Rose Namajunas has emerged as one of the most popular fighters on the UFC roster in recent years.
Namajunas sits atop the 115 lbs weight class and is primed to become a long-reigning UFC champion. However, there is a litany of top talent on the rise in the division and she has her work cut out for her if she is to continue defending her belt.
Namajunas has already beaten some of the best fighters in the division, having secured victories over the likes of former champions Zhang Weili and Joanna Jędrzejczyk.
That said, here are five UFC fighters who could potentially dethrone the reigning UFC strawweight champion.
#5. Luana Pinheiro – Identical skillset to Rose Namajunas
Luana Pinheiro joined the UFC in 2020. Pinheiro has a similar skillset to the reigning champion of the women’s strawweight division, Rose Namajunas.
Both fighters are excellent strikers with elite Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Namajunas and Pinheiro have had analogous careers so far, purely in terms of their in-cage performances. Both strawweights started as submission specialists before eventually developing kickboxing skills. Pinheiro is arguably a superior grappler to the reigning queen at 115 lbs.
Pinheiro owns a professional record of 10-1, including two wins by way of KO/TKO and five by submission. Out of her 10 victories, seven were first-round finishes. She plied her trade in the Brave CF promotion between 2018 and 2020 before getting the call from the UFC.
The 28-year-old broke onto the scene with a stunning appearance on Dana White’s Contender Series. She secured a scintillating TKO victory over Stephanie Frausto to earn a contract with the UFC.
Since joining the promotion, Pinheiro has gone 2-0 in the strawweight division. Following her most recent victory over Sam Hughes at UFC Fight Night: Vieira vs. Tate, she broke into the rankings at 115 lbs. This well-rounded Brazilian could end up being the one to dethrone the champion of her division.
#4. Mackenzie Dern – Far superior grappler to Rose Namajunas
During her run on The Ultimate Fighter, Rose Namajunas developed a reputation for being a crafty grappler. She secured three submission victories en route to the final of the competition and has since emerged as one of the best Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners in the UFC strawweight division.
However, there is one fighter in the weight class who is undoubtedly a better submission specialist – Mackenzie Dern.
Interestingly, Dern put together an incredible grappling resume prior to her transition to MMA. She is currently the only female Brazilian jiu-jitsu competitor to have won Gold Medals, at black belt level, at each of the five principal/highest ranking IBJJF Gi Championships.
Watch a compilation of Mackenzie Dern's submission victories below:
Namajunas, while dominant atop the ranks at 115 lbs, hasn't displayed great takedown defense. Her lanky frame has allowed the likes of Carla Esparza and Jessica Andrade to take her down in the past and she ended up losing both bouts.
If Dern is able to take Namajunas down in a potential fight down the line, the contest could end soon after.
#3. Zhang Weili – Just a few minor tweaks away from beating Rose Namajunas
Yes, Zhang Weili has already lost to Rose Namajunas twice.
The former champion is likely in need of a couple of wins before she can take on the reigning queen again. At just 32, Weili will likely lock horns with Namajunas for a third time at some point down the line and the Chinese fighter has a real chance of reclaiming her title, considering the nature of her previous losses.
The first fight between the two strawweights went down at UFC 261, where Weili got knocked out in the very first round with a head-kick. Taking nothing away from Namajunas' sensational victory, these things happen in MMA. Sometimes, in a game of inches like the sport we know and love, fighters get caught. UFC legend Georges St-Pierre's shocking loss to Matt Serra is testament to this.
The second fight between Zhang Weili and Rose Namajunas went down at UFC 268 and was an incredibly close affair. Weili trained with former UFC double champion Henry Cejudo and Eric Albaraccin in Arizona in preparation for the fight, and the improvements were clear as day.
Arguably, she beat Namajunas that night at Madison Square Garden. Their fight was an incredibly close contest and many were of the opinion that she did enough to emerge victorious. However, the judges awarded the champion a split-decision victory on the night.
Perhaps their decision would've swung the other way had the exact same fight taken place in Beijing, rather than New York City. Nevertheless, Weili just needs to make a few minor adjustments before heading into a third fight with Namajunas.
#2. Marina Rodriguez – More experienced striker than Rose Namajunas
Under the guidance of legendary striking coach Trevor Wittman, Rose Namajunas' striking has advanced leaps and bounds since she broke onto the scene on The Ultimate Fighter.
The reigning strawweight champion has been sharpening her striking skills for just over five years. UFC strawweight contender Marina Rodriguez, on the other hand, has been training in Muay Thai for over a decade.
Rodriguez amassed an undefeated professional MMA record of 9-0 from 2015 to 2017. Following this, in April 2018, the Brazilian participated in Dana White’s Contender Series: Brazil 2 and secured a first-round TKO win over Maria de Oliveira Neta. This earned her a UFC contract.
Since joining the UFC, Rodriguez has secured unanimous decision victories over seasoned UFC fighters like Tecia Torres, Michelle Waterson and Mackenzie Dern.
In 2020, she suffered the first loss of her MMA career, losing to Carla Esparza via split-decision at UFC on ESPN: Whittaker vs. Till. Esparza, a former UFC women’s strawweight champion, was taken to the brink by the Brazilian, with many in the MMA community claiming the judges’ decision could’ve gone either way due to how closely contested the bout was.
Nevertheless, Rodriguez has never been finished in her professional career. She has shown that she has an incredibly high fight IQ and has the ability to outpoint any fighter on her night. In her most recent fight against Mackenzie Dern, she showed that she can maintain a steady pace over five rounds as well.
Undoubtedly, she will prove to be a tricky puzzle for Namajunas to solve when the duo eventually lock horns.
#1. Carla Esparza – Has already beaten Rose Namajunas once
Carla Esparza and Rose Namajunas were contestants on The Ultimate Fighter 20. They were clearly the best fighters on the reality show and made it all the way to the final. The victor was to be crowned the UFC's inaugural strawweight champion. Esparza came out on top and became the first-ever champion of the UFC's 115 lbs division.
Esparza subsequently lost the title to Joanna Jędrzejczyk, who went on to rule the division for two years before being dethroned by Rose Namajunas. The belt changed hands a few more times thereafter before finding its way back to Namajunas.
Esparza remains an ominous presence in the weight class. ‘Cookie Monster’ is undeniably the best wrestler in the bracket, a strong asset in a division seemingly brimming with strikers. She is currently riding a five-fight winning streak and is ranked No.2 in the strawweight division.
A rematch against Esparza is the obvious next step for Namajunas. The strawweight pair started the division together and the stage is set for them to run it back.
Watch highlights from their first fight below:
Q. Who wins Namajunas vs. Esparza 2?
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