TUF 20: The Super-Sized Semi-Final Edition
We now have the semi-final fights set. On one side, two former Invicta FC champions will battle as Carla Esparza faces Jessica Penne. The other side features the youngest fighter left in Rose Namajunas against the clearly under-rated at #14 Randa Markos. Both of these match-ups are electrifying and will be guaranteed action. Lets take a look at the four semi-finalists and who will win.
After Penne’s fight aired last week she had this to say on TUF Talk: “That house starts to mess with you. It’s like a very strange messed up science experiment, It really is. They give you every opportunity for drama. You just get really wrapped up what’s right in front of you and it ends up being very dramatic. I don’t feel like people acted like they would in normal, everyday life.”
It is a weird far from normal situation for the fighters. From the isolation from the outside world to all of the free time but limited directions for it. That is why you see drama in every season and for all of the fans bemoaning the behavior of some of the fighters this season, remember there have been many worse moments on the show than what has taken place this season. The show is going to produce some less than flattering moments for some of the fighters. Then it is edited together to highlight some of those moments during the season.
The drama is heighten this season by several elements. The first is the title itself. It will mean something to be the first UFC strawweight champion and everybody on the show is competing for the same prize. Normally there are two weight classes or in the case of TUF 18 a men’s and women’s side to the competition. In those seasons there is less tension with two separate prizes. Here there is just the one and that meant that even teammates were rivals.
The Fantastic Final Four: First up the tenacious Carla Esparza
We have our final four with the top seeded Esparza leading the way. She used her wrestling to take out Tecia Torres and advance into the semis. Her wrestling was just good enough to get the win. It was really all she had in this fight. It could be looked at as relentless with her multiple takedown attempts. You could also look at as being slightly desperate and one-dimensional.
The win was a majority decision which means one judge at least had it even. If the fight had gone to a third round Torres looked a little fresher at the end of the second round. Esparza is also fortunate that Torres did not punish Esparza more for her single-leg attempts.
On the men’s side of the sport you rarely see single-leg takedown attempts these days. Between Jose Aldo baiting his opponents into single leg attempts to evade them and Travis Browne elbowing opponents into oblivion when they attempt them against him. You do not see too many single-leg takedowns in the UFC. Torres was only concerned with avoiding the takedowns and did not look to punish Esparza for her many single-legs. It could have had something to do with her size. Browne is a taller and longer heavyweight so he can get a nice angle with his elbows. Esparza’s next opponent Penne has that kind of length in the strawweight division.
The strengths of Esparza center around her wrestling. Her striking has improved but in her fight with Torres she had little interest in the standing and striking. Her wrestling is the best in the house but that gap is closing. In her next fight it could also lead to her downfall as Penne has a strong submission game.
The Silent Assassin Jessica Penne
To get into the semis the quiet Penne had to take out the tough Aisling Daly in a three round battle. Penne proved to be the tougher and better fighter taking the UD. She now faces another tough opponent in good friend in Esparza and Penne maybe has the perfect style to defeat the top seed.
Throughout this season Penne has avoided the drama of the house and focus on fighting. While Penne was seeded at fourth many felt that she would run into some trouble being a more natural atomweight against some of the bigger fighters. I was one of those who thought that would be the problem in the fight with Daly who has competed competitively at flyweight in the past. Penne proved everyone wrong with her second impressive win in the house. Early in that fight it seemed like Daly maybe had a strength advantage but as the fight progressed it was Penne who grew stronger.
In her upcoming fight with Esparza it will be interesting to see how she defends the takedown. Penne is longer and taller which gives Esparza a leverage advantage if she can get inside of Penne’s length. However, getting the fight to the ground does not mean an easy win for Esparza as Penne has a dangerous submission game but Esparza has to get the takedown to win.
If the fight plays out in the stand up then Penne has a big advantage. Sure she loves to grapple but she also has very underrated striking. On the ground the fight is a close one with Esparza having a slight advantage but in the striking Penne’s advantage is much larger than Esparza’s on the ground. It is a similar situation on the other side of the bracket where the grappler Markos takes on the striker Namajunas.
A Thug Rose by any other name is still a Badass
One of the fighters who has benefited most by their time on the show has been Rose Namajunas. She emerged as the only fighter from Team Melendez to win a fight and now finds herself as the youngest fighter left and the favorite of many fans to win the title. With her fearless high-flying fighting style it is easy to see why she has quickly won the fans over.
