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Women’s MMA 2015 Top 50: #5 – #1

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And here it is. After a countdown of the top 45 women in MMA in 2015, we have reached the top five. Already gone are standouts such as Claudia Gadelha, Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino and Ronda Rousey. Many more didn’t even make the list. Fighters like Cat Zingano, Sarah Kaufman and Jessica Eye all missed out based on their level of achievement in 2015.

If you have not followed the countdown to this point, be sure to check out places 50 to 31 here, spots 30 to 16 here, and the penultimate part with places 15 through six here. The criteria for compiling the list has been simple, only fighter’s 2015 records, level of opposition, and performances have been taken into consideration.

So, without further ado here are my top five women’s MMA fighters of 2015.

5) Rose Namajunas (4-2)
2015 record: 2-0
Most notable win: Paige VanZant (UFC Fight Night 80)
2015 started slowly for Rose Namajunas. After the emotionally and physically draining experience of The Ultimate Fighter 20 in 2014, maybe that was a good thing. Many of the fighters who competed on the show spoke about the toll it took on them as they struggled collectively through the first part of the year. Kept away from the cage until October, it was a struggle that Namajunas was able to avoid.

A proposed bout with Nina Ansaroff at UFC 187 in May fell through just hours before the event began. After failing to make weight, Ansaroff was forced to pull out due to illness. Given Namajunas’ exciting performances on TUF, being robbed of the opportunity to see her fight again was a major disappointment. When she eventually had her “welcome back” moment it would be well worth the wait.

With the pressures of the TUF house’s false environment behind her, and her loss to Carla Esparza for the UFC strawweight title a distant memory, Namajunas returned as not only an upgraded fighter inside the cage, but a more balanced character outside of it.

The signs were there before Namajunas faced fellow TUF 20 alumni Angela Hill in October. Opting to speak out against Ronda Rousey’s DNB speech in August was a brave move. Rousey had never been more famous, the clear poster fighter of the UFC. That didn’t stop Namajunas reminding people that it was better to “be nice and not judge other lifestyles”. In doing so, Namajunas appeared more mature, not only than the fighter we had seen in the TUF 20 house, but more so than Rousey herself.

Namajunas would take less than three minutes to defeat Angela Hill at UFC 192. Her striking looked on point, and her killer submission instincts remained. Seizing on the opportunity to take Hill’s back, Namajunas choked her opponent unconscious to remind people that she was a force to be reckoned with in the strawweight division.

When Joanne Calderwood was forced out of a Fight Pass headliner against Paige VanZant, it was Namajunas who stepped in to fill the void. VanZant was coming to the end of a stellar 2015 with impressive performances posted against Felice Herrig and Alex Chambers. The tough 21-year-old had done enough in those fights to convince many pundits that she could beat Namajunas. UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson had gone one step further, suggesting that VanZant could defeat dominant strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. On this night, against this ever-improving version of Rose Namajunas, VanZant barely stood a chance.

From opening bell to the eventual finish midway through the fifth round, Namajunas out-everythinged VanZant. Sporting a freshly shaved head because “It’s a fight, not a beauty pageant. S**t’s in my way at practice”, Namajunas was physically stronger in the clinch, she found success with every part of her striking arsenal, and she dominated the grappling exchanges. VanZant showed great heart to keep the bout alive, refusing to quit when given the chance by Namajunas — on more than one occasion — to tap and end the beating, but that only prolonged the increasingly one-sided fight.

Eventually VanZant could fight no more, and Namajunas sunk in a rear naked choke in the fifth round that forced her opponent to submit. It put an exclamation point on one of the most complete mixed martial arts performances we had seen from any woman since the UFC began promoting them in 2013. Over the course of 22 and a half minutes everyone watching was forced to reconsider their assessment of both fighters. The revision to Namajunas’ report card was simple. The headline now read, “legitimate threat to any 115 pound fighter on the planet, including the current UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk.”

