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PHOENIX, ARIZONA - MAY 07: (R-L) Carla Esparza battles Rose Namajunas in the UFC strawweight championship fight during the UFC 274 event at Footprint Center on May 07, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
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Where We Stand Women's Strawweight Division | May 2022

Carla Esparza Is Once Again The Queen Of The Strawweights, And She Faces New And Familiar Foes In Defense Of Her Title

When it comes to the belt, sometimes it matters less how you get there than it does that you get there when it’s all said and done. That’s all to say: Carla Esparza is the new strawweight champion for the first time in 2,612 days - shattering Frank Mir’s previously held record (1,234 days) – following her second win over Rose Namajunas at UFC 274. Although the title fight didn’t produce fireworks, Esparza got result she wanted, and the strawweight division is reshuffled once again.

With a familiar face back on the throne, this is where the deepest women’s division stands at present:  

Champion: Carla Esparza

Last Fight: Split Decision Win vs Rose Namajunas (5/7/2022)

Next fight: N/A

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - MAY 07: Carla Esparza reacts after her victory over Rose Namajunas during the UFC 274 event at Footprint Center on May 07, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - MAY 07: Carla Esparza reacts after her victory over Rose Namajunas during the UFC 274 event at Footprint Center on May 07, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

 


Outlook: “Cookie Monster” put her head down and did the hard work to get the title shot in the first place, and that born-from-wrestling grind helped her obtain the strawweight title almost eight years after her first reign. With a six-fight winning streak in tow, Esparza likely learns who she will face in her first title defense when Joanna Jędrzejczyk and Zhang Weili face off once again. Narratively, Esparza might like a second crack at Jędrzejczyk, to whom she lost her belt the first time around. Regardless, Esparza is now the one with the target on her back, and given her six-fight winning streak, she could very well be in the best form of her life.

1) Rose Namajunas

 

Last Fight: Split Decision Loss vs Carla Esparza (5/7/2022)

Next fight: N/A

Rose Namajunas | Best Moments
Rose Namajunas | Best Moments
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Outlook: “Thug” Rose Namajunas turned in a peculiar performance in her title defense against Esparza. Although one could argue Esparza didn’t do enough to take the belt, Namajunas didn’t provide the judges enough evidence that warranted her keeping it. So, now she’s left to climb the mountain once again. The loser between Zhang and Jędrzejczyk is a fun fight one way or the other. Although Namajunas owns two wins over both women, they are clearly the class of the division at present. A trilogy fight against Jéssica Andrade is also incredibly intriguing after Andrade’s return to 115. Marina Rodriguez and Mackenzie Dern are also intriguing matchups and rare fresh faces in the Top 5. Set to turn 30 in June, Namajunas has several years of her prime remaining, and so her quest to become the first three-time strawweight champion now begins.

2) Zhang Weili

Last Fight: Split Decision Loss vs Rose Namajunas (11/6/2021)

Next fight: vs Joanna Jędrzejczyk (6/11/2022)

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 07: (R-L) Zhang Weili of China punches Joanna Jedrzejczyk of Poland in their UFC strawweight championship fight during the UFC 248

Outlook: “Magnum” didn’t get the revenge she wanted over Namajunas in their rematch at UFC 268, but she did take the champion to the brink and that certainly boosted her confidence. She gets a familiar foe next in Jędrzejczyk, a rematch of one of the greatest title fights in UFC history, and one dripping with title implications. If she loses, however, a rematch with either Andrade or Namajunas is available, as well as fights against Rodriguez, Dern or fellow countrywoman Yan Xiaonan.

3) Marina Rodriguez

Last Fight: Split Decision Win vs Yan Xiaonan (3/5/2022)

Next fight: N/A

 Marina Rodriguez of Brazil kicks Michelle Waterson in a flyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on May 08, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

 Marina Rodriguez of Brazil kicks Michelle Waterson in a flyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on May 08, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Marina Rodriguez of Brazil kicks Michelle Waterson in a flyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on May 08, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Outlook: Perhaps the most underappreciated Top 5 contender on the roster, Rodriguez has done nothing but fight the toughest competition available since joining the UFC roster almost four years ago. In 10 fights, she only tasted defeat once – a razor-close split decision to Esparza. She is currently riding a four-fight winning streak that includes two main event victories over Michelle Waterson and Mackenzie Dern, as well as a second-round finish of Amanda Ribas. After beating Yan Xiaonan at UFC 272, Rodriguez has a fair shout at a No. 1 contender fight at minimum. If Esparza wants a quick turnaround and neither Zhang nor Jędrzejczyk is ready, she is the next logical contender, as well.

4) Mackenzie Dern

Last Fight: Split Decision Win vs Tecia Torres (4/9/2022)

Next fight: N/A

Mackenzie Dern finaliza Nina Nunes no UFC Vegas 23

Mackenzie Dern secures an arm bar submission against Nina Nunes during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on April 10, 2021 in Las Vegas, NV. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)


Outlook: Dern rebounded well from losing her first main event to Rodriguez with a hard-fought split decision win over Tecia Torres. It was encouraging seeing Dern problem solve against a veteran who stifled her grappling initially, and Dern seems to continuously smooth out her striking game in congruence with her otherworldly jiu jitsu. She has plenty of options in the Top 5, most notably a potential fight against Yan. That could be the fight either woman needs to get into those No. 1 contender fights that seem to be aplenty at 115. Dern also has a shout to fight Namajunas or Andrade if either woman wants a fresh face instead of revisiting already-established matchups.

5) Yan Xiaonan

Last Fight: Split Decision Loss vs Marina Rodriguez (3/5/2022)

Next fight: N/A

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 07: (R-L) Yan Xiaonan of China punches Claudia Gadelha of Brazil in a strawweight fight during the UFC Fight Night

Outlook: Coming off her first two losses in the Octagon, Yan Xiaonan needs to cement her spot in the Top 5 before looking up the ladder again. How that comes is the intriguing part. Her only real Top 5 matchup that makes initial sense is Dern, but hopeful contenders are knocking on the Top 5’s door as well, especially Andrade and Ribas. Regardless of who Yan fights, however, she needs to get back to the winning circle before she falls too far behind the pace of the rest of the division’s elite.

In the Mix: Joanna Jędrzejczyk, Jessica Andrade, Amanda Ribas

Rise Of Amanda Ribas
Rise Of Amanda Ribas
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Outlook: Former strawweight queen and self-proclaimed bogeywoman of the division returns for the first time in more than two years when Jędrzejczyk rematches Zhang at UFC 275. That fight obviously produces the next likely title challenger, which is an even more appealing matchup for Jędrzejczyk seeing as she already took the crown from Esparza years ago. That said, Andrade is right there after submitting Amanda Lemos with the UFC’s first standing arm triangle. Andrade could have a reasonable shout to fight Namajunas in a trilogy bout, but “Bate Estaca” seems very much determined to get back to the top at 115 pounds. Ribas is an interesting one. She fights Katlyn Chookagian on May 14, and a win over “Blonde Fighter” would shoot her to the top of the flyweight rankings, but she also has plenty of options to get into the strawweight Top 5, as well. Her options will clear up shortly.