UFC 274: Namajunas and Esparza to Show Evolution in Rematch for Strawweight Title

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Rose Namajunas and Carla Esparza, UFC 274
Rose Namajunas and Carla Esparza, UFC 274 Pre-Fight Press Conference Credit: Eddie Law/Cageside Press

Eight years since their first encounter, strawweight champion Rose Namajunas and former champion Carla Esparza will meet again in a bout expected to show their evolution as fighters at UFC 274.

When discussing what’s changed for Rose Namajunas since 2014, most want to point to the simple passage of time.  But it is important to look at the numbers.  When “Thug Rose” fought for the strawweight title in the finale of season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter, she was a mere 2-1 as a professional (her fights on the show not counting towards her official record) and far from the experienced warrior who now reigns atop the division.

Today, Namajunas is the unquestioned best strawweight in the world who has both first round knockouts and decision victories over former title holders Joanna Jędrzejczyk and Zhang Weili.  An exceptional grappler, Namajunas has recently rarely needed to display her abilities on the mat as many of her signature victories have seen her use her vaunted abilities on the feet that were still in development years ago.  A win over the resurgent Esparza, on paper, would arguably be more impressive than if she had won their previous encounter, and will add to an already stellar resume that has many beginning to determine her place in the pound-for-pound hierarchy.

There was a brief point in Carla Esparza’s career where it looked like a return to a championship was not meant to be.  After blazing her way through The Ultimate Fighter as the early favorite and defeating Namajunas to win the inaugural strawweight title, Esparza was quickly dispatched by Jędrzejczyk.  The loss kicked off a 3-4 run that saw “Cookie Monster” struggle to build momentum and other contenders pass her in the rankings and push her out of the title picture.

2019 was the beginning of a significant shift for Esparza.  Coming off back-to-back losses, the former champion put together her current win-streak.  In workmanlike fashion, Esparza won decisions over Virna Jandiroba, Alexa Grasso, Michelle Waterson, and current top-contender Marina Rodriguez.  Last May, she stopped Yan Xiaonan in the second round to bring her win-streak to five and earn another shot at the championship she previously won eight years ago.

Counter-striking will be paramount for both women as both are expected to struggle should they remain stationary in the center of the Octagon.  Namajunas will look to keep Esparza at the end of her strikes in the center of Octagon where she will have the most room to move and utilize her significant reach advantage.  Esparza by comparison will need to execute brilliant shot-selection as she looks to counter and put pressure on Namajunas to set up her takedowns.  A striking battle in the middle of the cage does not favor Esparza so she will need to get Namajunas to plant her feet in order to change levels and get under her strikes for a takedown or push her against the fence and work her way to the ground from the clinch.

Most expect surging contender Marina Rodriguez to be the next title challenger late in 2022.  Should Rodriguez be unavailable, the winner of the upcoming fight between Jędrzejczyk and Zhang could be an option should Esparza emerge victorious on Saturday.  Considering that Namajunas owns two victories over both women, it would be unlikely that she fight either one again without more victories under their belt and would likely wait for Rodriguez to be ready.

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