4) Amanda Nunes (11-4)
2015 record: 2-0
Most notable win: Sara McMann (UFC Fight Night 73)
If there were an award for most improved fighter over the past couple of years it would be hard to overlook Brazilian bantamweight Amanda Nunes. Since losing by decision to Sarah D’Alelio in the Invicta cage in 2013, Nunes has only got better through five impressive performances. Four opponents have lasted less than a round each, and Cat Zingano was on the verge of defeat against Nunes at the back end of 2014 in a fight that may have earned Nunes a title shot.

When 2015 began Nunes was best remembered for that fight at UFC 178, where she stunned Zingano in the first round and came mightily close to forcing a stoppage. Still, many believed that was the product of Zingano’s penchant for starting slowly in fights before turning it on to win in the later rounds, as she did against Nunes. It should have been the moment when fans realised Nunes could hang with the best at 135 pounds. Instead it would take two more exceptional octagon performances to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Brazilian was a significant threat to the rest of the bantamweight division.

In March Nunes faced Shayna Baszler, the most experienced of the Four Horsewomen. Baszler was coming off a defeat to future title challenger Bethe Correia, but had impressed in the first round of that fight by controlling the majority of the action on the mat. She had been defeated, but looked worthy of her place on the UFC roster. In stark contrast, once Nunes was done with her, Baszler looked like a spent force. She was released and has been competing as a pro wrestler since.

The fight lasted less than two minutes. Nunes threw 20 strikes, all but three of them landed. Murderous leg kicks, charged overhand rights, powerful body shots, and sharp two punch combinations. It is seldom that you can call a performance truly flawless, but this was. Nunes’ footwork and shot selection was immaculate, the improvements made training with some of the best women in the world at American Top Team were demonstrable.

That win earned Nunes a tougher test against former title challenger Sara McMann in August. The result was no less spectacular. McMann had only been defeated twice in her career. Once by Ronda Rousey in a fight that had many questioning whether it had been stopped early. Once by Miesha Tate after the judges turned in scorecards that many felt were questionable. McMann had shown significant improvements in her boxing, which combined with her olympic level wrestling meant she was still considered one of the most talented fighters in the division. Nunes would change that perception.

Refusing to be taken down, Nunes outclassed McMann on the feet. Her ability to move in and out of range on display, as she landed 36 strikes in less than three minutes. The 27-year-old hurt McMann with a powerful combination that made her opponent sink to the mat, before continuing to assault her there and eventually securing a tight rear naked choke to finish the fight.

Combine Nunes’ fluid movement with her precise and ferocious striking on the feet, and an ability to avoid being taken down and put on her back, and you have the bones of a great fighter. Throw in the sport’s biggest equaliser, legitimate power, and it becomes clear that Amanda Nunes is an exceptional one. Forget rankings and the win/loss records that determine where fighters place in them. Nunes is right up there with Ronda Rousey as the most dangerous and unique threat in the 135 pound division.

3) Miesha Tate (17-5)
2015 record: 2-0
Most notable win: Sara McMann (UFC 183)
Miesha Tate’s year can be split in two. Inside the cage she performed incredibly well, improving her win streak to four and doing so against a stiffer level of competition than most of those around her. Outside of it, lets just say things didn’t exactly go to plan.

After suffering her second defeat to Ronda Rousey in December 2013, Tate had rebounded with back to back wins over Liz Carmouche and Rin Nakai in 2014. Her performances were good, her level of competition reasonable, but outside of Tate’s massive, dedicated fanbase, nobody was campaigning for her to get another shot at the women’s bantamweight title. Long before 2015 was done, nearly everyone would be.

Tate opened up her year in January at UFC 183 by beating Sara McMann. At the time, the Olympic medallist’s only career defeat was to Ronda Rousey. McMann’s performance through the first half of the fight confirmed that she remained an elite bantamweight. Tate was being out struck on the feet, and had found no success when the two hit the mat. Yet Tate refused to be beaten and came on strong when it mattered. A flurry late in round two forced McMann’s hand. Tate was taken down but in the process she grabbed a guillotine that saw two of the judges give her the round. With it all to play for in the third, Tate dominated to secure her most impressive win since defeating Marloes Coenen for the Strikeforce title in 2011.

