UFC Strawweights: A Division for Unlikely Contenders

Weili Zhang UFC 248 media day
Weili Zhang Credit: Rodney James Edgar/Cageside Press

As the UFC Strawweight division becomes acclimated to its current champion, let’s take a closer look at the many contenders — and why they can’t fight for the title.

The women’s strawweight division is one of the most exciting and active divisions in MMA and the UFC today. Since Joanna Jędrzejczyk lost the title back in 2017, the weight class has already seen three champions. The volatile nature of the division has resulted in the strawweights having far too many contenders for a champion to fend off. However, for the time being, it looks like Weili Zhang simply doesn’t have a challenger.

If you take a close look at the top fighters of the division you’ll notice they are comprised of easily the best women in the UFC. Among the top five fighters at 115lbs, there are three former champions and an undefeated fan-favorite. The rest of the division consists of title challengers, rising prospects, and former pound-for-pound stalwarts. Yet, not one person seems to be ready for a title shot.

The most obvious choice for the title fight is the undefeated Tatiana Suarez. A neck injury, which she suffered in her fight against Nina Ansaroff in June 2019, has unfortunately rendered her out of the competition. In a recent interview, she made it clear that she’s not returning anytime soon. “I tried to go live for jiu-jitsu and it didn’t go well,” she explained. “I was going with a girl that weighed like 100 pounds, and I was like, ‘Oh, my neck hurts.’ I usually roll with men that are heavy and I feel fine. (It’s) not a good sign. … What I’ve got to do for now is just drill until I’m a little bit better, and then I can get back to going live again.”

A new contender could have emerged from the Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade fight at UFC 249, but Rose had to pull out of the fight. That means Rose is out of the picture for the time being and Andrade needs at least one more win before she can gain credibility to fight for the title. Joanna just lost to Zhang and Nina Ansroff is out of the picture because of pregnancy. This opens the door for other lower-ranked contenders.

With the possible exception of Xiaonan Yan, not one fighter is on a credible win streak in the top ten. Michelle Waterson, who is scheduled to face Carla Esparza, is coming off a loss to Jedrzejczyk. Esparza, despite being on a two-fight winning streak, has very recent losses to both Gadelha and Suarez so pushing her ahead of rest doesn’t make sense. Claudia Gadelha bounced back from a loss to Nina Ansroff by securing an unimpressive win over Randa Markos. Cynthia Calvillo and Mariana Rodriguez fought to a draw back in December.

This brings us to Yan. She has amassed a record of 5-0 in the UFC but not one of those wins is against a top-ranked fighter. The names on her record are impressive but most of them weren’t at their best when she defeated them. For example, Karolina Kowalkiewicz, a former title challenger, was on a three-fight losing streak when she faced Xiaonan Yan. Thus failing to add the necessary gravitas to Yan’s resume.

The on-going coronavirus crisis has given the sport something of a pause, perhaps allowing injured fighters like Suarez to heal up. However it provides no help to the mess the strawweight division is in beyond that. The champion now has two very clear options, either wait out for the division to find its due course or face an unlikely challenger.