The UFC’s two female divisions, bantamweight (135-pounds/61-kilograms) and strawweight (115-pounds/52-kilograms), have come a long way since their inception in 2013 and 2014 respectively.
Despite each of the weight classes being very much in their infancy, there is no shortage of stars that like to put on a show for the fans. With a solid foundation set in 2015, which included the record-breaking UFC 193 pay-per-view event in Melbourne headlined by Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm, 2016 looks to capitalise on the success of women’s mixed martial arts (MMA) and continue to take the sport to the next level.
Rose Namajunas (4-2): Ranked Third in the strawweight division
Rose Namajunas first caught my attention in 2014 as a competitor on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) season 22, the UFC’s reality TV show based out of the fighting capital of Las Vegas, pits fighters against one another in an elimination tournament. Season 22 was the introduction of the strawweight division into the UFC, with the winner becoming the inaugural champion - marking the first time that the long-running series had ever crowned a UFC king or queen.
Namajunas came into the competition with two wins and one loss under the Invicta FC banner, the largest all-female mixed martial arts promotion in the world, and quickly racked up victories over Randa Markos, Alex Chambers and Joanne Calderwood before finding herself in the finals against seasoned veteran and former Invicta FC strawweight champion, Carla Esparza. Namajunas ultimately lost the fight but at the ripe old age of 21, she proved that she has what it takes to create a long lasting and successful career in the UFC.
Since her loss to Esparza, Namajunas has rebounded to score back-to-back wins over Angela Hill and highly touted prospect Paige VanZant. Whilst Namajunas is well known for quick finishes, her win over VanZant in the fifth round, on very short notice, emphasised her ability to be patient and go the distance.
Namajunas has always been considered a talented and exciting fighter, one that is technical yet unorthodox, aggressive yet quietly confident, that it’s sometimes easy to forget that she is still only 23-years-old. The Colorado native has also come leaps and bounds in terms of her mental fortitude, a trait that is not often emphasised enough but becomes glaringly obvious when you look at the difference between those who are champions and those who are not.
The next logical step for Namajunas is a rematch against fourth-ranked strawweight Tecia Torres, the winner of which will cement themselves as the number-one contender for the UFC strawweight world title, which is set to be contested in July in Las Vegas between champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Claudia Gadelha.
Michelle Waterson (13-4): Ranked 10th in the strawweight division
Michelle Waterson is the former Invicta FC atomweight champion (105-pounds/47-kilograms) and trains alongside current bantamweight champion Holly Holm at Jackson-Winkeljohn, one of the premier training camps in MMA.
Whilst Waterson has been fighting professionally for just under 10 years, she only recently made her UFC debut last July, defeating TUF alum Angela Magana in the third round via submission (choke). Waterson also holds a notable victory over Jessica Penne, who fought for the UFC strawweight world title last year and is also the former Invicta FC atomweight champion.
"The Karate Hottie" has many accolades to her name including winning atomweight of the year in 2013 and 2014 as well as winning women’s MMA fight of the year in both 2013 and 2014, all while being a mother to her young daughter.
Although many would consider Waterson small for the division (she’s only 5'3") she brings seven first round finishes, a black belt in freestyle karate and a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to the table. As Waterson is coming off an injury, a broken hand sustained in the Magana fight, she will be looking to be much more active in 2016. Whilst she might not be a title contender in the next 12 months, Waterson is extremely marketable and there is no doubt the UFC will look to give her every opportunity to take on big fights in the year ahead. If she can string together a few key victories over highly ranked opponents it will provide a great foundation leading into 2017.
Karolina Kowalkiewicz (8-0): Ranked 12th in the strawweight division
Karolina Kowalkiewicz is undefeated in her professional MMA career with her only loss coming on the amateur circuit against the current UFC strawweight world champion and fellow Polack, Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
Prior to joining the UFC, Kowalkiewicz was the flyweight national champion (125-pounds/56-kilograms) for KSW, the most prestigious Polish MMA promotion which regularly attracts massive audiences and millions of eyeballs on national television in the European nation. During her short stay with the company, Kowalkiewicz won and defended the title before seeking greater challenges in Invicta FC.
Kowalkiewicz is an extremely well-rounded fighter and embodies the new breed of mixed martial artist – not specialising in any singular discipline but dedicating her career to all facets of the sport. She has a mental astuteness that has served her well over the last four years of her professional career and was certainly a major contributing factor to her first UFC win over the eleventh-ranked strawweight Randa Markos.
Much like Waterson, Kowalkiewicz will look to utilise 2016 as the year to campaign for a title fight, however, I would not be surprised if the 30-year-old gets a shot at Joanna Jedrejczyk (should she beat Gadelha) sooner rather than later, given their history and the interesting narrative it would provide.
Valentina Shevchenko (12-1): 11th ranked bantamweight
Valentina Shevchenko is a new face on the UFC scene. Making her debut in January 2016, the 27-year-old made a great first impression, defeating former Strikeforce bantamweight queen Sarah Kaufman on only 10 days’ notice.
What is impressive about Schevchenko is that she is a lifetime mixed martial artist who has a third-degree black belt in Taekwondo, over 70 professional Muay Thai fights of which she is a multiple-time world title holder and in her short MMA career she has strung together an impressive 12-1 record with her only loss coming nearly six years ago, against former UFC title challenger Liz Carmouche.
Despite only having one fight in the UFC, Schevchenko is firmly planted in the top 15 of the division, with her next fight booked against burly Brazilian contender Amanda Nunes, who is currently ranked fourth in the weight class. A win against the talented striker and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt at UFC 196 on March 6th (AEST) will catapult her into title contendership should Holm or Tate take one more fight before recently dethroned champ Ronda Rousey returns in the latter half of 2016.
Whilst many may argue that a title shot is premature, it is not unprecedented. Holm had only two fights in the UFC before she became the title challenger. Shevchenko is a top prospect in the division and an ultra-exciting athlete, the fact that she can and will finish fights makes her a major threat to anyone holding the belt, and, more importantly, will ensure that she is at the forefront of the UFC matchmakers minds.
Ronda Rousey (12-1): Number one contender in the bantamweight division
It would be remiss to not include the woman who made this all possible. Ronda Rousey has been the embodiment of women’s MMA since she burst onto the scene in 2012 as the Strikeforce champion, capturing the eye of UFC President Dana White who was previously quoted as saying the UFC would "never" allow women to fight in the elite mixed martial arts league.
Rousey, despite being relegated to the sidelines, is still the UFC’s biggest and most marketable athlete. Whilst she suffered her first loss at UFC 193 against current champion Holly Holm, the interest level in the UFC’s most prized fighter has not waned in the slightest, with people more curious than ever to see how her career will play out.
As it currently stands Rousey is not making a premature comeback in July, which will only bode well for the Californian, however, she will be back inside the Octagon before the year is out and will have an immediate title fight against whoever is the champion at the time. For that reason alone she will be one to watch: will Rousey retain her rightful place atop the women’s bantamweight throne or will a loss see the end of the trailblazer’s career? Only time will tell.