Now she was right back into title contention, and that was a point confirmed by UFC President Dana White before Tate fought Jessica Eye in July. The winner of their bout would be next in line to face Ronda Rousey for the women’s bantamweight title. It sounded official, after all it was coming from the mouth of the man in charge. After Tate won, impressively, White confirmed it again. Miesha Tate would be the next challenger for the bantamweight title.

Except she wouldn’t. Less than one month later, Rousey had appeared on Good Morning America to announce that she would be fighting Holly Holm. We still don’t know why White was so quick to tell the world that Tate vs Eye would produce the next title challenger. Perhaps he was trying to add a little heat onto a fight that didn’t really need it. Maybe they were convinced Eye would win anyway. It is also possible that White genuinely believed what he was saying at the time, that they could, and would, book Ronda Rousey against Miesha Tate or Jessica Eye next. After all Rousey, moreso than any other fighter in the UFC, gets a say on who she gets to fight too.

It was an ill-advised move that created a huge backlash. Tate’s fanbase — larger than that of any other woman in the UFC not named Rousey — were outraged, and let it be known loud and clear. Tate herself was left disappointed and confused. There was even talk of retirement, as Tate turned down a bout with Amanda Nunes on UFC Fight Pass.

When White was asked about his thoughts on Tate’s comments, that she had to consider whether she still had a place in the sport, the UFC President was dismissive. White told the assembled media that he hadn’t spoken to Tate, but when fighters start talking about retirement it’s usually a good idea for them to do so. The relationship between fighter and promoter had clearly become fractious.

Tate’s path through 2016 is unclear. Her talent is not in question, nor is her heart and desire to be the best. Against top competition in 2015 she refused to accept defeat even when the early going in both of her fights suggested it was on the cards. A title fight against Holly Holm would appease Tate and her fans, but the big money bout remains a rematch between Holm and Rousey for the bantamweight title

Her refusal to accept defeat is mirrored by Tate’s refusal to accept being second best in her division. What happens in 2016 remains impossible to predict.

2) Joanna Jedrzejczyk (11-0)
2015 record: 3-0
Most notable win: Carla Esparza (UFC 185)
In 2015 we witnessed the emergence of one of the most exciting new champions the UFC have promoted in years. Three times Polish strawweight Joanna Jedrzejczyk entered the octagon in 2015. Twice she wowed fans with her own brand of destructive violence. Once she impressed in a very different way, adding a new layer to her reign as champion.

In March Jedrzejczyk faced Carla Esparza for the UFC strawweight championship. The bout served as the co-main event at UFC 185, sitting underneath the Anthony Pettis vs Rafael dos Anjos lightweight title fight. Given how the fight would play out, it is incredible to think now that Jedrzejczyk was the marginal betting underdog that night, but she was.

Esparza had turned Invicta strawweight gold into a UFC title when she worked her way through The Ultimate Fighter 20’s strawweight tournament. She was now considered the number one at 115 pounds. Conversely, Jedrzejczyk had been lucky in many people’s eyes to be awarded the decision in her previous bout against Claudia Gadelha.

Once it became clear in the early going that Esparza was unable to take Jedrzejczyk down, the fight was over. Forced to stand with a six-time Muay Thai world champion, Esparza had no answer for her opponents range and power. It made for uncomfortable viewing as Joe Rogan referred to Esparza as a sitting duck. She was.

Esparza landed six strikes in the entirety of the almost two-round bout. Jedrzejczyk landed 55. With less then a minute left in the second round Esparza was taking a relentless pounding and the bout was stopped. We had a new champion, and she was one with a swagger.

One performance so dominant that it had fans all over social media suggesting already that Jedrzejczyk was unbeatable and would smash everyone put in front of her in quick-time. Her contentious decision win over Claudia Gadelha was wiped from the minds of those who saw it. Nobody had a hope of defeating Jedrzejczyk, so they said.

That was certainly the feeling ahead of the champion’s first defense against Jessica Penne in Berlin in June. The former Invicta atomweight champion was courageous, but that can only get you so far. Jedrzejczyk was already getting the better of things when a fight altering elbow crushed the challenger’s nose in round two. That only motivated Jedrzejczyk to pick up the pace, pouring it on with relentless force. Eventually late in the third round the fight was stopped. Jedrzejczyk was outstanding. Penne was a bloody mess.

