UFC Houston: Strawweights Fixin’ to Shake Up Rankings

The UFC title picture at 115 pounds in 2017 is sketchy. Joanna Jedrzezczyk has burned through a list of top competition. UFC Houston should provide some much-needed clarity.

On Saturday night, six UFC strawweights will walk into the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas, looking to make a statement. Tecia Torres, Bec Rawlings, Jessica Andrade, Angela Hill, Felice Herrig, and Alexa Grasso will combine to give the strawweight rankings a much-needed shake-up.

The quality and depth of talent at 115 pounds is not a concern. The division is packed with good fighters capable of becoming contenders for the UFC title. It is the in-cage dominance of reigning champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk that is posing matchmaking problems.

Jedrzejczyk has already defeated the best fighters in the division. Carla Esparza, Karolina Kowalkiewicz, and Claudia Gadelha twice. In the case of Esparza and Kowalkiewicz, Joanna “Champion” (or “Violence” depending on your preference) has beaten them in contests so one-sided that rematches would be a tough sell.

As for Gadelha, while many will argue that the Brazilian should have been awarded the first fight between the two in 2014, the records book state that she has an 0-2 record against the champ. Gadelha has provided Jedrzejczyk with her toughest career tests to date, by some margin too, but a third fight would surely be a last resort should no other options be available.

That also means that Gadelha should be kept away from anyone the UFC has eyes on pushing into the championship picture. Just as Bethe Correia and Holly Holm were fast-tracked to Ronda Rousey without a single major win between them, emerging contenders at strawweight are unlikely to wind up in the cage with Gadelha. They would probably all lose.

It also says plenty that Jedrzejczyk’s title defense against Kowalkiewicz was misrepresented after the fact. For 24 and a half minutes of the scheduled 25, Jedrzejczyk outclassed her opponent. The Polish champion out-landed the Polish contender 171 significant strikes to 50.

Fans, commentators, and promoter alike all wanted something to cling onto. Some sense that this was a real contest and that Jedrzejczyk could be beaten. In the fourth round, Kowalkiewicz landed with power, staggering the champion briefly. That was what they wanted.

Soon normal service was resumed. Jedrzejczyk still landed more strikes in that round than her opponent and took Kowalkiewicz down. In the fifth round that followed, Jedrzejczyk landed another 43 significant strikes. Kowalkiewicz was reduced to five.

Yet that was enough to have some calling for a rematch. Was it really because they thought Kowalkiewicz might win a second bout between the two, or was it simply because there was no definitive answer to the ever pertinent question, “who’s next?”

The majority of the best in the world at 115 pounds have either already faced Jedrzejczyk, or are embroiled in a scrap for position that sees them regularly beating each other. Long UFC win streaks are hard to come by, partly because the division contains less than 40 active fighters, and partly because the level of competition at the top is so fierce.

In the official UFC top 15, Jessica Andrade, Maryna Moroz, and Michelle Waterson have each won their last two. Alexa Grasso has a 9-0 undefeated record but has no truly notable wins on her resume. None of those mentioned have beaten top-five competition.

All of which brings us back to Saturday night in Houston. As fans salivate at the prospect of the “Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung returning after three-and-a-half years away from the cage, there is a compelling story playing out throughout the rest of the card.

First up, opening the FOX Sports 1 prelims are Tecia Torres and Bec Rawlings. Torres’ record is a product of the competitive nature of the top ten at strawweight. After compiling a perfect seven-fight resume, Torres lost by decision to Rose Namajunas. It was a fight so close that it might as well have been decided by the toss of a coin.

To get back into the title picture, Torres needs to beat Rawlings, who herself took a big step back just as things were starting to come together. Rawlings had beaten Lisa Ellis and Seo Hee Ham to build momentum in the UFC.

That upward motion continued for five minutes against Paige VanZant in August last year. Rawlings won the first round and appeared to be settling into another gritty three round war. At least until VanZant went full Karate Kid on Rawlings at the start of the second round, landing a flying kick that put Rawlings on her back and ultimately finished the fight.

Victory over Torres will likely be hard-earned, not least because Torres defeated Rawlings in a competitive scrap on The Ultimate Fighter 20. If Rawlings is able to secure the win it would be the biggest of her career.

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After the TUF 20 alumni set the early strawweight pace, Jessica Andrade and Angela Hill will pick up the baton and hit the afterburners.

Andrade is already being talked about as a potential title challenger as a result of her obliteration of Jessica Penne and Joanne Calderwood in 2016. The Brazilian had been a bantamweight out of UFC necessity before last year and has blasted her opponents out of the Octagon since dropping to strawweight.

Another destructive win would make Andrade a viable title challenger, notably because Angela Hill has become a really good mixed martial artist in her time away from the UFC.

Hill fought four times in 2016 under Invicta FC’s promotional banner. The fighter impressed at every turn. That included a championship win against legitimate top-10 talent Livia Renata Souza in one of the best women’s fights of the year.

Hill has all the tools necessary to create space and cause Andrade serious problems in Houston. If “Overkill” can do what some believe is unthinkable and win, she would have greater momentum than any other 115-pound contender in the company.

Rounding things off in the co-main event are Alexa Grasso and Felice Herrig. Grasso is the Mexican darling of Invicta’s hardcore fan base. An exciting prospect with a unique skill set, who remains somewhat untested against truly elite competition.

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It says plenty that Herrig is the most experienced and dangerous opponent that Grasso has faced in her four-year professional career. While the UFC may be trying to pump the brakes on the Mexican’s rise to the top, a thrilling win over Herrig in the co-main event of a Fight Night card would limit how much Grasso can be held back at this point.

Regardless of the level of competition, a 10-0 record in a division where other contenders sit at 5-3, 15-5 and 14-4 is hard to overlook.

If Herrig wins — and make no mistake here, she absolutely can — then she would return to a top ten that she was a notable part of when the UFC introduced the strawweight division in 2014.

When Herrig puts it all together she is a joy to watch. She certainly was in July last year when she took Kailin Curran’s back and choked her out in a hurry.

Doubters would argue that ‘it’s only Kailin Curran.’ They would do well to go back and watch how competitive Curran was in every one of her other UFC outings, including her fight with Paige VanZant. Nobody blew the Hawaiian out of the water the way Herrig did.

Now with the strawweight title picture in 2017 a confused sketch, the gauntlet is set. It’s over to the six fighters competing on Saturday to bring some order to the top ten and take a big step towards a title shot in the process.

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