The First Strawweight Title Defense: Expect Esparza and Jedrzejczyk to Steal the Show
Before we’re treated to UFC 185’s main event, a highly anticipated lightweight title fight between Anthony Pettis and Rafael Dos Anjos, we’ll get another very intriguing title fight. In the evening’s co-main event, new strawweight champ Carla Esparza will look to defend her belt for the first time against Joanna Jędrzejczyk in a bout that might just steal the show.
As the first-ever defense of the UFC’s strawweight title, it’s a truly historic bout, and it also marks the tremendous progress women’s MMA has made in the last few years. Long gone are the days of Dana White’s assertions that women would never fight in the UFC. Today, we don’t just have Ronda Rousey and the bantamweight division; we’ve also got a packed roster of talented strawweights, all very capable of wearing divisional gold. The fact that Esparza and Jędrzejczyk are co-main-eventing a Pay-Per-View is big news not just for WMMA, but the MMA community as a whole. This is a meter for the sport’s evolution. This is an important fight.
Yet as we sing this bout’s praises, celebrating what it means for the sport, it’s important not to overlook its more basic strengths: for all its historical importance, what we have in Esparza vs. Jędrzejczyk is one hell of a fight. Let’s take a closer look.
In the champion, we have a young but well-versed grappler who’s already competed against some of her division’s biggest names. After getting her start as a high school and college wrestler, she pummelled her way through the rugged terrain of Bellator, XFC, and finally, Invicta FC, where she became the division’s first strawweight champion. From there, Esparza was recruited as a competitor of The Ultimate Fighter’s 21st season, which sought to crown the organization’s first strawweight queen.
After being picked first overall and soundly defeating the likes of Angela Hill, Tecia Torres, Jessica Penne, and Rose Namajunas, the Torrance, California native earned her prize, etching her place in history as the inaugural strawweight champion of the UFC. It’s an honor we can be certain Esparza is reluctant to relinquish. Relying on her tremendous wrestling base and ever-improving striking, she’ll guard her title well. It’s going to take one talented women to snatch the belt from the waist of the newly-appointed champion.
Enter Poland’s Joanna Jędrzejczyk, who looks to become the UFC’s first European champion since the days of Andrei Arlovski’s heavyweight reign (move over, Mr. McGregor). Jędrzejczyk got her start on the Muay Thai circuit, but like so many others, eventually turned to the more lucrative possibilities of MMA. After making the move, she laid waste from Moscow, to Warsaw, to London, knocking out UFC vet Rosi Sexton in the process. That win earned her a spot on the UFC roster where, with a hurricane of wicked striking, she defeated Juliana Lima and the much-hyped Claudia Gadelha. All that in less than three years as a pro, people—the girl is good.
The thing that makes Jędrzejczyk such an intriguing challenger for Esparza’s belt, however, is not just her skill, it’s her confidence. In the days leading up to UFC 185, she’s displayed a self-assuredness not seen since Chris Weidman told the world he was going to beat Anderson Silva back in 2013. Jędrzejczyk is an underdog, but she believes she can win and she’s not hiding that fact, having chirped Esparza more than once at official press events.
It’s the kind of confidence that is impossible not admire. Against an unshakable fighter like Esparza, however confidence will only go far. Yes, Jędrzejczyk is looking for miles, but the champ won’t be willing to give her an inch. And that means fireworks.
So, while this strawweight title fight is something of a landmark moment in MMA history, it’s also a seriously exciting matchup. In one corner, we’ll have an unflinching champion with truly imposing wrestling. In the other, we’ll have confident challenger with some of the division’s best striking, looking for write her chapter of MMA history. The clash-of-styles collision of these two forces is bound to mean just one thing: a tooth-and-nail battle for the belt that fans won’t soon forget. It might even overshadow the main event.
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