UFC Strawweight Champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
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A new year means new contenders, new storylines, and the possibility of epic fights. The UFC women’s strawweight division has shown the potential to put on some amazing fights in the new year and introduce fans to the next title contenders.
The 115-pound division began in 2014 with the UFC signing most of Invicta FC’s strawweight division with fighters like Rose Namajunas, Carla Esparza, and Felice Herrig. The UFC set up The Ultimate Fighter Season 20 as the season that would produce a champion. Coached by UFC lightweights Gilbert Melendez and Anthony Pettis, fighters faced off to see who would eventually fight for the inaugural strawweight title.
In the final, we got to see Carla Esparza take on Rose Namajunas and ultimately win the first belt with a rear-naked-choke in the third round. Esparza seemed to be a pretty dominant wrestler who could take girls down and keep them there.
Then we were introduced to a fiery 115-pound fighter with hands that fire like pistons and an attitude to match.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk came into the UFC and, after pulling off a close decision win over Claudia Gadelha in 2014, earned a title shot against Esparza at UFC 185 the following March. Esparza did not stand a chance against the volleys of punches sent her way and had her takedowns stuffed repeatedly. Joanna Champion won the belt and has defended it four times against the likes of Jessica Penne, Valerie Letourneau, Claudia Gadelha, and most recently against Karolina Kowalkiewicz at UFC 205.
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We’ve seen dominant champions before. We’ve also seen them fall.
Anderson Silva seemed unbeatable but was KO’d by a young Chris Weidman at UFC 162. Ronda Rousey lost her title to Holly Holm at UFC 193 when she was at the height of her popularity when it seemed like she couldn’t be beaten.
So as we look forward to 2017 in the world of MMA let’s take a look at three strawweights who are poised to have a big year on their way to a title run.
Mexico has a long history of providing some of the most talented and exciting fighters across combat sports.
Julio Cesar Chavez, Oscar De La Hoya are boxing legends with the likes of Juan Manuel Marquez and Canelo Alvarez showing plenty of potential to join them as Mexican heroes.
With MMA being one of the newest sports in Mexico, the country has already begun to produce young, hungry, and exciting mixed martial artists. Few shine brighter than UFC strawweight Alexa Grasso.
The 23-year-old fighter holds an impressive 9-0 record with wins over Mizuki Inoue, Jodie Esquibel and, in her UFC debut, Heather Jo Clark.
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Her striking, accurate and relentless, is her best weapon as she has shown in every one of her fights. The second she sees an opening, she sends a volley of strikes that seem to come from every single angle all at once. She’s shown the ability to overwhelm her opponents on the feet to the point where they back up just to break contact and get a second to breathe.
Her combinations come from all kinds of angles and are a good mix of punches and kicks, each thrown with purpose. Grasso has been able to set up strikes using kicks or punches and has a solid chin to be able to handle punishment.
Her ground game is solid and gives her the ability to survive ground attacks or get back to her feet.
Already scheduled to take on Felice Herrig at UFC Houston, Grasso’s name has already been thrown around in possible bouts against the likes of Rose Namajunas, Michelle Waterson, and Paige Vanzant.
2017 will be huge for the young fighter. Just make sure that you don’t blink.
Jessica Andrade does not get enough credit in WMMA. She’s one of the toughest fighters to come out of Brazil and has won fights at both bantamweight and strawweight.
At 135-pounds Andrade went 4-3 in the UFC defeating Raquel Pennington, Sarah Moras, and Rosi Sexton. Even at 5-feet 2-inches tall, she was able to use her speed and power to put girls down and finish fights with her hands or her Jiu Jitsu.
After losing the rematch to Pennington she moved down to strawweight where her size wouldn’t be as much of a factor. The result was a 2-0 record in 2016 with wins over Jessica Penne and Joanne Calderwood, both were finishes.
At 135-pounds, Andrade was very undersized and lacked the strength to deal with some of the bigger girls in the division. Liz Carmouche threw her around the Octagon fairly easily and she was able to finish Andrade in the second round via TKO.
At 115-pounds Andrade has the power advantage over most other strawweights. Against Jessica Penne she was able to use her speed to overwhelm her and then swarmed in for the TKO finish in the second round.
Against Calderwood, Andrade more than held her own on the feet and when the fight went to the ground she was able to lock in a tight guillotine. At bantamweight, a lot of girls are strong enough to deal with Andrade’s power and size. At strawweight, Andrade is a lot more powerful and uses her strength to her advantage.
Look out for Andrade in 2017 in potential fights against Carla Esparza, Rose Namajunas, Joanna Champion, or Claudia Gadelha.
If you’ve ever watched the documentary “Fight Mom” (and if you haven’t its an absolute must watch right after you finish reading this), then you’ve likely fallen in love with ‘The Karate Hottie’.
Michelle Waterson is the full package of martial artist and humility at it’s best. Training out of Jackson-Winkeljohn in Albuquerque, NM she signed with the UFC in 2015 after a run as Invicta FC’s atomweight champion.
Waterson became the Invicta FC champion in 2013 when she defeated Jessica Penne via submission in the fourth round. She defended the title once before losing it to Herica Tiburcio in 2014.
She has trained karate since she was 10-years-old and it shows in her style of fighting. Her strikes are very quick, especially her kicks, and she holds a black belt in American Freestyle Karate. Add that to her training in Muay Thai, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and you have a combination for a rather well-rounded fighter.
In her UFC debut against Angela Magana, she showed her ability to control a grappler with her footwork and timing. She then used her own grappling skills to finish Magana with a slick rear-naked-choke.
After a layoff of over a year due to injuries, she took on Paige Vanzant in Sacramento. Headlining a UFC on FOX card in only her second fight in the promotion was a huge deal for the former atomweight champion.
Waterson used her striking to overwhelm Vanzant, a skill which the latter was thought to be superior in, and then took her down and submitted her in the first round.
On top of it, she is as humble a person as they come. In an era where trash talk and mean mugging is encouraged, she is a breath of fresh air. She doesn’t talk trash before fights, she’s humble and respectful afterward and she can’t be baited into disrespecting her opponent.
Again go watch the documentary and then try to tell yourself you’re not a fan of her. You’d be lying.
Following her win over Vanzant, she was asked to call the name of a fighter she’d like to take on next. On FS1, light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier pressed her on the issue and all Waterson could do was blush and state that she would fight whoever the UFC offers.
Waterson has the potential to put on some epic fights this year with possible matchups with Rose Namajunas, Karolina Kowalkiewicz, and Claudia Gadelha. If Waterson is able to get through one or two big fights it’s possible that we’ll see her fighting for the title before 2017 is over.
Don’t sleep on ‘The Karate Hottie’. Before you know it she’ll be challenging for that UFC belt.