The Ultimate Fighter season 20 airs Wednesday, December 3 at 10pm ET on FOX Sports 1
It was less than a year ago when Carla Esparza was reigning supreme as the Invicta FC strawweight champion and the promotion's seventh event took place. On that night, Esparza was expected to defend her title against top ranked contender Claudia Gadelha until the Brazilian suffered a bacterial infection just hours before the fight, forcing the bout to be canceled.
So Esparza sat and watched the show as a fan and spectator up until the third bout from the top took place. Esparza's best friend Felice Herrig was making her Invicta FC promotional debut against a top striker named Tecia Torres.
Torres had already gained quite a reputation through her first few fights, knocking off previously undefeated Rose Namajunas and Paige VanZant in her first two appearances with the promotion. At Invicta FC 7, Torres would take an even bigger step forward with a unanimous decision victory over Herrig in a largely one-sided fight. Torres controlled the pace of the action, out striking Herrig at every turn while keeping her opponent from dragging the fight to the mat.
When it was over, Torres celebrated, but a few seconds later Esparza was in the cage holding on to her Invicta FC title. It didn't take long for Esparza to ask for a fight with Torres, which was a bit of a role reversal because usually the champions don't call out the top challengers. The fight between Esparza and Torres never actually came together because soon after the event, the UFC decided to start the women's strawweight division and both ladies were brought over for this season of The Ultimate Fighter.
So instead of meeting with the Invicta FC title on the line, Esparza and Torres will face off this week in the quarterfinals of the tournament, with the winner moving on to the next round. Esparza has been her own toughest critic all season long, but she also has no love lost for Torres going into the fight. Meanwhile, Torres is on her second chance already after being eliminated in the opening round by Randa Markos. She got back on track with a win over Bec Rawlings, but defeating the top seed in the entire tournament would go a long way to prove she was the best of the field when this show started.
CARLA ESPARZA VS. TECIA TORRES
There's no matchup in MMA these days that's easily defined by the old standard of 'grappler vs. striker' because to get to the level where Carla Esparza and Tecia Torres are, there can't be glaring holes in any part of their game. Still, it's hard to ignore the fact that these two 115-pound standouts are on polar opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to where each wants this fight to take place.
Esparza is a former college wrestler who is tenacious with her takedowns. She may not get one the first time, but she'll dive for legs, set for ankle picks, anything that gets her opponent on the mat. It's that kind of drive and willpower that took Esparza to All-American status in wrestling on two occasions while at Menlo College.
Esparza transformed her MMA game around her wrestling acumen and it's served her very well. She's a powerfully strong fighter from the top and nearly impossible to shake off if she gets hold of a leg. Esparza pushes forward and never lets up from the moment the fight starts until the final horn sounds. She will test an opponent's will and conditioning in a hurry.
Torres, on the other hand, is a striker with rocks in her hands and lightning in her legs. She's a blistering combination striker, who often puts together five, six and seven punches or kicks to keep an opponent off balance. If there's a knock on Torres it’s the fact that she hasn't developed knockout power yet, but her ability to put together punches in bunches can hurt any fighter at 115 pounds while racking up points on the judges' scorecards.
This might be the toughest fight to pick of the entire season, but it might come down to Esparza's takedowns versus Torres' takedown defense.
JOANNE CALDERWOOD VS. ROSE NAMAJUNAS
The other quarterfinal fight this week pits No. 2 overall seed Joanne Calderwood against No. 7 ranked Rose Namajunas, who is also the lone survivor from Team Melendez in this tournament.
Calderwood didn't have her best night in her debut on The Ultimate Fighter, but there's little doubt this Scottish knockout artist has the tools to put someone's lights out if there's even the slightest opening in an opponent's defense. Calderwood has been practicing Muay Thai since she was a kid, and her training in the striking arts has only gotten more advanced over the last few years. She's deadly with punches, inside elbows and knee strikes like most top Muay Thai fighters across the world.
Rose Namajunas is a little harder to figure out because her style tends to go everywhere and she's pretty good at all of it. Namajunas' biggest threat remains her submissions, including an array of flying armbars and triangle chokes, which she's not afraid to throw at any time, whether the round just started or there's five seconds to go. There's not a moment that passes where Namajunas isn't going for the finish. She's wiry and lean for this weight class so she may not have the power that Calderwood possesses, but she more than makes up for it with flawless technique.
Calderwood will definitely want to keep this standing and you can look for her to target the body. It's harder and harder to maintain conditioning and pull of submissions if a fighter is sucking wind. Hurting Namajunas' ability to breathe is an easy way to get her to back off submissions, and on the feet there's no doubt Calderwood is the superior fighter.
Can Calderwood eliminate the last remnant of coach Gilbert Melendez’ team or is she destined to keep this improbable run alive? In the other fight, Carla Esparza battles for respect and a little bit of unfinished business by taking on Tecia Torres, who looks to get a win in her third fight in the competition.
To find out who is making into the next round of The Ultimate Fighter tournament, make sure to check out FOX Sports 1 on Wednesday night at 10pm ET.