The UFC Women’s Strawweight Championship is back in the hands of Rose Namajunas and she’s set to defend her title once more against Carla Esparza at UFC 274 this Saturday night.
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Namajunas defeated Zhang Weili by way of a stunning head kick knockout in April last year to reclaim the title that she had previously lost to Jessica Andrade at UFC 237. Namajunas and Zhang stepped into the cage again in November for an immediate rematch and it was Namajunas who walked away with a split decision victory to defend the title.
Namajunas will now attempt to make her second consecutive title defense this weekend when she meets former champion Carla Esparza in a five-round co-main event bout at UFC 274. Esparza’s five-fight win streak before UFC 274 includes victories against Yan Xiaonan, Marina Rodriguez, and Michelle Waterson.
The Namajunas vs. Esparza title fight will air on the UFC 274 PPV event this Saturday night. Fight fans can order the UFC 274 PPV here to watch every fight live.
The Namajunas vs. Esparza betting odds show that Namajunas is a clear favorite in the title fight and will enter at odds of -210 vs. Esparza at +165.
- Namajunas: -210
- Esparza: +165
Rose Namajunas vs. Carla Esparza is the rematch that die-hard fans have been waiting so many years for. The first two women to compete ever for the UFC strawweight championship are at it again, competing for the same prize. Both women have definitely evolved, but arguably the difference is Esparza has sharpened her already signature skill set while Rose has consistently expanded her overall game everywhere. In the first match up it was the division’s best wrestler and a young creative scrambler. In this matchup, Esparza is still the dominant wrestler she has always been but her ability to utilize her striking range and setups as well as top control has become more fine-tuned to securing the eventual takedown and staying there. Namajunas, who once favored a taekwondo-esque striking style has honed in on her kickboxing base and now more methodically calculates when her flashy traditional techniques are displayed.
The challenger now operates at a very far range. She does not engage the pocket unless it is on her terms and she has committed to setting something up. She has great octagon awareness, and she excels in being on the outside, moving back but only just as much as she needs to while circling to avoid being pinned to the fence. This allows her to stay safe and when she gets her opponent chasing her, she times her takedowns off of their commitment. She is one of the best at cutting the angle on her double and single legs. Whenever Esparza gets to this point in the fight we see something similar:
She tends to end her takedowns inside her opponent’s guard, she then stacks them, pressing her forehead into their chin and elevating her hips. She will look for ground and pound and she’s patient, this works both for and against her as it is where she has sustained some of the more damaging strikes while on top. Her head pressure does see her leaning into elbows at times, however, once she amounts enough pressure to open her opponent’s guard, she postures completely up and uses full force strikes dropping from standing in order to pass the guard in devastating fashion. From side control, she adjusts her hips as her opponents try to escape and lands elbows in side control and scarf hold, and eventually either finishes it, takes the back as her opponent tries to escape or if they do, she resets and looks to restart the whole sequence again. Carla Esparza is not shy about what her game is and she’s the best in the division and implementing it.
Rose Namajunas is far more unpredictable, she may knock you out, she may hunt for a submission, we may see a little bit of everything. On the feet she will have a good reach advantage over Esparza, however the risk of being taken down off of her kick is a big one. For the most part, Esparza is especially good at capitalizing on kicks to the body, so Namajunas should look to carefully set them up to the legs and head. The latter of which shouldn’t be gone too frequently but could be a devastating tool as Esparza’s reactive striking is slightly lacking. Namajunas clearly has the striking advantage at all ranges, what becomes more interesting is how much she can make Esparza pay once those are bridged. Namajunas favors her cross-stepping blitz with her straights and chains leg kicks off of the end, but what these bursts also do is drive her opponents backwards onto the cage and potentially into the clinch. When esparza commits to the takedown she completely commits, and the knock on this in the past is it has left her in moments looking to complete while taking shots, In the clinch in these moments, Namajunas needs to make the most of the opportunities to land elbows and knees while the two are entangled, and open cuts and general make things ugly for Esparza. For Rose, the important thing is no free takedowns. On her back, Namajunas is excellent at always maintaining a knee shield and making it difficult to pass, her guard is active and given space she attacks upkicks and creates scrambles and room to get up.
On the feet, Namajunas can pick Esparza apart but her arsenal of tools will be partially minimized due to the threat of the takedown. When Esparza shoots, Namajunas has to make it ugly and consistently look to open Esparza up for shooting or clinching, and even if she is taken down she has to make Esparza work and pay for it. For Esparza it’s going to be ugly up until she can pass, so should get there she needs to establish and maintain her side control, mount or half guard at all costs. Position before submission here is a must as the more Namajunas can stand up the more confident she gets and the more chances she is given on the feet. This is an extremely close fight, however, over five rounds I think that Namajunas can create openings amongst the scrambles and ultimately catches Esparza with something.
Prediction: Rose Namajunas to win via stoppage
Unsurprising for the strawweight champion, Rose is a complete mixed martial artist who is capable in all areas of the fight. On the feet, she is bouncy and fluid with a variety of strikes that land with ill-intent from a variety of angles. Her typical approach is to keep the fight at kicking range early where she can effortlessly land leg kicks or head kicks. Her hip flexibility is impressive and allows her to land kicks, head to toe, without telegraphing. Once the distance is closed, Rose will fight with a more Muay Thai approach and look to land up the middle strikes- straight punches, uppercuts, and heavy knees. Then, if distance is crashed further, the champ is a strong wrestler and grappler. Defensively, on the feet, Rose relies on movement and footwork to evade and counter her opponents strikes. Her takedown defense is solid but because so much of her game is kicking focused, if her opponent can time a kick, Rose can be caught on one leg and easily taken down. Once on her back, Namajunas has the ability to secure submissions; however, at this level, her typical approach is to scramble and look to stand back up. There are few women in the division with Rose’s striking fluidity and power, but, what makes this fight so interesting is that Esparza’s fight style is unlike anything the champ has faced in a while.
