Five women have laid claim to UFC strawweight gold. But who can say she is the greatest one to ever hold it so far?
In early 2013, about two years after UFC President Dana White claimed that women would never compete in the UFC, Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche made their way to the Octagon to compete in the inaugural women’s UFC bout — in the inaugural UFC women’s bantamweight championship bout.
If the Dana White from two years earlier thought it’d be crazy to see such a sight, he’d probably think it’d be ludicrous for a second women’s division to open in the UFC. But that’s exactly what happened.
After the success of Rousey and the UFC women’s bantamweight division, women’s strawweight was added to the UFC, with 16 women competing on season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter — a season dedicated to the division with the objective of crowning the first-ever champion.
As of the end of August 2021, in six total reigns (counting the current one for Namajunas), five women can say they have been a UFC champion at 115 pounds.
But which of these women can say they are the greatest, most memorable champion in the history of the division thus far?
5. Carla Esparza
Carla Esparza will always be able to say she was the season 20 winner of The Ultimate Fighter and the inaugural UFC women’s strawweight champion. Unfortunately for her, her time at the top of the 115-pound scene didn’t last long.
After improving to 9-2 and winning the Invicta strawweight title, Esparza took part in TUF, being the top seed in the tournament to determine the first UFC strawweight champion.
Esparza submitted Angela Hill before taking decisions over Tecia Torres and Jessica Penne. She then faced Rose Namajunas in the finale and scored a third-round submission to be crowned champion.
Just 92 days later, however, and Esparza ran into Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 185, getting obliterated into a second-round TKO.
Esparza had mixed results over the next few years but, as of this article’s publication, has won five straight and could soon get the chance to become a two-time champion.
4. Jessica Andrade
With women’s fighting just being introduced to the UFC upon her arrival in 2013, Jessica Andrade competed at bantamweight originally, going 4-3 there. She proved she had the talent to be successful but a change was needed.
When strawweight opened up, Andrade moved down and found her stride, winning three straight, which included a Performance of the Night and Fight of the Night. This earned her the chance to challenge Joanna Jedrzejczyk for the strawweight title at UFC 211, where she’d lose a unanimous decision.
Andrade didn’t slow down, however, as she’d win another three in a row, topped by a quick knockout of Karolina Kowalkiewicz at UFC 228. This earned her another title shot, this time taking on Rose Namajunas at UFC 237.
In spite of getting dominated in the first round, Andrade came back to perform one of the most spectacular finishes in recent UFC memory, slamming down Namajunas in a second-round knockout and claiming the title in her home country of Brazil.
Like Esparza, however, Andrade’s reign wasn’t long-lasting. At UFC Shenzhen, 112 days later, she’d lose the belt in a 42-second TKO against Weili Zhang.
Since then, Andrade dropped a rematch to Namajunas before moving to flyweight, having recently challenged Valentina Shevchenko in an unsuccessful bid at UFC flyweight gold.
3. Weili Zhang
After losing her 2013 MMA debut, Weili Zhang didn’t lose another fight before making her UFC debut at UFC 227, where she’d defeat Danielle Taylor.
She continued to impress and very quickly move up the 115-pound ranks with a submission of Jessica Aguilar and a decision over Tecia Torres, which earned her a shot at then-champion Jessica Andrade.
In her home country of China, on that fateful August day, Weili Zhang pressured and finished Andrade to win the title in 42 seconds before delivering a simple, but memorable liner. “My name is Zhang Weili. Remember me!”
Her next fight would be her only successful title defense, but it certainly made people remember her. After some tenseness in the pre-fight build, Zhang defended the strawweight belt against Joanna Jedrzejczyk in the co-main event of UFC 248.
What we ended up receiving was not only perhaps the greatest women’s fight in the history of Mixed Martial Arts, but perhaps one of the greatest fights in the sport’s history, period.
For 25 minutes, Zhang and Jedrzejczyk pounded away at one another, bringing a nearly non-stop pace and barely any breathing time, as they battled for control and dominance in the fight and in the rankings. And in the end, Zhang edged out the former longtime champ in a split decision.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic almost immediately then took over the planet, and it would be a little over a year before Zhang was seen in action again. And unfortunately for “Magnum,” in that fight at UFC 261, she’d lose the title.
2. Rose Namajunas
Rose Namajunas’s professional MMA debut came on a big stage right away, competing in three bouts in Invicta before getting the call to take part in TUF 20. She scored submissions of Alex Chambers, Joanne Calderwood and Randa Markos before getting submitted herself in the finale by Carla Esparza.
Namajunas would not be deterred, however, as she’d win four of her next five and challenge the then-undefeated Joanna Jedrzejczyk for the strawweight championship at UFC 217. And it was on that night where Namajunas shined bright and rose her star power, dropping Jedrzejczyk twice and scoring a submission due to strikes to become the UFC strawweight queen.
Namajunas then faced the challenge of a Jedrzejczyk rematch in the co-main event of UFC 223. Just mere days after being shaken up by the Conor McGregor bus attack, Namajunas and Jedrzejczyk went to war in a praiseworthy contest, but the belt ultimately stayed with Namajunas in a unanimous decision.
Namajunas didn’t see the cage for just over a year before facing Jessica Andrade at UFC 237. While she dominated the first round, she was slammed in a KO defeat. She then filtered with the idea of retirement before a return at UFC 251, gaining revenge with a split decision win over Andrade.
Then, Namajunas had another big moment. At UFC 261, she scored a head kick to knock out Weili Zhang in 78 seconds to regain the 115-pound gold, becoming the first female UFC fighter in history to regain gold she had previously lost.
1. Joanna Jedrzejczyk
In every description of the previous entries, one common name has come up: Joanna Jedrzejczyk. That’s not surprising considering how dominant of a reign she had while on top of the UFC strawweight scene — and even in her time afterward.
After defeating Juliana Lima in her UFC debut, the then-undefeated Jedrzejczyk edged out Claudia Gadelha in a title eliminator before running through Carla Esparza in a second-round finish to claim the UFC women’s strawweight title.
Jedrzejczyk then successfully defended the title five times over the next couple of years, defeating Jessica Penne, Valerie Letourneau, Gadelha, Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Jessica Andrade. Jedrzejczyk looked firmly in control of nearly every one of those outings, while also taking part in two Fights of the Night.
After the upset title loss to Namajunas at UFC 217, Jedrzejczyk put up a valiant effort in a loss to Namajunas in their UFC 223 title rematch. Jedrzejczyk got back in the win column with a dominant outing against Tecia Torres, and then she tried her hand at flyweight when she and Valentina Shevchenko faced off for the then-vacant title. Jedrzejczyk lost a one-sided decision.
Jedrzejczyk returned 10 months later in another dominant outing against Michelle Waterson. This earned Jedrzejczyk the chance to regain the strawweight gold again, this time against Weili Zhang, at UFC 248.
While she didn’t win the gold on this evening, the clinic she and Zhang put on, one of the greatest bouts we’ll ever see in our lifetime, solidified that not only can Jedrzejczyk still go among the best that 115 has to offer, but that her legacy is locked in, even if she never gets a second UFC title run.