“There’s a Ronda Rousey on this season of The Ultimate Fighter, absolutely.”
That was Dana White back in the late summer. He was holding court with a gaggle of media at the end of an evening of fights, and in keeping with his job description he was making bold pronouncements. As president of the UFC, White has the responsibilities of a carnival barker: selling fights and the fighters who fight them. And if you’re trying to market a female fighter, there’s no better space for her than on the top level right next to the company’s crossover star of a women’s bantamweight champion.
It became clear as the reality show played out, week after week through the fall, that White had been referring to Rose Namajunas. The 22-year-old showed herself to be an explosion leavened with implosion, her physical aggression and her emotional bareness transforming her run through the season’s strawweight tournament into high drama. Even her fitting nickname, “Thug,” doesn't go between her given name and surname -- like that of, say, Carla “Cookie Monster” Esparza and most everyone else in the world of nicknames -- but rather as a roll-off-the-tongue lead-in to her first name, à la “Rowdy Ronda.”
So there was an air of coronation surrounding Namajunas in the buildup to Friday night’s bout with Esparza in Las Vegas, which had grander stakes than any previous season finale of the reality show. This time it wasn’t about just the “six-figure UFC contract” Dana White is always touting. This time the show’s winner would be the promotion’s historic first 115-pound world champion.
And the winner of the I’m-like-Ronda contest? It wasn't Namajunas, who despite being far less experienced than her opponent was a slight betting favorite and a popular choice among pundits. Instead it was Esparza, the 27-year-old Californian with a deeper professional pedigree, who grinded away at Namajunas and her will to fight before finishing her with a rear-naked choke at 1:26 of the third round.
“Oh my gosh,” Esparza said afterward, the shiny brass-and-leather belt flung over her right shoulder. “This is the most amazing, unreal feeling I’ve ever had in my life.”
Esparza was Invicta FC champion prior to vacating that belt to enter the UFC tournament, in which she was seeded No. 1 by the promotion’s matchmakers and then, when the reality show’s two coaches conducted a draft to fill their teams, was selected first among the 16 competitors. Namajunas was the seventh fighter picked but then impressed with a most dynamic run through the bracket on her way to the final. She showed off some of that dynamism early on, with some flashy striking and an ability to explode back to her feet upon being taken down. And taken down she was, three times in the first round, as Esparza turned the fight into her own, in terms of tempo and the type of fighting that would take place.
Put simply, it gradually became clear that Namajunas had no answer for Esparza’s well-timed and camouflaged takedowns or her ground game once the women hit the canvas, and there was nothing she could do about it. That became especially clear in the second round, during which Esparza scored a couple more takedowns and rode out more than half of the round in top control. Toward the end of the session she achieved full mount and nearly finished Namajunas (3-1). But that wouldn’t come until early in the third.
“You know what? Rose is just a phenomenal athlete,” said Esparza (10-2). “She’s so dangerous and has so many weapons.”
But she’s not a Ronda Rousey, though, not yet. That distinction goes to Espanza, sort of, since she’s the only woman other than Rousey with a belt, the 10th UFC champion overall. However, there’s a significant supremacy gap between Rousey and Esparza. No bantamweight on the planet even remotely compares to “Rowdy Ronda,” whereas among strawweights “Cookie Monster” is not even at the very top of the hill. Her record shows a defeat at the hands of Jessica Aguilar, the former Bellator champion who, when her contract was up last year, signed with the World Series of Fighting just two weeks before the UFC announced its strawweight tournament. Unfortunate timing for a promotion that sells its roster as the best of the best.
Among those who are on the UFC roll call, Esparza will likely get her first challenge from the winner of Saturday night’s Claudia Gadelha vs. Joanna Jedrzejcyk bout. Those two women, who are meeting on the Junior dos Santos-Stipe Miocic undercard, are both undefeated. They didn’t compete on The Ultimate Fighter, so they’ll present Esparza with a new challenge. And if Gadelha turns out to be the champ’s first challenger, it’ll be a fight that was booked twice in Invicta, with Gadelha pulling out both times because of injuries. Because of that, apparently, there’s bad blood between Esparza and Gadelha.
Shades of Rousey, right there.