The division’s inaugural champion and newest upstart collide in a bout with serious strawweight title implications at UFC 219.
When Joanna Jędrzejczyk was on the verge of making history to begin the year, it appeared the strawweight division was on track to funnel contenders to collide with her iron fist. Rose Namajunas needed less than five minutes to throw the division into disarray as several contenders are now realistically vying for an immediate title shot. Two of those women will be in action at UFC 219 as former champion Carla Esparza meets new upstart Cynthia Calvillo.
Carla Esparza has been a staple of the lighter weight classes for several years, having been a former Invicta strawweight champion before she won UFC gold in 2014. Her resume speaks for itself, having defeated veterans Felice Herrig, Bec Rawlings, and Nina Ansaroff in her career. She also bested contenders Tecia Torres and Angela Hill during her run on The Ultimate Fighter.
Her skills and dominance were never more on display than when faced Rose Namajunas in 2014 at the conclusion of the reality show. With the inaugural strawweight title on the line, Esparza survived a powerful opening frame from “Thug” and went on to secure a submission finish in the third. She was the unquestioned best strawweight in the world, which made her one-sided loss to Jędrzejczyk all the more shocking in her following outing.
As the strawweight division saw an influx of new talent, Esparza disappeared off the radar. She underwent shoulder surgery in mid-2015 and fans would not see her back in action until more than a year after she lost the title. While the Polish champion would put together a historic run, Esparza returned with little fanfare when she defeated Juliana Lima in workmanlike fashion in April of 2016.
Another long layoff followed as she did not return until this past February where she lost a heavily criticized split-decision to fellow TUF castmate Randa Markos. Carla Esparza was considered far from the title picture until this past summer when she began to turn things around with a dominant win over Maryna Moroz. When Namajunas took the belt from Jędrzejczyk in November, Esparza found herself in a great position coming off a win and being one of the few women to have defeated the champion.
Squaring off with Esparza at UFC 219 is Breakthrough Fighter of the Year candidate Cynthia Calvillo. An unknown before 2017, Calvillo has quickly become a fan favorite. She made her UFC debut in March when she stepped up on ten days notice to face Amanda Cooper. When a bout on the main card fell-through, Calvillo’s bout was moved to the main card and the pay-per-view audience witnessed her submit Cooper inside a round.
Cynthia Calvillo would provide an encore a little more than a month later when she dominated grappling ace Pearl Gonzalez on another pay-per-view main card. Now putting the division on notice, she went into enemy territory in Scotland to face local favorite Joanne Calderwood in a performance that saw her showcase her full skill-set.
In 2017, her biggest competition is Volkan Oezdemir who’s run this year is an early favorite to take the BFY award when 2018 rolls around. With Calvillo’s record sitting at just 5-0, facing a former champion in Carla Esparza is easily her toughest task to date. The former champion is hungry to get back into title contention and knows she may never receive a better opportunity in the near future than right now when Namajunas is the champion.
Stylistically, the UFC 219 bout figures to be a chess match as Calvillo will need to avoid the takedowns and forward pressure of Esparza. The former champion has among the best wrestling in the women’s weight classes and has used it to great effect in her career. The best place for Esparza to win the fight will be from top position where she can keep Calvillo on the defensive with ground-and-pound.
For Cynthia Calvillo, the key will be to use her striking and footwork to outpoint the former champion. In all of her UFC performances, Calvillo has thrown strikes with impressive volume and should look to implement that strategy against the slower Esparza. The only concern is that she picks her spots wisely for kicks so as to not be caught and sent to the mat. Using her speed and footwork should give her the ability to find the openings necessary to implement the strategy. On the ground, she should not look to get into long grappling exchanges with Esparza unless she is on top. “Cookie Monster” has too high of a pedigree for Calvillo to get comfortable on her back and should look to keep the fight on the feet unless she has a dominant position on Esparza.
While both Carla Esparza and Cynthia Calvillo have business to attend to, the muddled title picture leaves the winner still a ways off from competing for UFC gold. Recently announced was a fight between Jessica Andrade and Tecia Torres in February, which looks to be an obvious title eliminator. Following that booking, it stands to reason that first up for champion Rose Namajunas will be an immediate rematch with Joanna Jędrzejczyk early sometime next year. This will leave the Esparza/Calvillo winner to face another top contender such as Felice Herrig or Claudia Gadelha in 2018 before they can vie for UFC gold. Regardless, being just one fight away from a title shot is more favorable than falling back down in line and both women will treat UFC 219 as such when they collide.