Since its inception in 2013, the UFC Women’s Strawweight division has been gaining attention around the world.
The division’s first star was born when Carla Esparza defeated Rose Namajunas to become the inaugural Strawweight Champion in December 2014, although she was usurped by Poland’s Joanna Jedrzejczyk just three months later.
Jedrzejczyk has been hailed as just the kind of champion the division needs to boost its profile. Outspoken, intense, but fun-loving and in touch with her fans on social media, the 27-year-old is doing much to bring women’s MMA into the spotlight.
Comparisons to Bantamweight legend Ronda Rousey were to be expected, and both women are blazing the trail for a new batch of stars in the sport.
Rising stars of the women’s strawweight division
Waiting to claim Jedrzejczyk’s throne at the top of the division is a group of tenacious fighters, all of whom possess the skill and the charisma to become the next women’s Strawweight star.
Rarely has there been such excitement around an individual in women’s MMA as there is around Paige VanZant right now.
The 21-year-old might have only two fights to her name since signing for the UFC in December 2013, but she has already gained enough notoriety to become one of only six fighters to have signed a sponsorship deal with Reebok.
Nicknamed “12 Gauge” for her love of hunting as a child, VanZant hasn’t received unanimous praise since her rapid ascent to the number seven spot in the UFC rankings.
Many claim her looks are behind much of the attention – and backing – that she receives, while fellow Strawweight fighter Claudia Gadelha claimed VanZant wouldn’t cope against any of the division’s top five fighters – of which Gadelha herself is one.
But VanZant isn’t all media-friendliness and image consciousness. Her “Fight of the Night” defeat of Kailin Curran at UFC Fight Night 57 rightly won her many plaudits, and she confirmed her credentials with a convincing victory over Felice Herrig, taking every round, 30-26, 30-26 and 30-27.
UFC owner Dana White has hinted that he won’t let VanZant’s rising profile tempt him to push her towards fights she is not ready for, but she will be keen to silence her critics and put her talent before her image with some big wins in the near future.
I ?? pounding faces pic.twitter.com/8lO0FToVjt
— Paige VanZant (@PaigeVanzantUFC) May 26, 2015
Before VanZant exploded onto the scene, the fighter most hotly tipped to become the next big women’s Strawweight star was Milwaukee’s Rose Namajunas.
Already ranked number four in the UFC Strawweight rankings at the age of just 22, Namajunas shot to stardom during a three-fight run in The Ultimate Fighter 20 series that saw her lose out to eventual champion Esparza.
Praised for her honesty in the aftermath of defeat, Namajunas is recovering from the fast ascent into the spotlight that was fuelled by comparisons with Ronda Rousey in the build-up to the Esparza fight.
She expressed her disappointment at not being able to bounce back with a fight against Nina Ansaroff, after her opponent pulled out due to suffering from flu.
In her four professional fights, Namajunas has displayed good movement, strong judgment and opportunism, and abilities both on the ground and striking. Bookmakers like betfair offering odds on MMA and Women’s Strawweight division fights will be offering prices on Namajunas, as a fighter with rising pedigree who as yet is something of a lesser known quantity at the very top of the sport.
Whilst she, like VanZant, has been told there is no rush to get in the cage with the sport’s very best, it is highly likely she will get the chance to take on the likes of Jedrzejczyk and Gadelha before long.
When she does, the world will be watching.
Young Mexican fighter Alexa Grasso grabbed the attention of the MMA world in February 2015, when she defeated Mizuki Inoue by unanimous decision and clinched her first “Fight of the Night” bonus.
Grasso went into the fight undefeated in six, knowing that the pressure was upon her to reproduce that form and make her mark as one of the Invicta
Fighting Championship’s most exciting up-and-comers.
She endured a tough challenge from the determined Inoue, who landed some heavy punches, but high-scoring combinations and impressive movement were enough to see Grasso prevail with a performance that was named Fight of the Month.
@AlexaGrasso = excellent grappling skills + outstanding boxing skills. seriously, u show boxing techniques which we rarely even see from men
— DaeDae (@DaeDaeSeven) March 7, 2015
Her obvious talent and her undefeated record have put Grasso in the limelight and drawn the attention of UFC boss White, but she has indicated the Invicta title is first on her agenda, before any UFC aspirations can be dealt with.
Grasso is keeping herself grounded by training with her father and concentrating on her studies in between training. However, if her star continues to rise at the rate it has been doing, she may find herself with less time on her hands for anything other than a glittering MMA career.
Defeat to Grasso was Inoue’s fourth professional loss, but at just 20 years of age, and with eight victories under her belt as well, she can be proud of her achievements so far and the excellent reputation she has established.
Inoue announced herself as a hot prospect in MMA back in 2010, when she won the Jewels -56kg Rough Stone Grand Prix, aged just 16, making her the youngest female fighter to ever hold an MMA title in a major promotion.
She went on to claim two S-Cup Grand Prix titles, and an armbar victory over Jasmina Cive in May 2014 that saw her named the first KSW women’s champion.