That victory capped a run of five wins in little more than twelve months for the fighter now referred to as either Joanna Champion or Joanna Violence, as much for who she was as the difficulty in spelling and pronouncing her surname. An extended break seemed likely, and hand surgery meant a short-term one was mandatory.

However the UFC were keen to serve up their most thrilling champion as the supporting feature on the next Ronda Rousey headlined pay-per-view. When that was bought forward to November in Melbourne, Jedrzejczyk came along for the ride. Valerie Letourneau was the most suitable of the available options, and the fight was made for UFC 193.

Letourneau had come down from bantamweight and was a big, physically imposing fighter who had displayed genuine toughness in her three previous UFC wins. More than that though, Letourneau was a skilled striker not afraid to stand and trade with anyone. It was a very different challenge to that which Jedrezjczyk had faced in previous championship fights, but it was one she would prove capable of handling.

Over five gruelling rounds Jedrzejczyk landed 227 strikes to Letourneau’s 120. Jedrzejczyk’s mark of 220 significant strikes landed was the most ever in a UFC championship fight. Not bad for a fighter who broke their hand early in the fight.

Ahead of her bout with Letourneau we knew Jedrzejczyk was an overwhelming striker, capable of throwing big volume in short frames. Her striking had been cutting and destructive, the way she broke Esparza and Penne left visceral images. But this showed us more about the champion. Pushed hard by Letourneau, who for short periods was able to match her on the feet, Jedrzejczyk proved that she could extend her barrage over twenty-five minutes and deal with a much more physically imposing threat than her two previous, smaller, opponents.

The next question to be answered comes in the form of ferocious Brazilian warrior Claudia Gadelha. When people talk about Jedrzejczyk being head and shoulders above the rest of her division, it is Gadelha’s name that they are reminded of to reel the hyperbole back in. Their fight in December 2014 was a classic, and their inevitable rematch in 2016 should be considered one of the most mouthwatering prospects of the coming year.

1) Holly Holm (10-0)
2015 record: 3-0
Most notable win: Ronda Rousey (UFC 193)
The emergence of Albuquerque’s Holly Holm as the new Queen of women’s MMA has been the story with the most enthralling conclusion in 2015. At the turn of the year, Holm had not yet set foot inside a UFC cage. Halfway through November she had done the unthinkable and become the new UFC women’s bantamweight champion.

Holm made her debut at UFC 184 in February. With Ronda Rousey defending her title against Cat Zingano in the main event, Holm had been hyped as a future challenger for Rousey’s belt. She bought with her a boxing career that had seen her win multiple world titles, and sported a 7-0 MMA record which included six finishes. When Holm faced Raquel Pennington fans were expecting a head kick knockout. They were disappointed.

Holm was tentative on the feet and struggled in the clinch. At no point during the three rounds was the fight exciting. Holm marginally outlanded her opponent and avoided Pennington’s takedown attempts to be awarded the decision by two of the three judges. Fans who had not seen Holm fight before had been told she could be a significant threat to Rousey’s reign as champion. After witnessing this performance those fans were left confused.

By the time Holm faced Marion Reneau in July the hype had significantly cooled. Holm remained the favorite, but unlike the Pennington fight, there were pundits out there backing Reneau to beat her.

Holm’s performance was markedly improved, at times masterful. Over three rounds she controlled distance, landed strikes, and circled out of range effortlessly. Reneau, who had impressed with two outstanding performances against Alexis Dufresne and Jessica Andrade, was made to look like a fighter out of her depth. Holm’s pointscoring style might not have been to everyone’s taste, but it was effective and her opponent had no answer for it. Holm won by unanimous decision.

It was that style, the one fans had struggled to enjoy, that distorted the perception of Holm as a threat at the top level. After all, if Holm could only edge past Pennington, and she couldn’t finish Marion Reneau, how could she possibly compete with Ronda Rousey who was finishing opponents in seconds? In truth, it was that style which gave her the greatest chance of any previous Rousey opponent.

