What a UFC Atomweight Division Could Look Like

UFC Atomweight Division
Jinh Yu Frey (left) and Ayaka Hamasaki competed for the Invicta FC atomweight title at Invicta FC 19 on Sept. 23, 2016. //Photo courtesy of Invicta Fighting Championships.

The UFC has intermittently created four women’s divisions to its ranks over the past five-plus years. Fans have seen the rise of strawweight through featherweight in the world’s largest MMA organization. However, there’s one missing: atomweight.

The UFC, if it opted to open up 105, would be able to import talent from promotions like Invicta FC, King of the Cage and Road FC, to name a few. It may take a couple of years, but by then, the division should be much more fleshed out. This article will fighter development into account.

With an underrated talent pool from around the world, here is what a prospective atomweight division could look like:

UFC Strawweights Who Could Move Down

Jessica Penne

Former Invicta atomweight champion Penne would be a prime candidate to drop down from strawweight. Penne, a former UFC strawweight title challenger, has not had much success at 115 in the UFC, going 1-3. A move down to atomweight could revitalize her career.

Jodie Esquibel

Esquibel, like Penne, is another UFC fighter who may drop down to atomweight should the division be made. She fought much of her entire career at atomweight before getting signed to the UFC. She holds a split decision win over current flyweight DeAnna Bennett at strawweight, in addition to a split decision victory over Frey.

Alex Chambers

“Astro Girl” is another UFC strawweight who would benefit from the introduction of an atomweight division. Chambers has been around the 115 division essentially since it was launched with TUF 20. In her last fight, she struggled with the size of Nadia Kassem, who missed weight by four lbs. Paige VanZant, who had previously beaten Chambers, is now a flyweight.

Invicta FC Atomweights

Ayaka Hamasaki

Simply put, Hamasaki is one of the best atomweights in the world. She holds a 14-2 record, and has never lost at 105 lbs. She is the former Invicta FC atomweight champion, and never lost the belt in competition. Although she’s hinted at moving up to strawweight, staying at atomweight is in her best interest IF she can still make the weight. She was finished by Claudia Gadelha and Livia Renata Souza at strawweight. If the UFC introduced atomweight, there’s no doubt Hamasaki would be one of the best in the division.

Jinh Yu Frey

Frey has fought all nine of her professional bouts at atomweight, and would be a shoo-in should the UFC adopt the division. Her only losses have come to Jodie Esquibel, Ayaka Hamasaki, and Seo Hee Ham. Frey is expected to get another crack at Invicta’s atomweight title in the near future.

Herica Tiburcio

Tiburcio is a top-flight atomweight for Invicta FC. She dethroned “The Karate Hottie” for the Invicta atomweight title Michelle Waterson who has gone on to win a couple of UFC bouts at 115. Tiburcio’s only lost to competitors such as Frey, Hamasaki and top-3 UFC strawweight Claudia Gadelha. She’s currently on a two-fight winning streak, and would be an obvious addition to a UFC atomweight division.

Ashley Cummins

Cummins’ career changed when she dropped from strawweight to atomweight. She faced years of adversity trying to overcome larger opponents, and came close on several occasions. She nearly even reached the UFC but lost to Lanchana Green on TUF. Since dropping to her natural weight class, Cummins has been a force; her only loss was a tight decision defeat to Frey. She holds wins over Amber Brown and Stephanie Alba under the Invicta FC banner.

Amber Brown

Brown is a atomweight/strawweight ‘tweener who has said she’d like to compete at 105 for as long as she can make the weight. She submitted Catherine Costigan, Shino VanHoose and Tessa Simpson all inside the first round in Invicta’s atomweight division. Her only losses at 105 have come to Ayaka Hamasaki and Cummins.

Minna Grusander

Grusander has fought most of her career at a catchweight of 110. When she made her Invicta FC debut however, she dropped to 105. And the result was a dominant, impressive second-round TKO over Fernanda Priscila. The Finland native is a WMMA prospect to keep an eye on. With another year or two of development, she could be ready for UFC-level competition at atomweight.

Alesha Zappitella

“Half Pint” hasn’t let size slow her down thus far in her MMA career. The 4’11” fighter submitted flyweight Miao Ding for the Kunlun Fight MMA flyweight championship and took a decision over Kyna Sisson at strawweight. She’ll be a force to be reckoned with at her natural weight class of atomweight. With a little more development, Zappitella would appear to be a must-have talent for the UFC. She’s now signed to Invicta FC.

