Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Strawweight rivals Rose Namajunas and Carla Esparza will collide this weekend (Sat., May 7, 2022) at UFC 274 inside Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona.
Times have really changed since the first meeting between those two women back in 2014. In that bout, Namajunas was the gifted-but-inexperienced up-and-comer, looking to topple the far more established Esparza. “Cookie Monster” proved her grit and maturity that night, slowly overwhelming Namajunas on the mat to take the title. Since then, Namajunas has more than lived up to her potential, capturing and defending the belt multiple times. Esparza, meanwhile, was knocked far down the ladder, only to come back better and work her way back into the title picture to find a familiar foe in control of the strap.
Let’s take a closer look at the keys to victory for each woman:
Key Wins: Joanna Jedrzejczyk (UFC 223, UFC 217), Zhang Weili (UFC 268, UFC 261), Jessica Andrade (UFC 251), Tecia Torres (UFC on FOX 19), Michelle Waterson (UFC on FOX 24)
Key Losses: Jessica Andrade (UFC 237), Carla Esparza (TUF 20 Finale), Karolina Kowalkiewicz (UFC 201), Tecia Torres (Invicta FC 4)
Keys to Victory: For my money, Namajunas has the best hands of any woman on the roster. She moves her feet so well, puts together slick combinations, can counter with serious power — her work with Trevor Wittman has been such a successful collaboration. Oh, and Namajunas was a submission ace first and foremost.
It’s been a while since Namajunas had to really worry about the takedown threat, particularly since Jessica Andrade was so kickboxing-focused in their rematch. Fortunately, excellent footwork and distance control are just as useful in avoiding shots as they are setting up clean connections.
Namajunas wants to keep her feet moving, cutting angles and changing directions to mitigate Esparza’s blast double. In the mean time, strikes up the middle are her friend here. Front kicks would be great vs. the shorter fighter, as would a stiff right hand to the torso.
If Namajunas is taken down, she has to make it a priority to scramble up rather than hunt for submissions from her back. An attempt here or there is fine, but Namajunas wants to keep Esparza working rather than allow the wrestler to catch her breath from top position.
Key Wins: Marina Rodriguez (UFC Fight Island 3), Alexa Grasso (UFC Fight Night 149), Yan Xiaonan (UFC Vegas 27), Cynthia Calvillo (UFC 219), Michelle Waterson (UFC 249)
Key Losses: Tatiana Suarez (UFC 228), Claudia Gadelha (UFC 225), Joanna Jedrzejczyk (UFC 185)
Keys To Victory: Esparza took the title purely via wrestling and positional jiu-jitsu, but Joanna Jedrzejczyk really demonstrated why more was required as the division improved. It’s been a long journey, but Esparza’s hands have improved, and her wrestling has become far more effective as a result.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Back in 2014, Namajunas was the better striker with more volatile jiu-jitsu, while Esparza held the wrestling edge. Both women have grown, but the base style match up remains the same, as does Esparza’s overall goal: find the takedown and win from top position.
The difficult part will likely be tracking Namajunas down. It comes back down to footwork, as cutting off the cage is likely Esparza’s easiest path to forcing a wrestling match. If she can head Namajunas off rather than follow the champion, Esparza can start to get her hands on “Thug Rose.”
At the same time, Esparza cannot present her foe with a single threat. While lining up her shots, Esparza should be actively swinging that right hand, as well as chopping the leg when Namajunas circles. Doing damage will make the takedown land easier, as well as help Esparza take over later in the fight.
It’s not the title rematch many expected to happen, but it’s an interesting fight.
Frankly, Rose Namajunas has proven herself a must-watch champion. Has there ever been a boring “Thug Rose” fight? She lives and dies in exciting fights, whether they end early or last all five rounds. In the process, she’s established herself as an all-time great in her young weight class, and victory here only furthers that legacy by avenging an early loss.
On the flip side, this could really be an incredible story of redemption for Esparza. It’s easy to forget that prior to her current five-fight win streak, she lost two bouts in a row, really getting dominated in one of those defeats. To go from champion, to unranked, back to champion is a rare — if not outright unique? — feat, a hell of a display on perseverance.
She’ll have to take out Namajunas to achieve that storybook ending, however.
At UFC 274, Rose Namajunas and Carla Esparza will face off in the co-main event. Which woman will leave the cage strapped with gold?
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Author: Andrew Richardson
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