The retirement of Joanna Jędrzejczyk marks the end of an era in the UFC’s Strawweight Division. The incredible performance of Zhang Weili at UFC 275, however, makes the immediate future of the division a bit more clear. It appears that Weili will get a shot at reclaiming the 115-pound belt against current Champion Carla Esparza, perhaps at the tail-end of this year. What is not as clear, is who the next wave of contenders will be.
A Look at One of the Greatest Women’s Weight Divisions in MMA: The UFC Strawweight Division
Strawweight remains the home of one of the greatest generations of any division in UFC History:
- Current Champion Carla Esparza,
- Former Champion Zhang Weili,
- Former Champion Rose Namajunas,
- Former Champion Jessica Andrade.
All four of these women are still at the top of the division, at the top of their game, and for whatever reason, they just cannot seem to sort out who among them is the best.
- Esparza defeated Rose Namajunas for the inaugural Strawweight belt.
- Namajunas becomes the champion after defeating Joanna.
- Andrade defeats ‘Thug Rose’ by Slam KO to become the Champion.
- Zhang becomes the champion after defeating Andrade.
- ‘Thug Rose’ avenges her loss to Andrade, then defeats Weili Zhang to become Champion once again.
- Esparza, eight years later, comes back and defeats Rose Namajunas to become Champion a second time.
The constant back and forth and the high-level style matchups have made the 115lbs division one of the UFC’s best weight classes ever since its promotional debut.
But the question remains: Who will be next? Will these four women continue to jockey amongst themselves for who holds the crown? Or can a new contender emerge through the gauntlet?
There isn’t much of a case that needs to be made for Weili. She is simply incredible and somehow seems to get better with every fight. She was probably the biggest benefactor of the outcome of Rose vs. Esparza 2.
Esparza becoming the champ creates a fresh matchup, and because it is seen as one of the worst title fights of all time Weili has gotten a bit of a babyface turn in the eyes of the fans as she is never in a boring fight. Despite her two losses to Rose, she could once again be the queen of the Strawweight division by the end of the year.
Likely the most slept-on member of this list, Esparza has also been the most consistent. She has not tasted defeat since 2018 and has more wins over Top-5 Strawweights than anyone else in the division. She is a bad stylistic matchup for just about everybody in the division, the threat of her wrestling and top pressure makes it very difficult for her opponents to commit to their attacks. Despite Esparza not being a champion that is going to incite a lot of excitement among MMA fans, it is absolutely possible that she could stay atop the Strawweight Division and put together a very legitimate title reign.
Marina Rodriguez represents the new blood of the Strawweight Division. She has systematically worked through the other young prospects of the division in Mackenzie Dern and Yan Xiaonan and now has cemented herself as a contender.
Currently ranked #3, Rodriguez is riding a four-fight winning streak. She might be one of the biggest victims of Rose losing the belt back in May, in that if Rose had won Rodriguez would likely be getting the next crack at the title. She only has one loss in her professional MMA career, to Esparza by split decision back in late 2020. She has fought seemingly every other contender outside of Rose and Weili. With Weili likely getting the next shot at the belt, a matchup of Rodriguez and Rose would be an incredible fight.
Following what was likely the most disappointing performance of her career, it is not entirely clear when Rose will step back into the Octagon. She is still very much in the conversation of the Greatest Strawweight of All Time with two head-to-head wins over both Joanna and Weili. A matchup between Rose and Marina Rodriguez would make sense, but it is hard to know when Rose will return since she is apt to take longer breaks between fights and Rodriguez hasn’t fought since March. Despite the relative uncertainty surrounding Rose and her career to some extent, everyone knows just how good she is when she is on her game.
While it appears that Andrade will be moving back up to Flyweight in a short-notice fight to take on Manon Fiorot, she had been in the middle of a return to Strawweight and was looking to recapture that belt. It appears that she has some animus for the current Champion, and in her return to the division had a great performance, submitting Amanda Lemos with a standing arm triangle.
Andrade is the kind of fighter that is never out of a fight, she has legitimate power and everyone has seen what happens when she is able to lift her opponent off the ground. A matchup between her and Esparza would be incredibly interesting from a grappling perspective, and if she does return to the 115-pound division after a win in September it would seem she isn’t may not be too far off another shot at the belt.
Featured Image Credits to Embed from Getty Images