The 21-year history of mixed martial arts has been filled with ups and downs, questionable legality, blood and tears, the rise of superstars and the eventual demise of legends, shocking upsets and brutal one-sided beatings. For many reasons, MMA is a unique sport that fills a niche that no other combat sport can quite properly fulfill. Customarily derided as glorified violence and testosterone run amok by its detractors, MMA has also displayed why it should be considered one of – if not the – most progressive sports in the world. Why should a bloody competition like MMA, which features two men who do their best to actively damage one another in a cage, be considered ‘progressive’ by the standards of those who strive for societal justice and equal rights? It seems absurd on its face, but how about if it’s no longer two men participating in the contest; how about two women?
Women’s MMA has grown tremendously over the past few years. It was less than 3 years ago that UFC president Dana White infamously stated point blank that women would ‘never’ fight in the UFC under his watch. A year later, he gladly ate his own words. The emergence of UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey sent shockwaves through the sporting world. Unlike the NFL, NBA, MLB, or the other major sports leagues, the UFC put its female fighters front and centre. They shared the stage with their male counterparts instead of being segregated to their own league, and even took top billing as the main event in several high profile UFC pay-per-views. Thus far, the UFC only runs a women’s bantamweight division. By the end of the year they’ll have introduced an entirely new one – women’s strawweight. The strawweight division is for 115 lb. female fighters that can’t make the 135 lb. bantamweight limit, and it represents the first new division of women’s fighters since the introduction of women’s bantamweight – often criticized by some as ‘The Ronda Rousey Show’.
The UFC will debut their new division using the 20th season of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’. The newly signed strawweight fighters will compete throughout the season – which will be coached by UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis and #1 contender Gilbert Melendez – and the winner will become the inaugural UFC Strawweight champion along with being the 20th Ultimate Fighter. The stakes have never been higher for the show, which will also be the first time ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ will feature an all-female cast. Let’s take a look at 9 of the most dangerous contenders who will be starring in the upcoming season.
#9 Felice Herrig
In a sport with a predominantly male fan base, it’s no doubt that being an attractive female fighter might gain you some fans. Felice Herrig (9-5) seems well aware of that, as she’s no stranger to provocative posing that shows off her…assets. That being said, she’s a tough nut to crack and isn’t afraid to stand and bang in the octagon. Her gritty, dirty boxing style and ability to absorb punishment means she’s very difficult to put away. Her abrasive personality makes it almost a guarantee that she’ll be getting in the face of some of her housemates during the show. If the early reports coming out of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ house are to be believed, Herrig was nearly thrown out for trying to start a fight with other contestants outside of the cage. Yikes.
#8 Joanne Calderwood
Scotland has been crying out for an MMA star the same way other European nations have theirs. Ireland has Conor McGregor, Iceland has Gunnar Nelson, Sweden has Alexander Gustaffson, and England has Michael Bisping, among others. Scotland’s first star may turn out to be Joanne Calderwood – if, that is, she can walk away as the inaugural UFC Strawweight champion. She has a perfect 8-0 record thanks to her pristine Muay Thai and is currently ranked as the #4 women’s strawweight fighter in the world.
#7 Rose Namajunas
With only 3 professional fights to her professional MMA career, Rose Namajunas is a definitive newcomer to the sport. That being said, don’t you dare writer her off. The 22-year-old pulled off what was possibly the best submission of 2013 in all of MMA – a ridiculous flying armbar that submitted Kathina Catron in 15 seconds at Invicta FC 5: Penne vs. Waterson. With a current record of 2-1, Namajunas has many question marks surrounding her future career. Still, there’s no doubt that the potential is there and youth is on her side. She may be a diamond in the rough, but if she can sharpen her skills she may very well become the future queen of the strawweight division. The Ultimate Fighter 20 is her first step towards accomplishing that goal.
#6 Tecia Torres
Torres is by no means the favourite to walk away with the belt, but with wins over Rose Namajunas and Felice Herrig she’s certainly a dark horse contender. The undefeated 4-0 fighter trains with American Top Team, one of the best camps in all of MMA, so she’s certainly no slouch. At just 24 years old the sky really is the limit for this prospect, and if she can maintain her current momentum there’s no reason she can’t surprise everyone and walk away as the UFC Women’s Strawweight champion.
#5 Lisa Ellis
Lisa Ellis is a true pioneer of women’s MMA, which is why it’s only fair that she’s among the group competing to be the first women’s strawweight to wear gold in the octagon. She made her professional MMA debut way back in 2004 – before even men’s MMA had gone mainstream and women’s MMA was considered a bizarre freakshow event. At 31 years old with 23 professional fights, Ellis is the fighter in the house with the most experience in the cage, experience that she intends to leverage to catapult her into superstardom within the UFC. We’ll have to wait and see if the wily veteran can pull off the improbable and walk away the winner.
#4 Aisling Daly
Irish women’s flyweight Aisling Daly will be dropping down a weight class to be eligible to compete in the new strawweight division. Daly trains with european MMA prospects like Conor McGregor and Gunnar Nelson, so we know she’s not short of talented training partners. With a professional record of 14-5, Daly doesn’t appear to be a strong contender on paper, but Daly will have a size and experience advantage over much of her competition. The 26-year-old will try and beat Conor McGregor and company to the punch by being the first person to bring UFC gold back to Ireland.
#3 Bec Rawlings
Australian Bec Rawlings first came to prominence when she fought Carla Esparza for Invicta’s inaugural strawweight championship. She came up short, but impressed fans and experts with her toughness and determination. The young mother of 2 has a total professional record of 5-3, but has thus far demonstrated potential that hints at the greatness lying beneath. Her somewhat eccentric image and likeable personality will probably make her a fan favourite in The Ultimate Fighter house.
#2 Jessica Penne
Jessica Penne is without question one of the favorites going into the upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter. She made her name fighting in the UFC’s rival promotion Bellator, as well as being Invicta FC’s first atomweight champion. She’ll be moving up a weight class to compete as a strawweight within the UFC, so she’ll be giving up some size against her opponents in exchange for a speed advantage. Her submission game is dangerous, and her housemates should be wary of getting into a grappling exchange with the Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt. If Penne can win the season, she’ll be the first major female fighter to win prestigious championships in two separate weight classes.
#1 Carla Esparza
Carla Esparza has to deal with the pressure of being the frontrunner going into this season of The Ultimate Fighter. The former Invicta FC strawweight champion vacated her championship to sign with the UFC, where she’s expected to repeat her success from Invicta and become the face of the new UFC women’s strawweight division the same way Ronda Rousey has become the face of the women’s bantamweight division. Esparza has a solid wrestling base that will serve her well as she navigates the tournament format of the show. As endearing as she is effective in the cage, this could be her chance to become a superstar and follow in the footsteps of Rousey as a pioneer of women’s MMA in the mainstream.