The UFC announced Wednesday that strawweights Claudia Gadelha and Carla Esparza will throw down at UFC 225 later this year. In the wake of Namajunas vs. Jedrzejczyk, it has all the makings of a title eliminator, but for one caveat.
Remember when the UFC had title eliminators, at least ones that didn’t involve interim belts?
A 115lb match-up that has long been desired will finally take place at UFC 225. On Wednesday, the UFC announced via its official Twitter account that former women’s strawweight champion Carla Esparza would face ex-title challenger Claudia Gadelha at the event, in Chicago this June. While Gadelha is well known for her rivalry with former UFC 115lb champ Joanna Jedrzejczyk (whom she has lost to twice), the pair were once rivals in all-women’s MMA promotion Invicta FC.
Gadelha (15–3) bounced back from the second of her losses to Jedrzejczyk with wins over Cortney Casey and Karolina Kowalkiewicz. However, at UFC Fight Night 117 she ran into a wall in the form of fellow Brazilian Jessica Andrade. The loss snapped her two-fight win streak, and marked her third defeat as a pro. While there was talk of a move to the newly formed flyweight division, it appears that’s on hold for the time being.
Carla Esparza, meanwhile, is looking to extend her modest two fight winning streak. Esparza (13–4) was the inaugural UFC women’s strawweight champion, only to lose the belt to Jedrzejczyk in her first title defense at UFC 185 in 2015. In her past two fights, ‘Cookie Monster’ has picked up wins over Maryna Moroz and Cynthia Calvillo. A win over Gadelha would put her right back in title contention once the title fight rematch between Jedrzejczyk and current champ Rose Namajunas plays out later this year.
And there is the rub. What happens at UFC 223 between Namajunas and Jedrzejczyk will likely set the course of the division over the remainder of 2018. At UFC on FOX 28 on February 24, Jessica Andrade will face Tecia Torres. It’s the only other fight at the moment that screams title shot. Yet Andrade fought Jedrzejczyk once and lost, with little cause for rematch. She has looked impressive since. But should Jedrzejczyk reclaim her title in April, Andrade may fall to the back of the line.
Andrade’s opponent, Tecia Torres, already has a loss to Namajunas in the UFC. Same situation, different chess pieces. If Namajunas comes out on top in April, and Torres wins later this month, Torres could find herself in limbo. She does hold a win over Namajunas in Invicta, making their career series 1-1, but as much as the UFC likes to promote trilogies, this one isn’t screaming headliner currently.
Gadelha and Esparza have something of a heated past. If they can sell that rivalry heading into UFC 225, and perform in the cage, it may push one or the other past the Torres vs. Andrade victor. Esparza, meanwhile, is a former champ — who never got another shot at the title after dropping it to Jedrzejczyk. There are a lot of moving pieces, and the winner of Torres vs. Andrade could also be lined up in a title eliminator against Gadelha vs. Esparza’s winner. That’s sort of loading all your eggs into one basket, however. The UFC would surely never do that… right?
One thing is for sure, this is a big fight for Esparza vs. Gadelha. And even if not explicitly stated, each woman had best treat it as their next best chance to challenge for gold in the UFC.