Female competitors made their first appearance on The Ultimate Fighter in Season 18, as bitter rivals Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate coached teams of bantamweights in a memorable, exciting instalment of the long-running reality television competition in 2013.
But the following year, history would be made on two fronts, as Season 20 was not only the first time that the show would feature an all-female cast, but it also served as the larger unveiling of the strawweight division as part of the UFC, with the competitors being ranked, paired off, and placed into a tournament format where the winner would become the inaugural UFC strawweight champion.
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Because the strawweight division has now been a part of the UFC fold for nearly a decade and produced a litany of memorable moments and elite talents, it’s difficult to remember just what a big deal this was when it was first announced.
Invicta FC, the all-female promotion helmed by Shannon Knapp, held its first event roughly 18 months prior, and many of the competitors selected to venture to Las Vegas and battle it out in the single-elimination tournament had risen to prominence and established themselves amongst the elite in the sport under the company’s banner.
Top seed and first-overall pick Carla Esparza won the promotion’s strawweight title with a five-round decision win over fellow cast member Bec Rawlings in their final bout before joining the cast.
Joanne Calderwood and Tecia Torres had built momentum and quality reputations, entering as the second and third seeds, respectively, while veterans Jessica Penne, Felice Herrig, Heather Jo Clark, and Lisa Ellis served as established names that would surely be tough outs for anyone looking to advance to the finals.
Irish pioneer Aisling Daly entered as the fifth seed, while talented prospect Rose Namajunas was seeded seventh, and in the first bout aired during the season, Iraqi-Canadian upstart Randa Markos showed that seeding didn’t necessarily matter as she upset Torres to advance to the quarterfinals.
There would be twists and turns, in-house drama and dramatic fights inside the old TUF Gym, just like with every previous season of The Ultimate Fighter, with Esparza and Namajunas advancing to the finals, where the top-seeded “Cookie Monster” secured a third-round rear-naked choke finish to etch her name in the history books as the first UFC strawweight champion.
In addition to being the first season featuring an all-female cast and to crown a UFC champion — establishing an approach that would be replicated on Season 26 when the flyweight division was introduced on the female side of the roster — one of the greatest lasting legacies of this season is the sheer amount of talent this season graduated onto the UFC roster and the staying power many of those competitors have displayed over the last nine years.
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Esparza and Namajunas have each held the strawweight title on two occasions, with the former beating the latter to claim gold in each instance, and they remain stationed inside the Top 5 in the 115-pound rankings to this day.
Calderwood earned a victory over Luana Carolina a couple weeks ago in London and was a fixture in the Top 15 for the majority of the time since appearing on the show.
Hill stumbled out of the gate thanks to a couple daunting assignments, but after an outstanding four-fight stop-over with Invicta FC, “Overkill” returned to the UFC fold and has been one of the most active and consistently competitive fighters in the division, and currently sits at No. 13 in the divisional ranks.
Carla Esparza | Career Retrospective
Carla Esparza | Career Retrospective
Torres has remained a Top 10 fighter in the strawweight division since her time on the show, and while she struggled through a four-fight slide at one point — which included losses to three of the four women to hold the strawweight title — she’s won three of her last four fights. Right now, Torres has pressed pause on her fighting career and shifted her focus to motherhood, as she is pregnant, with her and her wife, UFC bantamweight contender Raquel Pennington, set to welcome their first child later this year.
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After claiming the bronze medal with a win over Markos at the finale, Penne went on to fight for the title in her second UFC appearance, and then returned from a four-year layoff with a pair of wins in 2021 over Loopy Godinez and Tabatha Ricci.
In addition to the six contestants still on the active roster, Markos made 18 appearances inside the Octagon, Herrig made 10 starts before retiring towards the end of 2022, while each of the remaining cast members all made at least two trips into the Octagon and totaled 34 combined appearances under the UFC banner.
Nothing will ever top the overall impact the first season of The Ultimate Fighter had on the UFC and the sport of mixed martial arts — that goes without saying — however Season 20 deserves to be remembered as one of the best seasons in the show’s long history because of its tremendous and lasting impact on the strawweight division.