The UFC 201 co-main event was supposed to be the Rose Namajunas show. Supposed to be...
The 24-year-old has been one of the most intriguing fighters at 115 pounds since her flying armbar submission of Kathina Catron at Invicta FC 5 in 2013. In 2015, however, she established herself as one of the division's best by running through the competition on The Ultimate Fighter season 20. The UFC felt it had a star on its hands and gave her a massive push exiting the season, which lasted even after her loss to Carla Esparza in the finale.
That's not a bad idea, of course. Unlike so many other young fighters the UFC has hitched its wagon to, however, Namajunas has been able to maintain her success after the initial hubbub. She has cemented her place at the top of the division with wins over Angela Hill, Paige VanZant and Tecia Torres. It's easy to get excited about both her present and her future, and that has cast a shadow over nearly every opponent she has faced to date.
Enter Karolina Kowalkiewicz.
The Polish striker made her way into the UFC after a strong run in KSW and posted wins in her first two UFC fights over Randa Markos and Heather Jo Clark. The UFC has put minimal effort into promoting her, but she owns a legitimate, formidable skill set and and longstanding respect among longtime women's MMA observers. When the announcement came that Kowalkiewicz was Namajunas' next opponent, many casual fans viewed this as a tune-up fight for the more-popular fighter. In reality, however, this was anything but easy, and when Kowalkiewicz's time in the spotlight came, she made the most of it.
The first round featured very little output from either woman, but the quickness and athleticism on display kept things intense and intriguing. There was little in the way of damaging strikes, with the action largely staying at range with neither fighter taking any serious risk. The round likely came down final 30 seconds, which saw Kowalkiewicz land a series of knees with Namajunas countering with a takedown just before the horn.
The second round got off to a much faster start. Kowalkiewicz picked up right where she left off in the first, working Namajunas in close with knees and short elbows. Namajunas worked for trips and throws but couldn't get comfortable at any poit due to Kowalkiewicz's clinch striking. Eventually, they returned to range but Kowalkiewicz began taking control.
By the third, Kowalkiewicz's body-heavy striking was taking its toll on Namajunas, who looked slower and less explosive than she had early. That resulted in a chase-filled final frame with Kowalkiewicz pressing forward on a back-pedaling Namajunas. Eventually, Kowalkiewicz nailed a takedown and had Namajunas on her back. While Namajunas hunted for submissions, the Pole defended ably and scored a few minutes in dominant position while landing ground-and-pound.
While the majority of pundits scored the fight in Kowalkiewicz's favor, there was a fair bit of suspense when it came to the decision. The first round was fairly clearly Namajunas' because of her late takedown, and the third was decisively Kowalkiewicz's because of a long stretch of top position. The second, however, had some wondering if the judges would favor Namajunas' control of the center of the cage or Kowalkiewicz's greater output.
In the end, the score cards broke in favor of Kowalkiewicz to the tune of a 29-28, 28-29, 29-28 split decision.
The win is huge for Kowalkiewicz. Despite being regarded as a top-10 name all the way back to her days in Poland's KSW promotion, fans have largely overlooked Kowalkiewicz. An impressive win over a fairly big name in Namajunas should turn some heads.
Namajunas, on the other hand, walks away with yet another setback that feels more like a speed bump. Despite owning three losses from current top-10 fighters, the UFC has put no effort into promoting anyone in its strawweight division outside Namajunas, VanZant and its champion, Joanna Jedrzejczyk. With wins over VanZant and Torres in her pocket, Namajunas remains just two or three wins away from a title shot.
Whether or not Kowalkiewicz will get her opportunity, however, is an open question.
While the fight was pegged as a top contender's bout, that likely hinged on a Namajunas win. With Kowalkiewicz lacking name value, there is a real chance she gets passed over for fan favorite and Great Scottish Hope Joanne Calderwood.
The immediate future is unsure for both women, but there is a great deal to look forward to in both the short-term, and the long term.