctor, who’s quietly worked his way to a 3-1 UFC record and is looking for his third straight victory on Saturday.
I know that all of the attention is going to be on the strawweights this weekend, but I have a feeling these two are going to pleasantly surprise some fans with a really fun bout.
Pair this card with…
Carey: Your finest bottle of Sex Panther, because this card is all about the ladies! I’m joking, of course, because all of these girls could tap me out quicker than you can say “Brian Fantana,” but this card really is all about the new 115-pound weight class and where the majority of these girls are going to fall in the rankings once they make their official UFC debuts. If you haven’t been doing your homework and watching this season of The Ultimate Fighter, pair this card with a notebook and jot down some thoughts about the winners, because they’ll likely end up in title contention within the next few months. If you’ve done your research, then just sit back and relax on the first night of a double-event weekend and enjoy one of the rare nights where almost every fight is going to have a significant impact on the title scene in the division. The UFC on Fox card on Saturday may have the bigger names (and bigger competitors), but the fights on Friday night are going to matter more.
DeRose: “Ladies’ Night” by Kool and the Gang or “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper. Admittedly, those songs are both older than me. There are some fights from the males on this card, but this night is indeed about the ladies of the strawweight division. This season of TUF was marred with petty and childish arguments, but the actual fights certainly lived up to the expectations. Now all these girls get to put up or shut up on a live stage without the excuses that come with TUF fights. They get a full camp, their own corner and game plans from their own coaches. I have some big expectations from this division, and I think they’ll live up to it come crunch time.
Women’s StrawW Championship: Carla Esparza vs. Rose Namajunas
FW: Jeremy Stephens vs. Charles Oliveira
LW: K.J. Noons vs. Daron Cruickshank
LW: Joe Proctor vs. Yancy Medeiros
Women’s StrawW: Jessica Penne vs. Randa Markos
Women’s StrawW: Felice Herrig vs. Lisa Ellis
Women’s StrawW: Tecia Torres vs. Angela Magana
Women’s StrawW: Joanne Calderwood vs. Seo Hee Ham
Women’s StrawW: Bec Rawlings vs. Heather Jo Clark
Women’s StrawW: Aisling Daly vs. Alex Chambers
Women’s StrawW: Emily Kagan vs. Angela Hill
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