Tessa Simpson

Simpson is on a bit of a rough patch after starting her pro career 5-1. However, those two losses came against tough competition like Tiburcio and Brown. If the UFC were to open atomweight through TUF or otherwise, Simpson would almost certainly be featured.

Julia Jones

Jones is off to a torrent 5-0 start to her professional MMA career, and recently joined Invicta. She defeated Stephanie Skinner in her debut with the promotion, and is ready for a step-up. She hasn’t fought since September 2016, however.

Catherine Costigan

Costigan primarily fights in the Irish circuit, but has been called upon by Invicta before. Whether or not Invicta brings her back, the UFC may be interested if it opens atomweight. The promotion may bring in “The Alpha Female” for its Irish fan base, if it is still pursuing the market.

Asian MMA Imports

Seo Hee Ham

Ham is actually a former UFC strawweight who went 1-3 in the promotion. Her sole win was against Cortney Casey, who is developing into a legit strawweight. Her losses were a unanimous decision to Joanne Calderwood, and two controversial decisions to Bec Rawlings and Danielle Taylor. Calderwood and Rawlings are both now flyweights; two classes above Ham’s natural weight. Since being released, Ham has become Road FC’s atomweight champ. She’s knocked out Mina Kurobe and Jinh Yu Frey in her last two fights. Ham would be in-line to fight for a vacant atomweight title in the UFC.

Mina Kurobe

Kurobe is the DEEP JEWELS atomweight champion. She nearly became the Road FC champ as well but fell short against Ham. Kurobe has an impressive 12-3 record.

Mei Yamaguchi

Yamaguchi fluctuates between atomweight and strawweight, but appears to be at her best at 105 lbs. If the UFC opens atomweight and is looking to break into the Japanese market, Yamaguchi would be a good woman to sign.

Naho Sugiyama

Speaking of breaking into the Japanese market, “Sugi Rock” would be a great addition to a UFC atomweight roster. The Japanese fighter holds a 12-5 record, primarily fights at 105, and is the former DEEP JEWELS atomweight champion. She was defeated by Kurobe for the title in her last bout.

Jenny Huang

Huang started off her career at 5-0, but is on a two-fight skid. It’s likely not a coincidence that her only two losses have both come at strawweight. Huang is 4-0 at 105, and 1-0 at 110. At just age 27, Huang is a developing fighter and would be a great addition to the UFC if it hopes to continue its expansion into the Asian market.

Maria Oliveira

Oliveira took part in RIZIN’s super-atomweight tournament, but most of her previous bouts were Brazil regionals. Most of her professional fights have been at 115, but Oliveira may be capable of making the cut to 105. With a solid 10-3 record, Oliveira would be an option for the UFC if it were to start an atomweight roster. She just had a nine-fight winning streak broken by rising JMMA star Kanna Asakura, who went on to win the RIZIN tournament.

King of the Cage 105’ers

Jayme Hinshaw

Hinshaw is the current KOTC atomweight champion having defeated Melissa Sophia Karagianis for the title in November with a fourth round submission. She is riding a two-fight winning streak. With a couple of successful title defenses, Hinshaw is someone the UFC should definitely consider bringing aboard.

Lindsey VanZandt

VanZandt is 3-0 to start her professional career. She took a split decision over Bi Nguyen in her latest fight. VanZandt will surely be looked at as an option to compete for the KOTC atomweight title soon. If she has another year of development, she could be someone to watch if the UFC opens atomweight.

Katie Saull

Saull may currently have a 2-2 record, but she’s 1-0 with a win over Andy Nguyen since changing camps to SBG Ireland. She’s said that she’s already improved a lot since making the move, and believes three more wins will be enough to prepare her for competition in the UFC.

Bi Nguyen

Nguyen fell short in an atomweight title bid for KOTC to Andy Nguyen, but holds a 4-2 record. Her other loss was a split decision to Lindsey VanZandt. She has a win over Andy Nguyen. The “KillHer Bee” has a solid following on social media that would love to see her compete in a UFC atomweight division or watch her on The Ultimate Fighter.

Andy Nguyen

Nguyen is on an 0-3 stretch, but is the former KOTC atomweight champion. She holds a win over Bi Nguyen and has fought for RIZIN. As long as the “Crasian” is able to snap her losing streak before the UFC implements an atomweight division, she could easily see herself on a season of The Ultimate Fighter.

Grace Cleveland

“Thai Kitten” is off to a 3-0 start to her professional career after going 4-1 as an amateur. Cleveland was slated to fight Bi Nguyen at KOTC before a neck injury forced her off. If Cleveland’s fast start is anything to go by, she could be a prospect to watch with another couple of years of development.

