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The UFC will crown a champion this Friday night, as The Ultimate Fighter 20 comes to a close with the first ever women's strawweight championship up for grabs as Carla Esparza takes on Rose Namajunas in the five-round main event.
Esparza entered The Ultimate Fighter as the No. 1 overall seed and she lived up to expectations with three consecutive victories, while her opponent was ranked at only No. 7, but then became the only competitor to finish every one of her bouts on the show.
Namajunas now hopes to continue her improbable run by knocking off Esparza and claiming the title.
Also on the card, Ultimate Fighter semifinalists Jessica Penne and Randa Markos face off, and there’s a very exciting matchup at 145 pounds as well when Jeremy Stephens takes on Charles Oliveira.
In today's fantasy preview, we are going to examine the main card for The Ultimate Fighter Finale to see who might have a leg up on the competition going into Friday night.
The 1st ever 115lb champ will be decided tonight!!! TUF Finale LIVE on @FOXSports1! #TUFFinale #NewChamp
A video posted by Dana White (@danawhiteufc) on Dec 12, 2014 at 11:39am PST
CARLA ESPARZA VS. ROSE NAMAJUNAS
Carla Esparza entered The Ultimate Fighter as the best fighter in the world at 115 pounds as the former Invicta FC strawweight champion, and so far she's lived up to the billing, rolling through three consecutive fights en route to the finals on Friday. Esparza is a former All-American wrestler with a tenacity matched only by a few in the entire sport of MMA. There's no big secret with Esparza's game - she wants to take the fight to the mat over and over again, and it's up to her opponents to stop her.
Namajunas presents an interesting challenge to Esparza, but not because of her takedown defense. It's Namajunas' incredible submission game that helped make short work of Joanne Calderwood, Randa Markos and Alex Chambers on the reality show, and if Esparza isn't careful, she could get added to that list as well. Namajunas is extremely dangerous off her back and has no problem pulling guard for armbars or triangle chokes if she thinks it's possible to lock something up and get a finish.
Namajunas also possesses deceptive striking, with quick hands and a great front kick that's caught more than a few fighters off guard. She usually sets up her grappling with an aggressive striking attack. Chances are Namajunas isn't conceding the takedowns to Esparza, but she's probably aware that her defensive wrestling isn't as good as her opponent's offensive wrestling, so she has to find other ways to counter.
For Esparza's part, she just needs to stay out of trouble on the feet, take Namajunas down and press her against the cage, round by round, until her spirit is broken. Esparza is a grinder and she has the ability to pound anyone into dust, but she has to be careful or Namajunas will grab on to an arm and not let go until the referee pries her loose.
The smart pick remains Esparza, because she has the veteran experience and the wrestling to negate Namajunas' high-flying attacks. Planting Namajunas on the mat and keeping her there for five rounds won't be easy, but it's Esparza's best path to victory. That said, for an upset pick, Namajunas isn't a bad way to go. She's slick with her submissions, and often throws caution to the wind, which could hurt against some opponents, but in this case she mostly has to worry about Esparza's takedowns and that's it. Playing it safe lands with Esparza, taking a chance means Namajunas
Prediction: Rose Namajunas by submission
JESSICA PENNE VS. RANDA MARKOS
Another matchup of former Ultimate Fighter pits semifinalists Jessica Penne and Randa Markos against each other this weekend. Penne - a former Invicta FC champion at 105 pounds - looked great in the competition up until the point she ran into her good friend Carla Esparza, who beat her via three-round decision. Meanwhile, Markos was one of the biggest stories of the season after she upset the No. 3 seed in the tournament - Tecia Torres - in her first fight and then made short work of Felice Herrig in her next bout. She eventually fell by submission to Rose Namajunas, but the luster hasn't been knocked off this Canadian prospect just yet.
Markos proved on The Ultimate Fighter that she's a strong wrestler and grappler with solid boxing on the feet. She out grappled Tecia Torres on the mat, maybe even more so than Esparza did when they fought later in the tournament. Markos needed less than a round to lock on a rarely used variation of the armbar to put away Herrig as well.
Where Markos might struggle this weekend is the fact that Penne's only real weakness against her is wrestling, but on the ground she's an ace with her Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and probably a superior striker as well, using her long range and reach.
Penne should also benefit from a home camp where she's comfortable, after admitting on the show several times that being locked in a house with virtually all strangers took her completely out of her comfort zone. If she comes in rested and relaxed in this fight and controls the pace on the feet and works for sweeps and reversals on the mat, she should be able to get the job done by decision. Make no mistake, both Penne and Markos are going to be tough customers for any 115-pound fighter on the roster, but somebody has to win and somebody has to lose this time around.
Prediction: Jessica Penne by unanimous decision
JEREMY STEPHENS VS. CHARLES OLIVEIRA
Following a five-round war back in June against Cub Swanson, Jeremy Stephens looks to get back on a winning path as he takes on Brazilian prodigy Charles Oliviera.
Oliveira is coming off of one of his most impressive career performances, where he submitted veteran fighter Hatsu Hioki, and that's one fight after he tapped out Andy Ogle. Oliveira is an extremely dangerous opponent for anyone with submission defense problems and maybe even a few - like Hioki - who are well-known for their grappling prowess.
The struggle for Oliveira in his fight this time around is facing another heavy-handed puncher like Stephens. The former lightweight knockout artist possesses some of the deadliest strikes at 145 pounds and all he needs is one punch and this fight could be over in an instant. Stephens' career is littered with fighters who dared to stand and trade with him, and most woke up staring at the lights.
Oliveira always seems like he's one fight away from making a serious run at the top 10 in the division, but his biggest Achilles' heel continues to be strikers who show no fear. Cub Swanson knocked out Oliveira with one punch. Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone did similar damage while Oliveira was still a lightweight. Unless Oliveira can get this fight to the mat in a hurry, he's probably going to suffer the same fate against Stephens.
Prediction: Jeremy Stephens by knockout
KJ NOONS VS. DARON CRUICKSHANK
If you're looking for a potential Fight of the Night on the main card, this matchup of lightweight strikers pitting KJ Noons against Daron Cruickshank is the easy winner to choose. Noons is a former professional boxer with lights out power in his hands, while Cruickshank is one of the most creative fighters in the division with an excellent base in taekwondo that he's adapted for the Octagon.
Following a rough start to his UFC career, Noons has turned things around with two consecutive wins, including a homerun knockout over veteran fighter Sam Stout in his last fight. At times, Noons has some of the best boxing in the division, but he often allows himself to get caught up in a slugfest where he just starts winging punches, and that rarely benefits him on the final scorecard.
Cruickshank is a bit more controlled with his hands, but when he starts to unleash his feet - watch out. Cruickshank isn't quite Anthony Pettis with his kicks, but he's certainly a fun and creative fighter, as he uncorks some of the craziest moves while looking for the finish. As he showed in his last fight, Cruickshank also has some wrestling in his back pocket as well and that could be the difference in this fight. Noons isn't easy to take down by any means, but if Cruickshank gets him thinking about it early, it could benefit him late.
These two could just throw caution to the wind and start dropping bombs. In that case, it's anybody's fight. If Cruickshank fights smart and doesn't somehow forget how to kick, he should be able to eke out a decision win, but this one will probably be very, very close.
Prediction: Daron Cruickshank by split decision