Her win over Joanne Calderwood to advance to the semis is the most impressive in her young career and in the house this season. Not only was the number two seeded Calderwood the favorite for many of the experts and fans alike but she also had a pristine 8-0 record. While technically that remains intact as this fight will not count on her official record the TUF world knows she lost this fight to Namajunas.
This fight we saw the perfect blend of aggression with technical prowess come together in this win. Calderwood is one of the best technical strikers in the sport and Namajunas used her aggression to out-strike her in the first round. In the second round we saw why Calderwood is regarded as one of the better strikers. Namajunas was picking her apart at a distance with her kicks. This prompted Calderwood to then get inside. Once she got in a clinch she worked her knees and elbows. Namajunas fought back and they found themselves in a battle of the single-legs with Calderwood coming out on top. Then Namajunas struck and locked in a kimura and got the tap.
Once again the talented striker gets another submission victory. It was an eye-opening win for the young Namajunas in taking out the tough and talented Calderwood. Now she may have an even tougher challenge in front of her in the surprising Markos.
The Quiet Storm of Randa Markos
The other fighter that has emerged this season has been Randa Markos. She came into the season a little under the radar with the fans and the UFC rankings. It is clear that her #14 seed was far too low. Her submission of Felice Herrig showed that the win over Torres was not a fluke. Markos has been one of the more intense competitors this season and has the second best wrestling behind Esparza on the show.
Then again maybe she has the best wrestling. It is almost a knee-jerk reaction to proclaim that Esparza is the best wrestler but Markos could challenge that if they end up fighting each other. First she has to deal with the new favorite for many in Namajunas and she will need her wrestling to win this fight. She used it to defeat Torres by taking her down and controlling her on the ground. Then she utilized her grappling again to defeat Herrig. Namajunas will be her toughest opponent in the TUF house but Markos will be ready for it.
Markos has proven throughout the season that she is there to train, fight and win the belt. During this season she has backed down from no one inside of the octagon and in the house. Before her fight with Herrig she clashed with her and Esparza over training time. That led to more pre-fight intrigue for their fight and one of the best lines of the season afterwards. When Markos said, “Don’t worry. Your next.” to Esparza it was a classic perfect line for the moment and has since been commemorated by Americana on T-shirts and Hoodies. If she can defeat Namajunas it could be Esparza who is waiting for her in the finals.
Time to take a look at who wins.
Esparza versus Penne
I smell the upset coming in this one. Penne has the style to give Esparza problems with her strong submission skills. I like Penne to win the striking and then edge out the grappling. This is MMA and not wrestling. Esparza will get the takedown but it will cost her. When she does get it she will have trouble scoring on the ground against the aggressive submissions of Penne.
I also like Penne’s mental state going into the fight. More and more this season Esparza seems to be feeling the pressure of being the top seed. Expectations can weigh heavy on person and her throwing up after her win over Torres seemed to be as a result of nerves and exhaustion. Also during this season Esparza has become caught up in some of the drama and she is not a fighter who normally thrives under those circumstances. While Penne has avoided it all season long.
It also appears that fighting a friend will affect her a little less but it is a tough situation for both of them. Look, there is no doubt Esparza can win this but I like the development of Penne. Every fight she improves and has that quiet intensity.
Namajunas versus Markos
To me this is a tougher call. Both fighters have impressed during the season with their passion and their wins. They are also two fighters I like a lot from a fighting standpoint. Namajunas is fearless and will go for anything at any time. She gives zero fucks about missing a flying submission and ending up on the bottom because she knows she can submit you from anywhere.
Along with her dangerous submissions Namajunas also has some of the best striking in the house. It was telling to me that she had Calderwood going for the takedown in their fight. Normally Calderwood is content to stand and strike with anybody that dares but she found herself getting backed up by Namajunas’ aggressive striking. It was something that Calderwood really has not seen and that was a fighter that truly was not afraid to stand and strike with her.
When it comes to fearlessness Markos can match Namajunas. That her intensity, aggression and wrestling are her biggest strengths. For her to win this fight she will have to get the fight to the ground, defend against the submissions and score some points at the same time. That is a lot to ask against one of the more talented fighters in the division.
I like Namajunas to take a close three round SD win to advance to the finals. I expect a fight like the one between Justine Kish and Markos for RFA earlier this year. That war is one of my favorite fights of the year and I expect this one to exceed that one.
Whoever wins these two fights we will be guaranteed a great finals.
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