Move Over, Ronda Rousey: Paige VanZant and the Strawweights Are Coming

Patrick Wyman@@Patrick_WymanMMA Senior AnalystSeptember 4, 2015

NEWARK, NJ - APRIL 17:  Paige VanZant steps on the scale during the UFC Fight Night weigh-in event at the Prudential Center on April 17, 2015 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Ronda Rousey is the hottest ticket in MMA and a legitimate pop culture phenomenon. Her reach extends from the lofty, unthreatening heights of Good Morning America to the mainstream pages of a Rolling Stone feature

Unfortunately for her challengers, however, Rousey’s shine has yet to extend to her compatriots in the women’s bantamweight division. No crowd of mainstream fans hangs on Bethe Correia’s every word or waits breathlessly for news of Sara McMann’s next fight. The champion is a one-woman show and the center of attention, not the beginning of a fruitful golden age for 135-pound competitors. Only Miesha Tate has emerged as anything close to a real name.

Rousey’s division is the weakest in a promotion that is currently undergoing a geriatric heavyweight renaissance and whose light heavyweight class features a Top 15 fringed with journeymen. Women’s bantamweight makes those two divisions look like they’re stacked with elite talent from head to toe, and not just because Rousey has run through her challengers with contemptuous ease.

Simply put, Rousey sits atop a division in which almost every potentially viable fighter is both already in the UFC and already well into her career, without a great deal of untapped upside. What you see at women’s bantamweight is more or less what you get; the Invicta FC champion at 135 pounds, Tonya Evinger, is 34 years old and more than nine years into her career. While she has improved since then, Evinger washed out of The Ultimate Fighter 18 in the preliminary round.

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There are a few elite prospects at 135 pounds, next week’s Invicta challenger Pannie Kianzad among them, but not enough to sustain a rapidly aging division. If only Holly Holm had a little more time to prepare, commentators say, she might actually challenge Rousey. Holm will be 34 by the time she fights the champion, with 13 years of combat sports wear and tear under her belt. How much better can she become before her body breaks down for good?

Holm is not the only fighter in the division with an expiration date. Former top contender Sara McMann is 34; Marion Reneau, who recently exploded onto the scene before losing to Holm in July, is 38; Cat Zingano, who challenged Rousey in February, is 33; and even the 29-year-old Miesha Tate is closer to the end of her prime than the beginning. Only three fighters currently ranked in the Top 15—Amanda Nunes, Jessica Andrade and Julianna Pena—are younger than the champion.

With Rousey unlikely to stick around forever, there is no reason to think the division will maintain the marquee status its superstar champion currently provides. On the other hand, the UFC’s other women’s division, strawweight, has much better long-term prospects. No fighter better embodies the division’s future potential than 21-year-old Paige VanZant, already the recipient of a hard media push from the promotion and an individual Reebok deal with only two UFC fights under her belt. 

There is no sense in pretending that VanZant’s looks aren’t a significant part of her appeal, and the combination of her appearance and her social media savvy has earned her more than 300,000 followers on Instagram. But she also happens to be an athletic, durable and talented fighter who has real potential in an increasingly talent-rich division.

While she is nowhere close to ready to challenge champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who is herself a rising star with a fan-friendly style and the potential to become a draw, VanZant does have the necessary upside and talent to eventually do so. At women's bantamweight, VanZant would be the sole hope for the future. At strawweight, the young Californian is only one of a number of legitimate prospects who could rule the roost before the ends of their careers.

By any measure, strawweight is a youthful division. On average, the UFC’s Top 15 is two years younger than bantamweight—28 vs. 30.3—with eight fighters under 30, three under 25 and none older than 33. It’s easy to foresee a future in which VanZant, Maryna Moroz, Rose Namajunas, Tecia Torres and their slightly older compatriots form the core of an exciting division for years to come.

Nor is that youthful talent limited to the UFC. Invicta’s strawweight division is stacked with young, hungry up-and-comers like current champion Livia Renata Souza and future title challenger Alexa Grasso, who offers an inroad into the increasingly important Mexican market. The Brazilian regional scene contains half a dozen undefeated fighters with legitimate future potential, as does Eastern Europe with its deep tradition of female involvement in combat sports.

The 115-pound division already has 31 fighters under contract, six more than women’s bantamweight and only two fewer than flyweight. The readily available reserves of talent in both Invicta and regional promotions around the world will quickly push that number higher, to the point where entertaining and meaningful matchups can be made even outside the division’s elite.

That process won’t happen at women’s bantamweight. With only 25 fighters under contract, many of whom have already fought each other either in the UFC or other promotions, the number of potentially fresh matchups is already exponentially lower. As with men’s heavyweights and light heavyweights, the wellsprings of new talent waiting to be tapped to inject new life into the division simply don’t exist.

Part of the problem at women’s bantamweight is the puddle-deep talent pool, but the fact that so many of its top fighters began their careers later in life doesn’t help. Bethe Correia had her first fight at 28 with no prior background in combat sports, while Holly Holm was 29 and Sara McMann was 30. This gives fighters like Rousey and Miesha Tate, who both started young, enormous head starts in skill development.

Contrast those numbers with elite fighters in other divisions. At lightweight, Rafael dos Anjos began his professional career at 19. Anthony Pettis had his first pro bout on his 20th birthday, while Donald Cerrone would turn 23 a month after his debut. The younger fighters start, the longer they have in their physical prime to learn all of the necessary skills to become an elite fighter before declining athleticism takes too much of a toll.

Strawweight is much closer to the standard pattern of the deep men’s divisions—featherweight, lightweight and welterweight—in that regard. Jedrzejczyk was 24, Claudia Gadelha was 19, Carla Esparza was 22 and VanZant was only 18. Women’s bantamweight more closely resembles heavyweight, where a thinner talent pool provides more opportunities to fighters who don’t fit the usual aging curves.

None of this is to say that the women’s bantamweight division is doomed, but there is no reason to be particularly bullish about either the quality of action it will provide or its potential as a marquee division in the absence of its champion. Moreover, there is little potential for it to be the backbone of the UFC’s business moving forward, especially with Rousey nearly certain to be pursuing other opportunities in the near future.

Strawweight, on the other hand, is only getting better. It includes a boatload of young fighters with exciting styles who are drastically improving, and while there will certainly be growing pains along the way—the Angela Hill-Tecia Torres fight at UFC 188 was brutal—the division can grow into one of the cornerstones of the UFC’s offerings on Fox, Fox Sports 1 and Fight Pass. 

Pay-per-view dominance is a long way off, but Jedrzejczyk might be able to tap into the vein of interest that Rousey has created. VanZant, too, has the potential to become a legitimate star, as do Alexa Grasso and perhaps a few others. If nothing else, the pure action of small but skilled fighters offers inherent appeal, and again, there is no sense in pretending that a segment of fans won't be drawn to attractive and well-marketed fighters. VanZant isn't the only fighter who could receive a Reebok deal, a few appearances on ESPN and a spotlight at a media lunch.

VanZant and her compatriots are coming, and if you have to bet on one of the two women's divisions as a long-term investment, choose strawweight. That's where the action is increasingly to be found now, and that's where it will be in the future.