You may have heard there’s a slew of UFC fights this weekend, spread over three different fight cards and culminating on Saturday, Dec. 12, with UFC 194, which has two title fights. There is also a natural progression of broadcasting these fights that you may not have been aware of: Online, free television and pay-per-view.
The festivities kick off on Thursday, Dec. 10, with a UFC Fight Night card on Fight Pass. The main event (and the only fight on the card that really matters, frankly) is a strawweight bout between Paige VanZant and Rose Namajunas. VanZant is being pegged as UFC’s next big thing, but she faces her first stiff test in Rose Namajunas.
I’ll break down each fighter’s strengths and weaknesses and decide who I think might emerge as the next strawweight contender as we enter 2016.
Strengths: VanZant’s biggest advantage is probably her absolutely relentless pace. Her growth over her mixed martial arts career is notable, particularly since she arrived in the UFC. In her UFC debut against Kailin Curran late last year, VanZant had to battle back in the third round after Curran clearly had the upper hand. VanZant’s next fight against Felice Herrig was also a dominant performance, but this time from VanZant, start to finish. She overwhelmed Herrig when many (including me) thought the veteran would show VanZant it wasn’t quite her time yet.
But VanZant’s best performance to date probably came at UFC 191 against Alex Chambers. She thoroughly outstruck and outperformed Chambers – including unleashing some brutal Muay Thai – en route to a third-round submission victory. In her three UFC victories, VanZant displayed all the hallmarks of an elite fighter; terrific striking, grappling and submission skills. Coupled with her bright personality, VanZant is well on her way to being the next face of UFC.
Weaknesses: However, that face is not without flaws. As previously stated, VanZant struggled in her UFC debut against Curran. It could have just been a case of nerves, but VanZant needed to dig deep to prevent a debut loss. She also has not faced top-tier in competition in the UFC. The combined record of her three opponents – Curran, Herrig and Chambers – is 19-11. Which is not terrible, but not great by elite standards.
VanZant’s lone loss in mixed martial arts came outside the UFC, but against current top-5 strawweight Tecia Torres. Since Torres is being talked about as a possible title contender, it still remains to be seen if VanZant can look as impressive against stronger competition as she has against journeymen (or journeywomen, I guess) fighters.
Strengths: Before VanZant came along, Namajunas was being hyped by no less than UFC President Dana White as the next big thing in UFC. Namajunas was a part of season 20 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” which crowned the UFC’s first women’s strawweight champion. She lived up to the hype at first, blowing her way through the competition and making it all the way to the finals.
However, Namajunas’ name was known in MMA circles even before she debuted in UFC, thanks to her 12-second flying armbar victory in only her second professional fight in 2013. Submission is the name of Namajunas’ game, with all three her professional victories coming that way – including her most recent victory against Angela Hill at UFC 192.
Like VanZant, Namajunas is tough and relentless in her approach. She wastes no time getting in her opponent’s face, so can VanZant handle someone who chooses to engage her right away?
Weaknesses: Also like VanZant, Namajunas has struggled against elite competition. She lost back-to-back fights to Torres and Carla Esparza, with the latter loss costing Namajunas the chance to be UFC’s first women’s strawweight champion. Namajunas’ three pro victories came against Emily Kagan, Kathina Catron and Hill – fighters with a combined record of 11-11. Which is hardly imposing.
Both Torres and Esparza are known as dangerous strikers, so it’s unknown if Namajunas has improved her defense in that area or developed more of a striking game of her own. If she can’t match VanZant strike-for-strike, it will be a long night for Namajunas as VanZant will likely stuff her takedown attempts rather easily and just start teeing off with punches and Muay Thai.
The odds for this fight are fairly close, with VanZant coming in as just a slight favorite. I don’t think that is too far-fetched. Namajunas is being discussed as the first true “test” for VanZant in her UFC career, and I’m inclined to agree. Despite her 3-2 record, Namajunas is a dangerous fighter who can bust out a submission at any time.
However, VanZant has gotten better and better with each performance. She has a very well-rounded game and is just as comfortable on the ground as she is on her feet. Namajunas is a tough fighter with a bulldog mentality. She will make VanZant earn every inch of their fight early. But as I always say, talent eventually wins out. Right now, VanZant is the more talented fighter and will continue her ascent in the UFC.
Winner: VanZant by third-round TKO