Esparza is very simply a wrestler. But, don’t let that simplicity fool you; her wrestling is dominating and her ground and pound is devastating. Esparza only looks to survive on the feet, her offensive striking is basic and her defensive striking is problematic. She strikes with elementary boxing combinations that are designed to close distance and open opportunities for takedowns. However, as she closes distance, Esparza tends to be a step slower than her opponent and gets hit cleanly. Once that distance is closed, and Esparza is in her range, she’ll shoot takedown after takedown until she secures it. “Cookie Monster” averages 3.5 takedowns per fight at a 37% clip. Her takedown accuracy is lower than expected for such an accredit grappler, but, what she lacks in success, she makes up for with frequency. Once she gets the fight on the mat, the round tends to end there. Her top pressure is suffocating and her positional awareness means she rarely makes a mistake. In her most recent fight, she unleashed heavy and slicing elbows that bloodied and finished her opponent quickly. Esparza’s elite wrestling got her into the top 5 of the rankings but her new found ground and pound earned her a title shot.
Obviously if the fight stays standing, Rose will likely dominate and if the fight hits the mat, Esparza has an equal chance of domination. While they are one of her most powerful attacks, I anticipate Rose reducing the number of head kicks. Staying on one leg, even for a split second, is a risky endeavor against Esparza. Instead, I foresee the champ implementing more of her knees to threaten or tag Esparza’s takedown attempts. If the fight does hit the mat, Rose will need to play “get up” instead of jiu-jitsu. Esparza has been counted out time and time again and has regularly proved the doubters wrong. But, I’m doubting the challenger again. I think Rose will have an intelligent game plan and be too fast on the feet; eventually, I see Rose finding the challenger’s chin.
Prediction: Namajunas by KO/TKO
Rose is a dangerous champion who has the fight arsenal to keep hold of the women’s strawweight belt for many years. Perhaps her best attribute as a fighter is her ability to improve fighter over fight. This rare attribute is extremely dangerous for anyone standing against her as her opposition, as the latest Rose is deservingly viewed to be the best strawweight fighter; so, can you imagine if the upcoming Rose is even better?
Diving into what makes Rose so dangerous is her ability to utilize athletic, defensive movement throughout the duration of a 5-round affair. This movement is combined with perfectly timed offensive striking, as she will intelligently enter range to throw in combination and fluidly circle out of danger before her opponent can land a dangerous attack. This style of striking is then “rinsed and repeated” throughout the fight; and, when combined with sudden long-range kicking attacks, the result is her being the most technical striker in the division.
To be a champion, and one that is perceived to have the potential to be a long-stead champion, sound technical striking is not the only positive attribute that is needed. Fortunately, Rose has extremely sound offensive and defensive grappling. From an offensive lens, Rose does well in chaining her wrestling off of her striking which yields a >50% success rate on her 1.78 takedown attempts per 15 minutes. From a defensive lens, Rose can be taken down, but, she has a very good ground game from her back, whether it be throwing up submission attempts or working her way back to her feet. In this matchup, Rose will need to show good fight IQ by forgoing submission attempts from her back, as she will likely find minimal success with doing so; consequently, she will lose the round by allowing her opponent to rack up control time. So, as long as she shows sound decision-making in the octagon, she has the arsenal of skills to win this matchup – and many more to come.
Esparza is flat-out underappreciated by the MMA community. I will be the first one to raise my hand to say I too have overlooked her within the division, largely due to her seeming like a one-trick pony in the octagon. The “one-trick” she has is a relentless pursuit of the takedown, and of recent note, she has not only had success with securing the takedown, but more importantly, she has inflicted damaging ground and pound once the fight hit the mat. This recent success in securing takedowns and inflicting damage once there was put on full display against the highly-touted, and potential title-contending prospect, Yan Xiaonan. In that fight, facing an elite striker in Yan, Esparza wrestled from the moment the bell range to the moment the ref had to intervene and stop the fight due to Esparza inflicting severe damage with punches and elbows from the top position. This fight showcased that Esparza is far more than a decision-only fighter, as it displayed her having the most damaging ground and pound among the strawweight contenders.
Although Esparza’s “one-trick” has allowed her to secure wins over extremely dangerous opponents, the other aspects of her fight game are less to write home about. This may not come as too much of a surprise, knowing she relentlessly wrestles, but when facing an opponent of where Rose’s skill-set is currently at, Esparza will likely need to spend some moments standing. Once there, she does have a fundamental, defensive stance. But, she lacks athleticism and fluid moment with her feet, thus making her a somewhat stationary target to hit. Regardless of this issue, her opponent will always be focusing on defending the takedown, so, they are often less offensive than what is expected.
As stated above, if Rose fights intelligently, I fully expect her to win this fight. Esparza’s slow movement and undersized frame should yield Rose the ability to utilize footwork and constant movement to have sustained success on the feet. If, and when, Esparza cuts and angles to shoot a takedown, she will likely find it more difficult than expected to take Rose down. This difficulty coupled with Rose having the skills necessary to get up off her back should make Esparza quite frustrated in the octagon, and this frustration should net a larger disparity in striking than what is already quite large on paper.
Bet: Rose Namajunas to win
Braeden Arbour is an aspiring journalist out of Ontario, Canada. He is a recent graduate of Trent University, with a black belt in Karate and a blue belt in Judo. He has also been an avid fan of MMA for the last decade.
Michael Pounders is a high school English Teacher, a boxer himself, and is a fan who loves, gambles on, and nerds out about all things MMA.