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Who’s next for UFC strawweight champion Rose Namajunas?

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Ever since before women were even fighting in the UFC, the 135-pound weight class has been the glamour division of women’s MMA. Given that the two biggest stars ever in Women’s MMA, Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate, fought most of their careers in that division, they attracted the attention, the money, and the glamour and with many women fighting out of their weight classes to try to get a shot at one of these women.

But with both pioneers finishing up in the winter of 2016, much of the attention in the women’s game has switched twenty pounds south to the strawweight division, where last Saturday night, champion Rose Namajunas retained her title, beating former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk by unanimous decision.

While the woman once known as Joanna Champion performed much better than her title losing tilt last November, having success with leg kicks and her Dutch kickboxing style in the middle rounds, ‘Thug’ Rose used her excellent boxing and harder punches to constantly keep the Polish fighter on her heels, closing with a dominant fifth round to secure her first title defense.

While some, notably the @UFCEurope Twitter account, are calling for a third fight between Rose and Joanna, the majority of MMA fans seem uninterested in that fight, seeking new challengers for ‘Thug’ Rose. Let’s take a look at some of the top candidates.

Jessica Andrade (18-6, 8-4 UFC)—#2 Ranked Strawweight

Undoubtedly the top contender, Andrade came to the strawweight division nearly two years ago, after an uneven 3-3 run at a bantamweight. At a mere 5’1 ½ inches tall, this was clearly the division that she should have been fighting all along. Once she dropped down to 115 pounds, she went on a tear, running through former title challenger Jessica Penne, choking out the highly regarded Joanna Calderwood, and then outdueling former Invicta champion Angela Hill in an outstanding war. But she fell well short in her first title shot at UFC 211 in Dallas last March, getting soundly outkickboxed Joanna Champion.

But Andrade has come back with a vengeance since that lost. First, she went to Japan and lambasted consensus number one contender Claudia Gadelha, blooding her with shots, throwing her around the cage (quite literally) and pounding her on the mat in a complete and dominant performance. The encore was nearly as impressive, as she overcame a slow start to soundly defeat another top contender in Tecia Torres on Fox in Orlando two months ago. With those performances, Andrade seem to solidify herself as no worse than the third best fighter in the division.

Logic tells you that Andrade has more than earned the next shot at Rose and it has all the makings of a delicious matchup. Given Rose’s transformation from a submission specialist to a complete fighter with excellent boxing and kickboxing, Andrade’s come straight ahead and throw style of fighting seems made to order for the champion. Rose may able to use her movement and height and reach to befuddle the Brazilian, much in the same way Joanna did. But Andrade is also the roughest and most powerful wrestler that Rose has ever faced. Given the way that Andrade tossed around Gadelha and Torres (and she even got Joanna down a time or two), you gotta wonder what will happen if she gets her arms around Rose.

This has the makings of a damn interesting fight, and I hope we can do it sometime this summer.

Karolina Kowalkiewicz (12-2, 5-2 UFC)—#4 Ranked Strawweight

The former KSW flyweight champion came into the UFC in December of 2015 and immediately went on an impressive winning streak. After wins over Randa Markos and Heather Jo Clark, she took a HUGE step up in class against Rose at UFC 201 in Atlanta. That night, Kowalkiewicz’s dynamic clinch work carried the game and she won a close, but well deserved split decision that night, making her the last woman to beat ‘Thug’ Rose in the Octagon.

That win earned her a shot in an all Polish female title match at UFC 205 in New York, and despite BADLY rocking the champion late in the fight, she couldn’t finish the job and Joanna walked away with the victory that night. But she came out of that fight with more momentum than ever. That momentum came to a screeching halt last June in Brazil however, when Claudia Gadelha took her down and choked her out in the first round. A lot of people seemed to count her out after that loss but being caught on the ground by Gadelha is kinda like being caught with a big punch and being knocked out by Francis Ngannou. It should be a forgivable offense.

Since then, Karolina has rallied a bit. After a dominant return in her home country against the tough Jodie Esquibel last October, she closed out the prelims last week in Brooklyn with an excellent win over the streaking Felice Herrig. Karolina showed improvements in her boxing, as well as her wrestling and jiu-jitsu, using more takedowns than usual and even once nearly catching Herrig in a kneebar. In addition to her new skills, Karolina showed her ever impressive clinch work, dominating the former kickboxer from that position. Given that Herrig had won four in a row coming in, it was an impressive win for Karolina that gets her back into title consideration.

