It has been two years since the UFC last touched down in Mexico City. Now, just a few days after the country’s Independence Day celebration, the UFC returns to the Arena Ciudad de Mexico for an entertaining night of fights.
The UFC on ESPN+ 17 card is headlined by featherweight Jeremy Stephens and his opponent, Mexican native Yair Rodriguez. There are plenty of additional Mexican fighters on the 12-bout card, including Alexa Grasso.
Grasso’s opponent in the evening’s co-headliner is the first-ever Invicta FC and inaugural UFC strawweight champion Carla Esparza. Esparza is known as a tenacious wrestler with a wealth of experience. She has a decent track record as of late as she focuses on regaining her championship status once again.
On Saturday, these two ladies will meet in a match that almost assuredly will decide a new contender in the UFC’s 115-pound women’s division.
Grasso has had her ups and downs throughout her UFC career. She has alternated wins and losses since her UFC debut three years ago. Similarly, Ezparza has had a rocky record since her championship loss to Joanna Jędrzejczyk at UFC 185. The path to victory rests largely on each woman’s ability to fight against type. The contest may be a conventional striker-vs.-grappler affair, but their usual game plans can make this bout a lot closer than necessary.
Grasso’s strategy is fairly solid. She employs good footwork, head and waist movement, and an active boxing attack. A lot of what she usually does will work great against the Team Oyama product, but there is one thing she should avoid: body kicks.
Grasso has shown decent fight IQ in her career so far, but she has a strange habit of throwing naked body kicks. It could be a product of a desire to diversify her attack and be less predictable, but it has gotten her into some trouble against wrestlers like Randa Markos.
Ill-timed kicks with no setup are seldom a good idea. Elite Thai boxers and some Dutch-style kickboxing champions can get away with using them, but a boxer with an intermediate level of kicking, like Grasso, will cause herself more harm than good.
Instead of body kicks, the Mexican star should utilize punches to the body of Esparza. Punches are less risky than kicks, and they also give the Lobo Gym product better defensive opportunities against takedowns while also sapping Esparza’s gas tank. Grasso hasn’t thrown too many body punches in her career, but she is well versed in the Mexican style of boxing, which emphasizes body blows.
Meanwhile, Esparza’s straightforward wrestling style provides the best plan of attack against Grasso. However, Esparza has thrown more strikes in her last few fights than usual. She has flashed power in some of her recent fights, like in the first round against Claudia Gadelha, but there’s nothing wise in getting into exchanges with Grasso on the feet.
This is not an issue of danger — trading strikes with the Guadalajaran doesn’t bring with it an impending concussion — but Grasso fairs better in tit-for-tat battles than a slow methodical one. Grasso’s last win against Karolina Kowalkiewicz showed this in spades.
Esparza could nab the win by fighting dirty and in spurts. Grasso has a good sense of rhythm and pace, but she seems to get uneasy and confused when the fight slows down. A heavy clinch would be a good tactic to neutralize and fluster Grasso.
Over a decade of wrestling will teach you a variety of ways to get foes on the mat, and it would behoove Esparza to utilize most of them here. Esparza’s standard double- and single-leg takedowns are textbook, but a heavy clinch and chain wrestling would aid in taxing Grasso’s stamina. Although Grasso is quite technical in her striking and, for the most part, her grappling, she does tend to expend a lot of energy in getting out of grappling exchanges, especially early on in fights.
Mexico City is over 7,000 feet above sea level, so Esparza must be efficient and unconventional to secure a win against the Mexican native. The environment will work to Grasso’s advantage here. Not only has she fought in Mexico City before, but she lives and trains in Guadalajara, which is 5,000 feet above sea level. Grasso can do what she usually does and be no worse for wear. Esparza has not had any notable cardio issues in her career, but this will be a much different experience than she’s faced in the past.
Esparza works better in the first half of rounds than in the latter half, and Grasso has had a slow start or two in her fights. This contest can be very tight. The first round may be uneventful or slightly dominated by Esparza, but the last 10 minutes should show Grasso’s mettle.
The Kowalkiewicz victory served as proof that Grasso had turned a new leaf. If the same Grasso shows up on Saturday night, then it can be the dawn of a new strawweight contender and the promise of finally filling her big-prospect shoes.