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The UFC's Strawweight Shuffle

Fightland Blog

By Tom Taylor

Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

Before Anthony Pettis defends his lightweight title at UFC 185, new strawweight champ Carla Esparza will defend hers. She’ll do so against undefeated Polish striker, Joanna Jedrzejczyk. In advance of the event, Dos Anjos certainly appears to have a decent chance of walking away with Pettis’ belt. There’s probably a much higher chance, however, that Jedrzejczyk walks away with Esparza’s.

Yes, Esparza punched her way into the MMA history books by becoming the UFC’s first ever strawweight champion, but in Jedrzejczyk, she faces a credible challenger, truly capable of stealing the crown. And should Jedrzejczyk accomplish such a feat, becoming the second strawweight champion in UFC history, she’ll face a similar hurdle in her first defense, as a young but talented roster of 115-pound women await their shot at the UFC’s newest belt.

Really, for all the talent of Esparza and Jedrzejczyk, that’s quite possibly the way it will unfold for awhile. We may see the strawweight belt change hands a great number of times before it finally settles around the waist of the division’s first dominant champion.

Now, some might argue that Esparza—or Jedrzejczyk—could be that dominant champion. Such claims are certainly valid, because both women are seriously solid fighters. And after all, the first UFC featherweight champion, Jose Aldo, has held his belt since the division was introduced. The same can be said for women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, who has had a stranglehold on her title since the division’s inauguration. Perhaps the current strawweight champ could do the same.

Yet the situation at strawweight is a little different. Both the featherweight and women’s bantamweight divisions, though fairly new to the UFC, had the chance to grow elsewhere—the former in the WEC, and the latter in Strikeforce. In these other organizations, fairly clear pecking orders emerged, so by the time the UFC absorbed these divisions, they already had dominant champions to work with. Strawweight hasn’t really had that luxury.

Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC

Yes, the competitors of The Ultimate Fighter 20, the season that crowned Esparza the champion, all came from Invicta FC, but many of the division’s top fighters have come from elsewhere. Jedrzejczyk, for example, never fought for Invicta. She spent her entire pre-UFC MMA career fighting for European promotions. Similarly, Claudia Gadelha—Jedrzejczyk’s most recent opponent and another top strawweight—fought for Invicta just once. In the creation of its new strawweight division, the UFC has signed fighters from all over the place—not just Invicta. Furthermore, the division as a whole is still quite young. Many of its fighters have fought less than 10 times, some less than 5. What this all means is that many of the division’s best are still quite untested, having not had the chance to fight one another. This in turn means that a true, strawweight hierarchy has not had the chance to unfold.

Sure, we know fighters like Esparza and Jedrzejczyk are very good. But at this stage, it’s hard to say just how good, because they’ve fought so few of their top-ranked peers. Esparza, for example, has not fought Gadelha, Joanne Calderwood or Paige VanZant. Jedrzejczyk, on the other hand, hasn’t fought Rose Namajunas, Tecia Torres or Jessica Penne. Similarly, very few fighters on the UFC’s current strawweight roster have fought the likes of Alexa Grasso, an undefeated Invicta prospect and inevitable UFC signee, or dominant WSOF champ Jessica Aguilar, who the UFC is also likely to pursue in the future.

Strawweight is a new division, packed with young talent. Yes, it’s got some history in other organizations, but overall, it’s still in its infancy. As a result, it’ll be awhile before it works itself out, before it’s really clear where its fighters stand relative to one another, before the division’s Ronda Rousey, or Jon Jones, or Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson can emerge.

Until that time, there’s a good chance we all bear witness to rapid-fire belt-change, as the division’s talented young athletes collide with one another, each eager to become the first dominant champion in UFC strawweight history. That, fight fans, is going to be a hell of a thing to watch unfold, and it all begins at UFC 185 next weekend.

 

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