Given the competitor that Rose is, you have to imagine that she would love to get that win back against Karolina, and just how that fight would in a five rounder indeed of a three rounder would be interesting as well. Also, making that fight more interesting, is the development of Karolina as a character. She has always been the cool Polish girl, standing calmly at the cage before her fight, giving fans a little wink as she’s announced every time. While she reinforced that a little with her “I’m from Poland” remark, when asked how she felt about Conor McGregor attacking the UFC bus, the emotion she showed talking about her stepfather with cancer in the post-match interview showed the kind of emotion that might help fans connect with her more. She probably needs more win to cement herself, but Rose-Karolina 2 looms as a wonderful possibility.

Claudia Gadelha (15-3, 4-3 UFC)—#3 Ranked Strawweight

For so long, Claudia was the “1A” of this division. When Joanna was scarcely losing rounds and ripping everyone apart with her kickboxing, Gadelha hung with Joanna through two fights in the UFC, pushing her to the brink each time, including in a title match in July 2016. No other fighter in the strawweight division seemed to be able to touch Gadelha otherwise, which she showed when she dominated Kowalkiewicz at UFC 212 in Brazil last June.

But then she went to Japan to face Andrade, which became a bitter bout between the Brazilian females, with Andrade calling her “just another American girl.” Gadelha looked like she was going to make Andrade pay for the remark, outboxing her early in the first round, but Andrade soon got close and dominated Gadelha with big slams, combinations on the feet, and vicious GNP. It was a terrible night for Gadelha.

Now, Gadelha is behind the eight ball in the title chase, although the fact that it is Rose and not Joanna is now at the end of the rainbow should be invigorating for the Albuquerque-based Brazilian. She hopes to make a serious case on June 9 at UFC 225 in Chicago when she faces former champion Carla Esparza, who has come back from the dead in the past year. There can be no missteps for Gadelha. She has to win and win impressively to get back in the title chase.

Carla Esparza (13-4, 4-2 UFC)—#6 Ranked Strawweight

There was a time that Esparza was the consensus number one strawweight in the world. Coming into the house as the first Invicta Champion, she was expected to plow through the Ultimate Fighter 20 and did, beating Angela Hill, Tecia Torres, and Jessica Penne en route to the title match. That night in December 2014, she faced a prodigious, but inexperienced Namajunas, and Esparza was able to weather the early storm and submit the younger fighter in the third round to become the first UFC strawweight champion.

But six months later, Joanna Champion was unleashed on her, and Esparza took what may be the worst beating any champion has ever taken in a first title defense before being finished in the second round. Esparza seemed to be beaten mentally as much as physically. She took thirteen months off before returning to beat Juliana Lima, but looked rather lethargic, and then got herself out hustled and out scrambled against Randa Markos in February 2017 in Halifax. After a get well win last June, Esparza pulled off a big upset, winning a close decision over streaking prospect Cynthia Calvillo at UFC 219 in Las Vegas. That night, Esparza showed much improved striking and finally looked like someone who had once been a world champion. After it seemed Joanna had taken her soul, Esparza looked like she had finally come back from the dead.

Now, she draws a desperate Gadelha at UFC 225 in Chicago in June. It is an interesting matchup as Claudia’s world champion level jiu-jitsu may neutralize the wrestling that has always been the crux of Esparza’s game. She will need even more of much improved striking she showed against Calvillo and given what happened to Claudia against Andrade, Carla may have the mental advantage. Given that Carla is one of two fighters to beat Rose in the UFC, a win here may make Esparza a legitimate title challenger once again, something that looked impossible just eighteen months ago.

The Best of the Rest: Fifth ranked Tecia Torres (10-2, 6-2 UFC) will need a big win to get back in contention, given her loss to Andrade in February. Her two close fights with Rose do keep her in the hunt, however. Seventh ranked Michelle Waterson (14-6, 2-2 UFC) draws tenth ranked Cortney Casey (7-5, 3-4 UFC) this weekend in Glendale, Arizona. Casey’s straight forward style may make her made to order for the karate stylings of Waterson, but Casey’s size will be a challenge for former Invicta atomweight champion. The dark horse of this division of twelfth ranked Tatiana Suarez (5-0, 2-0 UFC) who faces tenth ranked Alexa Grasso (10-1, 2-1 UFC) in Chile on May 17. The TUF 23 champion may be the best wrestler in the division and she is big for the weight class. BJJ World Champion Mackenzie Dern (5-0, 1-0 UFC) remains the top prospect in the division but given that she is only twenty-four years old, the UFC will probably take her time with her. But she is money waiting to be printed for sure.

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