There’s an old saying in sports that goes, “Let the game come to you.” That statement usually applies to the most talented of athletes. If they trust their skills and their talent, and they work hard, success will come to them. There’s no need to rush them before they’re ready. The UFC should keep this in mind with one of its newest strawweights.
Alexa Grasso made her much-anticipated UFC debut last weekend and scored a convincing victory over Heather Jo Clark. Undefeated in her nine-fight career, Grasso came to the UFC from Invicta FC and is likely going to be another fighter the UFC hopes to promote to further establish itself in the Latino market, joining other fighters like former UFC heavyweight champion and fellow Mexican-American Cain Velasquez:
— alexa grasso (@AlexaGrasso) September 4, 2016
Grasso, at age 23, is young and supremely talented. Her skills were on display against Clark, who’s a tough and scrappy fighter in her own right and gave current No. 1 strawweight contender Karolina Kowalkiewicz a tough fight when the two squared off earlier this year. Grasso thoroughly outclassed Clark, using her striking and movement to batter Clark and leave no doubt that she’s the next in a line of exciting young fighters that are ready to take on the responsibility of being the public face of the UFC.
The UFC has been down this road before, though. It had another young, talented strawweight fighter who showed great promise and had the look that just screamed “star.” Her name? You may know it. Paige VanZant.
After debuting in the UFC in 2014 with three straight wins against veteran fighters Kailin Curran, Felice Herrig and Alex Chambers, there was some talk (however foolish it seems now, in hindsight) of VanZant possibly being in line for a title shot against strawweight champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk. But before that could happen, VanZant was matched against Rose Namajunas late last year and, well, things didn’t go quite as planned.
Namajunas battered VanZant for the better part of five rounds and secured a late rear-naked choke submission on the UFC’s alleged “Golden Girl.” Besides the heaping amounts of schadenfreude enjoyed by many who felt that UFC President Dana White and company were pushing VanZant too much, too soon, VanZant’s fight with an experienced and dangerous fighter like Namajunas showed that the youngster wasn’t quite ready for superstardom at the time.
To VanZant’s credit, she rebounded nicely from only the second defeat of her young career with a highlight-reel knockout of Bec Rawlings in August. VanZant also appeared on the popular reality competition show Dancing With the Stars this year and did quite well for herself, taking second place. Despite her loss to Namajunas, VanZant still isn’t hurting for opportunities.
However, VanZant can and should still serve as a cautionary tale to the UFC about how it chooses to handle Grasso. Like VanZant, Grasso is young. She’s extremely skilled and yes, she’s extremely photogenic. Grasso has all makings of a big star who can help the UFC grow in a highly coveted demographic.
Lest you think this is slightly melodramatic and an overreaction to Grasso’s lone appearance in the Octagon, I say this: There is precedent for the UFC to make bad decisions that didn’t receive the proper scrutiny. The company signed the Reebok deal, didn’t it?
Grasso has had exactly one fight in the UFC, and she only has nine fights total on her resume. While she’s already faced some tough competitors, Grasso is not ready to compete among the top 5-10 in the UFC’s strawweight division. She is certainly nowhere near ready to face the likes of Jędrzejczyk.
The UFC’s strawweight division, despite its limited exposure, is one of the organization’s deepest divisions. There’s plenty of talent there for Grasso to compete against, learn from and grow. With other stars under the UFC umbrella — Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey come to mind — there is no rush to put Grasso on a pedestal or push her to the moon. Like in the case of so many other young prodigies in the sports world, the UFC should let the game come to Grasso.