Birth of a Division
Following the UFC’s acquisition of Stikeforce and their decision to include female fighters on their roster, beginning with the Women’s Bantamweight Division, which would result in Ronda Rousey‘s rise to superstardom, the UFC decided to add a Strawweight Division in 2014.
The division would be launched alongside the historical twentieth season of The Ultimate Fighter, the first ever women’s only season, coached by Anthony Pettis (who had just submitted Benson Henderson for the Lightweight Title – and secured his face on a Wheaties box) and Gilbert Melendez. The winner would not only secure a UFC contract, as per usual for TUF winners, but the Inaugural Strawweight Title as well. Several other fighters, including five-time Muay Thai World Champion, Joanna Jędrzejczyk, were also signed, and competed alongside the TUF Season at live events, so that the winner would not have to wait for a challenger.
Rose Namajunas vs. Carla Esparza for the Inaugural Title
The Ultimate Fighter Season 20 introduced us to Carla Esparza, two time All-American Wrestler, and #1 seed for Team Pettis, as she grinded her way through #16 Angela Hill and #3 Tecia Torres. In the semi-final, she would win a hard fought decision against fellow teammate and #4 seed Jessica Penne on her way to the finale.
She would face Rose Namajunas, the #7 Seed for Team Melendez who blazed through #10 Alex Chambers, #2 Joanne Wood and #14 Randa Markos, all by submission. In fact, Namajunas was the only member of Team Melendez to make it past the first round. The table was set for Rose Namajunas vs. Carla Esparza for the Inaugural 115lb Title. Esparza would grind her way through the first two rounds, her phenomenal wrestling taking her all the way to a third round rear-naked choke over a fatigued Namajunas to secure the title.
Legendary Polish (Girl)Power
“The Cookie Monster” would put her belt up against the undefeated record of Joanna “Violence” just three months following her victory over Namajunas. Esparza would suffer defeat in the second round, succumbing to a continual barrage of strikes from Jędrzejczyk after a valiant two minutes of takedown attempts at the start of the round.
This would be the beginning of the longest title reign at 115lbs, as Jędrzejczyk would defend against Jessica Penne, Valérie Létourneau, Cláudia Gadelha, Karolina Kowalkiewicz, and Jéssica Andrade, finishing Penne in the first, and delivering dominant unanimous decisions across the board . Jędrzejczyk would reign supreme for just shy of three years at 966 days, until UFC 217 where under the lights of Madison Square Garden, the Polish Queen would fall.
“THUG ROSE! THUG ROSE! THUG ROSE!”
Somewhere out in the cosmos, there is an alien receiving a broadcast of UFC 217, and if they can perceive sound, they are hearing Daniel Cormier exclaiming Namajunas’ nickname as she took Jędrzejczyk’s 0, her title, and her consciousness in the first round. A +500 underdog who had been all but written out of the conversation regarding the stand up, Namajunas’ would be immediately booked for a rematch with Jędrzejczyk at UFC 223.
After being involved in the bus incident, Namajunas would steel her nerve, and put on the performance of a lifetime against the vengeful Jędrzejczyk, going the distance, and winning a unanimous decsion, silencing those who would claim her title victory a fluke.
From the Highs, Come the Lows
Following two seemingly once-in-a-life performances that would see Namajunas on top of the world, her title reign, and briefly her career, would come crashing down along with her skull onto the canvas in Rio against none other than Jéssica Andrade. After losing to Jędrzejczyk, the Brazilian defeated Cláudia Gadelha, Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Tecia Torres to earn another title shot. Knocking Namajunas out cold with a slam that would put her career into question, Andrade looked unstoppable, even if her reign would be only 20 days longer than Carla Esparza’s (who was beginning her current win streak that propelled her to a title shot at UFC 274), as she flew into hostile territory, and would be finished early in round one by Zhang Weili.
Greatest Women’s Fight of All Time
While it would be short, the title reign of Zhang Weili, China’s first UFC Champion, would be a thrilling one. Following her dominant performance in Shenzhen over Andrade, Weili would face Joanna Jędrzejczyk in the Co-Main Event of UFC 248. Jędrzejczyk had sent Tecia Torres back to the middle of the division following her losses to Namajunas, before challenging Valentina Shevchenko (the only woman to defeat Jędrzejczyk in her professional kickboxing career) for the vacant 125lb title. Perfectly poised for a comeback to her old title, Weili and Jędrzejczyk would come together and create fireworks, earning them Fight of the Night in a Split Decision for Weili, and eventually Fight of the Year.
“I’m the Best! I’m the Best! I’m the Best!”
It took only one question mark kick for Rose Namajunas to prove to the world what her and her coaches had always known – that she was the best in the world, as she seemed to float in the air as Zhang Weili’s consciousness left her body, doing with one kick what Jędrzejczyk couldn’t with 186 significant strikes and winning the title in the process. Mirroring her previous title reign, Namajunas would be scheduled to fight Weili again at UFC 261 in Madison Square Garden. In the very same arena where she won her first title, Namajunas would display yet another masterful defense of her title.
With Esparza now on the longest active win streak in the division, and the opportunity to avenge one of the only two losses on her record not already avenged, there was no other fight to make other than Rose Namajunas vs. Carla Esparza II. Unfortunately for Rose, Esparza would win the fight despite being outstruck by Namajunas with a total of 67 strikes and three takedowns combined over the entire 25 minutes.
Din Thomas commented on the broadcast that Esparza might have won, but everyone in the arena and watching at home lost. Esparza will walks down the isle carrying the belt to marry her fiancé next week, and will watch her next opponent be crowned in the rematch of the greatest women’s MMA fight on her honeymoon, when Zhang Weili vs Joanna Jędrzejczyk II goes down at UFC 275.
As for Rose Namajunas, what comes next for the two-time champion after arguably the worst performance of her career?
Featured image credit to Embed from Getty Images