Combate Atomweights

Kyra Batara

Batara is one of Combate’s best atomweights. She holds a 7-4 record and has won five of her last six bouts. A fight with Lizbeth Lopez Silva, who is mentioned below, would be interesting.

Paulina Granados

“Firefox” just lost to Batara, but is 4-3 as a professional overall. She would be a good candidate for an appearance on TUF, should the UFC go that route. The UFC found some success with it in creating the fledgling flyweight division and now-established strawweight rankings.

Lizbeth Lopez Silva

 She is 2-0 at atomweight with two finishes and 5-3 as a professional overall. She began her pro career at 0-3, but has made up for it in stride with a five-fight winning streak.

The Long Shots 

Michelle Waterson

Most readers will wonder where Michelle Waterson is and why she’s not on the list. She’s emphatic that she won’t return to atomweight after doctors couldn’t find her pulse for an hour the last time she attempted the cut. Barring something we won’t see coming, Waterson’s future is at 115.

Tecia Torres

Tecia Torres is another candidate, as she appears to be one of the smallest strawweights. But with the amount of muscle she has, it would likely be difficult for her to make the cut. If she can, however, she would be a force to be reckoned with at atomweight.

Kanna Asakura and Rena Kubota

Kanna Asakura and Rena Kubota are two of RIZIN’s brightest stars. Although, it’s very unlikely that they’ll leave Japan for the UFC with the treatment they’re receiving in RIZIN.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent piece and very well presented. I was wondering about Kanna Asakura and Rena Kubota until I saw you noted them at the end. You’re probably right, like Angela Lee over in ONE (who is technically a strawweight despite her atomweight title), they’re probably pretty well set up over in RIZIN, but if offered a chance at a UFC title, who knows? Any idea as to what they make? They probably make a lot more through sponsorships as well.

    Speaking of Ayaka Hamasaki. Has she retired? She has not fought in over a year; has not defended her SW title in a year and a half, and I have not heard a peep from her or Invicta about her intentions, or their intentions for the atomweight title.

    • Hi, Juchi! First off, thank you for reading and interacting with not only this article but the last atomweight one as well. It’s very much appreciated. Unfortunately, I can’t see Rena or Asakura coming to the UFC due to how well off they seem to be in RIZIN. But like you said, who knows? Maybe they’ll change their minds if the UFC offers a nice deal. I honestly think we’d be lucky to see Seo Hee Ham back in the UFC at this point if they opened up atomweight.

      As for Hamasaki: RIZIN apparently just signed her. She’s slated to fight Alyssa Garcia on May 6 at the next event. The fight will be at 108 lbs, so super-atomweight. That implies that Hamasaki can most likely continue to make atomweight.

      Rumors are in Invicta that they love Jinh Yu Frey and the plan is that she’ll fight for a vacant title sooner rather than later. That’s more of a hunch, however, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

      • Thanks for the update, Michael. I just saw that about Hamasaki’s fight w/Alyssa. Given that Garcia’s last 2 fights ended up as defeats, I guess Ayaka wants to get back into the fight game slowly after her last defeat. Perhaps Rousey should have taken the same approach.

        I had heard rumors that Ayaka had left the AW division, but never confirmation from her or Invicta, while the latter continued to show her as their AW champ. In fact, Ayaka had stated that she wanted to be a dual division champ. I guess I guess Invicta is just way behind on updating their website. The 3 other fighters they show as champs are all now reputed to be in the UFC while their only division where they do have a champ, strawweight, is noted as being vacant.

        • Yeah. It’s also interesting that the fight is at 108. So maybe Hamasaki is trying to ease her way back to 105. Maybe then she’ll have that rematch with Frey. And that’s funny/ironic re: the site. Yeah, I’ve noticed Invicta has been slow on the upkeep to updating its site.

  2. I see in your bio, Mike, that you enjoy interviewing the sport’s athletes. Do you have a Japanese interpreter available? I’d love to hear what Ayaka Hamasaki is up to given her absence from the sport. Barring that, how about an interview with Shannon Knapp as to the status of the AW division? There has not been a title defense there in over 18 months despite Ayaka’s assurances to Jinh Yu that she would receive a rematch.

    • I don’t have a Japanese interpreter available, unfortunately. But as I mentioned above, it was announced that Hamasaki just signed to RIZIN mere hours ago. She’ll compete at 108, so hopefully that means she can make atomweight again in the future.

      Hamasaki apparently vacated her Invicta atomweight title months ago. I think Invicta will have Jinh Yu Frey fight someone for the vacant title, would be my guess.

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