Submission specialist, Rose Namajunas, and former Invicta FC strawweight champ, Carla Esparza, will battle for the inaugural strap this Friday (Dec. 12, 2014) inside the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Namajunas gained quite a bit of attention when she landed a gorgeous flying triangle just 12 seconds into the first round of her second fight. Though she's been a professional fighter for just about two years, "Thug Rose" is definitely a worthy contender in the strawweight division.
Esparza was the favorite to win the whole thing, and she definitely looked the part. Now, the dominant wrestler will attempt to navigate the dangerous guard and sneaky stand-up skills of her challenger.
Let's take a look at the skills of both women involved.
Namajunas is a dangerous and creative kickboxer. She's highly aggressive and possesses some flashy techniques, making her an interesting fighter to watch.
The former Duke Roufus-trainee likes to maintain a fairly lengthy distance between herself and her opponent. From this range, she's able to throw a variety of kicks, whether it be standard roundhouse kicks, ax kicks, or a plethora of spinning attacks. Though she'll sometimes attack her opponent's legs and body, she usually aims for the head.
In particular, Namajunas is very successful with her rear leg side kick. This strike is difficult to utilize, as it requires plenty of space and a decent amount of speed, but Namajunas lands it fairly often.
While continuing to soften her opponent up with kicks, Namajunas will look to bounce in and out of the boxing range with quick punches. At first, she'll just start with a single jab, but she soon is throwing speedy flurries. After landing her punches, Namajunas will back away and throw more kicks, or pursue a takedown.
In order to disguise her flurries, Namajunas feints very well. It helps that her opponent has a difficult time predicting her movements, as "Thug Rose" is quite unpredictable with her kicking offense.
Defensively, Namajunas is active with her head movement while on the outside. However, she's a bit more hittable as she pushes forward with combinations, though she usually just walks through the counter punches.
Esparza is not quite as polished on the feet as Namajunas, but she's improving well. With her boxing, Esparza is active with her jab, though she occasionally pumps it out with no force behind the strike. In her bout against Jessica Penne that earned her a spot in the finale, Esparza showed a much stronger boxing game, as she out-struck the jiu-jitsu ace for much of the fight.
Esparza also throws her right hand fairly often, usually following her jab. After throwing her right, Esparza frequently looks for her double leg takedown.
Finally, Esparza has a decent kicking game. She likes to use her outside low kick, though she often throws the strike without any set up. That, in addition to throwing out jabs without any force behind them, is Esparza's main defensive weakness on the feet.
This is the area in which Esparza shines. She wrestled in high school and eventually became a two-time Women's All-American at Menlo College.
More often than not, Esparza can hit her powerful double leg. Esparza simply drives through her opponent's hips, pushing her backwards and lifting her up until she can do nothing but fall. Usually, Esparza likes to finish in the center of the cage, where she can add a trip to the end of her shot if need be.
If Esparza's double leg fails her, then she'll transition into the clinch with her opponent trapped against the cage. Since she's able to drive her opponent far across the cage, she's usually able to ensure that she still ends up forcing a grappling exchange. Once Esparza has her opponent locked up in the clinch, she likes to attempt to throw with a headlock.
Additionally, Esparza has a strong single leg takedown that she'll occasionally transition to. With her head on the inside, Esparza will spin her foe and dump her to the mat.
Though wrestling is not the strongest aspect of Namajunas' game, she still possesses a very powerful clinch game. When she looks for takedowns, Namajunas will push her opponent into the fence, secure at least one underhook, and look to muscle her foe down to the mat.
Thus far, many of Namajunas' opponents have looked to take her down. During these wrestling exchanges, Namajunas has proven that she's very good at reversing her opponent's takedowns into top position of her own. As her opponents attempt to throw her, she'll keep her hips low and stay tight, which often allows her to land on top of her attacker.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Both of these women are strong grapplers, although in different ways. While Esparza relies mostly on high percentage jiu-jitsu and basics, Namajunas is hyper aggressive on the mat, which often allows her to pull off wild submissions.
Namajunas is very active from her back. She often uses the cage to her advantage, as she climbs her hips high and gets an angle, two things that make attacking with submissions possible.
Once Namajunas has her angle, she'll either thread her opponent's arm through her legs for a triangle choke or look to isolate an arm. Regardless of which submission she attacks with, Namajunas is phenomenal with her transitions.
For example, she secured a triangle choke on Emily Kagan in her pro debut. She angled off to the side well but wasn't able to finish the triangle, so Namajunas attacked with an armbar on the trapped arm, attempted a straight armbar on the outside arm as Kagan defended, eventually looked for an omoplata, and landed elbows throughout. If Kagan was not ridiculously flexible, Namajunas would've finished that fight in the first round.
In addition, Namajunas uses her kimura very well from both the top and bottom. She's quite aggressive in looking for the grip, as she's willing to give up position to lock in the hold. After she secures the shoulder lock, Namajunas will extend her opponent out with her legs and sweep if necessary. Once on top, Namajunas will step over the head from side control and crank on the arm.
Another one of her top game submissions is the rear naked choke. Like the rest of her game, Namajunas is quite aggressive with this submission, chasing it before securing her hooks.
Finally, I have to cover Namajunas' flying armbar victory.
While exchanging strikes in the double-collar tie, Namajunas took advantage of her opponent's arm position. On the mat, it's very risky to reach out and grab the head, as it opens up submissions. That's why most fighters and grapplers attempt to keep their elbows tucked in tight while grappling.
However, submissions are the farthest thing from a fighter's mind while looking to land a standing knee strike. After grabbing the arm wrapped around her own head -- which is the eventual armbar arm -- Namajunas jumped across her opponent's body, securing that all-important angle. From there, she threw her legs up and hung on, landing in a standard armbar position on a confused opponent.
Though it's not as pretty as Namajunas' grappling, Esparza's style of jiu-jitsu is much higher percentage grappling and rarely results in her losing position.
Esparza is constantly working to improve her position while on the mat. As she lands small strikes and passes the guard, Esparza keeps her mind on her end game: the back mount. Most of the time, Esparza's opponent will turn away in an attempt to stand, but Esparza will also force her opponent to give up the position.
Once Esparza secures her hooks, she'll land strikes and constantly look to slide her arm under her opponent's neck. Esparza's control from this position is excellent, as the usual thrashing about that loosens many fighters' hold only gives her a submission opportunity.
The Match Up
Namajunas needs to constantly hit Esparza with kicks. She's the taller and longer fighter, meaning she'll be able to utilize her extensive kicking arsenal basically without fear of counter strikes. However, she knows that Esparza will undoubtedly look to catch one for a takedown or close the distance through some other method.
If Namajunas can do damage and make Esparza feel pressured to shoot, then she can capitalize on Esparza's long shot. Namajunas' submission game is nasty, and with her size advantage, she can definitely capitalize with a submission finish if Esparza puts herself out of position in desperation.
For Esparza, pressure will be key here. If she's able to put Namajunas' back against the fence, "Thug Rose" will likely attempt one of two things. She'll either be content to stay there -- which will allow Esparza to get her hands on Namajunas and work for the takedown -- or, more likely, attempt to flurry off the cage.
When that happens, Esparza can change her level and blast through Namajunas' hips. If Namajunas is moving forward and throwing, there's little chance that she can defend the shot. Once Esparza is on top, she can use Namajunas' open guard and aggression to pass, where she's out of danger.
She may even be able to find her way to Namajunas' back.
Will Rose Namajunas win a UFC title just four fights into her professional career, or can Carla Esparza carry her championship reign over from Invicta?