This series started during my time as a writer for Bleacher Report, continued through my tenures at Today’s Knockout and FanSided and now it stays alive this year at Combat Press.
Let’s examine the women’s strawweight division, a weight class that was the second women’s division in the UFC. It’s been thinned out due to the recent addition of the flyweight division, so the UFC needs to look to replenish its talent here.
In picking these prospects, I’ll try my hardest to stay away from fighters who are currently in top organizations, such as Bellator or the Professional Fighters League, but a couple may pop up. In the past, I’ve had some great picks on the list and some that haven’t worked out. Below are the previous year’s selections, followed by the five women the UFC should offer roster spots to this year.
Note: Bold denotes fighter was signed by UFC; * denotes fighter ineligible due to two years on list.
Ariane Carnelossi (8-0, Brazil)
There were several fighters slated to appear in this series that were signed by the UFC a month or less before work began on these features. These fighters included Hakeem Dawodu, Darko Stosic, Israel Adesanya and the top strawweight contender Mackenzie Dern. With Dern under UFC contract, undefeated Brazilian Ariane Carnelossi makes the cut.
The undefeated Carnelossi is known for some very good striking, though she does train her ground game with Nova União. She’s definitely a well-rounded, tough individual who likes to finish fights. In fact, she’s only been to a decision once.
The 25-year-old Brazilian, who stands just 5-foot-2, ran roughshod over the competition in 2017. She tallied three wins to keep her record perfect. Carnelossi scored her lone decision victory over Gloria de Paula, while earning knockouts over Kakau Costa and Feier Huang. She’s taken on increasingly tougher competition as she’s gained experience, which is a smart move to make on her part.
The young Brazilian’s best days are ahead of her, so she needs to stay active and win fights over notable opponents. Given how much the UFC goes to Brazil, she could very well in the running for one of those cards.
Virna Jandiroba (12-0, Brazil)
Making her second consecutive appearance on this list, the undefeated Brazilian Jandiroba moved from the regionals to the big show this year. In making the move, she not only showed she can hang, but that she’s a contender in Invicta. She could be a contender in the UFC, too.
The 29-year-old is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt. Her grappling is outstanding. She quickly gains position on her opponent and is able to find submissions with ease. Just two of her fights have ever gone to decision, with the rest ending in a tapout.
Jandiroba has a history of fighting notable opponents, as opposed to many Brazilians who fight cans to pad their record. She earned her two biggest career wins in 2017. She first scored a decision nod over UFC veteran Ericka Almeida. Then, she scored an armbar win over Amy Montenegro under the Invicta banner to introduce herself to American fans in fashion.
Given her high-level skills on the mat and her finishing rate, Jandiroba should certainly be competing at the highest levels. The UFC would be nuts not to get her on the roster as soon as possible.
Kali Robbins (5-0, United States)
Wisconsin has long been a state that houses some of the toughest fighters and very strongest of prospects in the sport. One of those tough, strong prospects is Robbins, an undefeated fighter who exhibits heart and skill in every fight she takes part in.
Even though she’s started to creep up there in age, Robbins, 33, has shown that age doesn’t matter. She’s still as gritty and dangerous as ever. Robbins is definitely a grappler. She’s a savage on the mat. She does not need very long to find a hold and finish with it.
Robbins started her year off on the wrong foot when she missed weight and had a fight canceled in Invicta with Jodie Esquibel. However, she was given another shot at Invicta FC 25, where she picked up a 42-second submission win over Sharon Jacobson in what was considered an upset. The win put her back into the good graces of MMA scouts, but it wasn’t enough to land a UFC deal.
There is no doubt Robbins is a UFC-caliber fighter. If she can score another victory early in 2018, the UFC will have to come calling for her.
Marina Rodriguez (9-0, Brazil)
Quickly making a name for herself in Brazil as one of the best prospects while harnessing a busy schedule, Rodriguez has emerged as a fighter ready for the big time.
Rodriguez, who stands 5-foot-7 and fights long, is a good-sized strawweight. The 30-year-old striker possesses good power in her strikes, from her punches to her kicks. Like Virna Jandiroba, Rodriguez is not one of the many Brazilian fighters who have padded their records by fighting cans. She’s defeated very notable opponents en route to her 9-0 mark.
After an immensely successful 2016, Rodriguez came back even stronger in 2017 with four victories. After knocking out Paula Vieira to start her year, she scored consecutive unanimous decisions over notables Samara Santos, Amanda Torres and Natalia Silva. All of those wins continued to add to the hype Rodriguez had already accumulated.
Like the other Brazilians on this list, Rodriguez should be a fighter the UFC considers for one of its Brazilian trips. She’d make an immediate impact upon entering the strawweight division.
Weili Zhang (16-1, China)
Another fighter making her second consecutive appearance in this series, China’s Zhang continues to be one of the best strawweights in the world not employed by the UFC or Invicta. As seen in her busy 2017, she’s continuing to show she can beat respectable opponents in high volumes.
Zhang is a Black Tiger Fight Club member who has dominated the Kunlun promotion in China for years. The 28-year-old is a striker who uses ferocious power and technique to force stoppages in her bouts. However, she’s not one-dimensional. She can submit people, though she doesn’t do it as prolifically as she scores knockouts.
Zhang was busier this year than any fighter on this list. She went 7-0 in 2017, finishing six of those bouts. She scored submissions over Brazilians Bianca Sattelmayer and Nayara Hemily. She took out Marilia Santos, Ye Dam Seo, Simone Duarte and Veronica Grenno with vicious knockouts. She also scored a unanimous decision win over Aline Sattelmayer.
It was a surprise that the UFC did not get her for its first Chinese card at the end of 2017. However, she may have had a contract situation with Kunlun, or perhaps she’s making more money there. Given her skills and hype, the UFC needs to cough up the dough to get this potential contender in the Octagon.
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