Inoue submitted Emi Tomimatsu in just 1:33 in August 2014 to win the Deep Jewels Lightweight title, and add to a growing collection of honours that belies her age.
Such experience has led Inoue to fight with a mature, defensive style, displaying a high guard and using her forearms to block and deflect punches.
The Grasso defeat was tough for Inoue to stomach, given that it received such high profiling within the sport, but Inoue remains a much-talked-about fighter with a bright future ahead of her.
Livia Renata Souza
To call Livia Renata Souza a prospect would not do justice to her talent or her pedigree. Her reputation is well established, as her undefeated record and Strawweight Invicta FC title attest.
But she certainly fits on any list of potential future superstars, given that she is only 24 and may yet become stronger, wiser, and even harder to beat.
Livinha, as she is known, took the Invicta FC by storm when she made her debut in April this year. Few expected her to overcome Finnish champion Katja Kankaanpaa, but she used a triangle choke to seal the victory and cap a fine performance of impressive grappling and resolute groundwork.
Souza has made no secret of her desire to make it to the very top of women’s MMA, stating before her fight with Kankaanpaa that she wants a top five ranking and a global reputation.
Having spent the first part of her professional career forging an unblemished record in her native Brazil, Souza is aiming to do the same in the USA. She has certainly started as she means to go on.
One sure-fire way to hit the headlines in any sport is to take to social media and share some controversial views. One woman who knows all about how to do this is Stephanie Eggink, having made herself known to many fans of the sport by doing just that.
Back in September 2013, Eggink was the top fighter in the Xtreme Fighting Championships, having defeated Angela Magana with a triangle choke in the second round.
Full of confidence, she launched a Twitter offensive against the then Invicta FC champion, Esparza, when asked who she would fight if she could challenge fighters from any organisation.
Eggink pulled no punches with her words about Esparza’s fighting style, and claimed she was superior in strength and take her down.
Esparza spotted the tweet and the discussion unfolded before the eyes of the public.
Since then, Eggink has signed to the Invicta FC, but never did get to fight Esparza. She did, however, get a shot at the vacant Strawweight Championship title, only to lose out to Kankaanpaa via a fifth round D’Arce choke.
However, Eggink fought bravely and made her mark on the sport with an excellent performance that did earn her and Kankaanpaa “Fight of the Night” honours for their efforts.
She seems to have taken a more light-touch approach to social media since then, even offering praise for her dream opponent in recent times.
Props to @CarlaEsparza1 , she looked like a champion tonight
— Stephanie Eggink (@00Snowflake) December 13, 2014
Perhaps a shot at the UFC and Esparza will arrive for her one day soon.
The UFC has been taking the cream of the crop from Invicta FC’s Strawweight division since 2013, and that hasn’t been a popular trend amongst many MMA purists.
But it has meant the fulfilment of lifelong goals for some of the most talented athletes in the sport, and Michelle Waterson is one of them.
The newest addition to UFC’s newest division is under no illusions about the task ahead of her as she prepares for her first fight in the Octagon. And what a fight it promises to be.
Waterson was given a matchup against Angela Magana at The Ultimate Fighter 21 title on July 12th just hours after it was announced that she had signed to the UFC.
Having made the necessary additional weight to join the division, and with a 12-4 professional fight record, Waterson has no reason to fear anyone as she makes her debut.
In Magana, she faces an opponent on the edge. After three straight defeats, Magana is scrapping to save her career record, which currently stands at 11-7, although no-one can take away the prestigious reputation she built around wins over the likes of Jessica Aguilar, Nicdali Rivera-Calanoc, and Barb Honchak.
If she can overcome Magana, Waterson could begin to build towards an ascent at the UFC Strawweight title. Coached by Greg Jackson, Mike Winkeljohn, Mike Valle and Izzy Martinez, she is full of confidence and has no shortage of aspirations, despite having already turned 29.
Despite having claimed many of her wins through submission, Waterson’s style should make for exciting viewing for UFC fans with her impressive striking. Expect to see her make a significant impact this year.
They don’t come much younger or much more voracious than 18-year-old Canadian Angela Lee, who fights out of Hawaii.
Her professional debut was an explosive affair, in which she disposed of Egyptian kickboxer Aya Saeid Saber in less than two minutes, with a display of relentless punches and an armbar finisher.
It’s what you’d expect from a youngster raised by MMA instructors. Lee’s father is Singapore-born MMA instructor Ken Lee and her mother is Korean MMA instructor Jewelz Lee.
Lee grew up in a fighting household, with three other siblings who all took an interest in MMA. Even today she spas with her brother, Christian, and helps to coach children at the family gym.
Currently fighting in the ONE Championship, Lee sees herself as a representative of Singapore due to the family and friends she has who support her there.
ONE Championship CEO Victor Cui has acknowledged that Lee’s star is rising fast, and he will be aware that she is starting to make waves more widely in the sport. He will face a battle to keep her much longer if she continues to improve at the rate she has been doing.
She aims to become the first ONE women’s MMA champion, and with her impressive range of striking abilities and relentless fighting energy, who is going to stop her?