A championship bout with Rousey was scheduled, initially for UFC 195 in January, then bought forward to UFC 193 in November. Rousey was understandably the overwhelming favorite. She had not only been beating the best fighters in the world, but she had been dispatching them in the most unbelievable ways. Alexis Davis, Cat Zingano and Bethe Correia had all been defeated in seconds rather than minutes.

Ronda Rousey had been making top fighters look terrible throughout her career. In that Melbourne cage on November 15, it would be Holm’s turn to do the same to Rousey.

For as long as the fight lasted, Holm outmaneuvred and outlanded Rousey. When she did wind up in the clinch she remained strong and refused to wilt. When they hit the mat, Holm was able to escape before Rousey could lock in her infamous armbar. Even on the one occasion Rousey was able to land with power and stagger Holm, the challenger remained calm and took Rousey down before standing back up out of the takedown.

Rousey was anything but calm. The defending champion’s chase became more desperate as the fight went on. The more she was unable to get a hold of the challenger, the more she was getting hit. Her effort never waned, but her pace around the cage slowed. Facing someone who had vastly superior footwork to begin with, losing a step only made things worse.

Then, early in the second round, it was over. By that point Rousey was stumbling around and eating punches. As she staggered back to her feet Holm threw a perfect left high kick that connected with Rousey’s jaw. It was a paradigm-shifting moment for women’s MMA. Inconsequential punches followed on the canvas before referee Herb Dean could stop the action. Holly Holm had beaten the unbeatable champion. The biggest star in the sport had been beaten up for six minutes and then mercifully put out of her growing misery.

That is what puts Holm, and not Jedrzejczyk, at the top of this list. At the start of 2015 Joanna Jedrzejczyk had already beaten the best fighter in her division. She may have gone in as a marginal underdog against Carla Esparza, but, her winning there and then defending the title twice more in the year, while impressive, was imaginable.

Holly Holm had yet to make her UFC debut when 2015 began. To even consider that 11 months later she would have completed the perfect year by defeating Ronda Rousey? That was way beyond belief. Rousey’s star had never shone brighter than it did through two thirds of 2015, and Holm snubbed it out in less than six in-cage minutes in Melbourne. That is an achievement that is not only unmatched in 2015, but may not be matched in women’s MMA again.

 

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Ovince Saint Preux Steps in to Face Corey Anderson at UFC 217

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UFC 217 just got even more interesting. Earlier this week, Patrick Cummins pulled out of his light heavyweight matchup with Corey Anderson due to a Staph infection. Corey “Overtime” Anderson was not happy with his opponents decision, even calling out his opponent on Instagram asking how Cummins could, “call it quits so far from fight night”.

The UFC left Anderson on the card, and he found an opponent through the magic of Twitter. Ovince Saint Preux tweeted out directly to Anderson stating:

It didn’t take long for Anderson to respond agreeing to the fight, tagging Mick Maynard and Dana White in his response.

Only a few short hours later, the fight announcement came from the official UFC twitter account.

 

This top 10 Light Heavyweight matchup should add to an already amazing card coming in November at Madison Square Garden. Saint Preux is coming off of back to back wins both due to the very rare von flue choke, he finds himself ranked #7th in the latest edition of the 205-pound rankings. Corey “Overtime” Anderson is 4-2 in his last 6 fights, but is coming off a brutal first round knockout loss to Jimi Manuwa in March.

With such a exciting fight added to this card, what do you see happening November 4th?  Will Corey Anderson bounce back and look to jump into the top 5 of the rankings, or will Ovince Saint Preux go for a third straight von flue choke? Let us know.

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*Watch* Bellator 185 Weigh in: Live Stream, Results

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Watch the live weigh-ins for Bellator 185 here.

Gegard Mousasi takes on Alexander Slemenko live this Friday night October 20th at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville CT. This is the first appearance for Mousasi in the Bellator cage as he looks to secure a title shot with a win over the very tough former Bellator champion Slemenko. Joining these men of the main card will be a pair of welterweights as Neiman Gracie from the famous Gracie BJJ family takes on Zak Bucia in the co-main event.

Full Weigh-in Results: (Updated in real time)

Main Card:

Gegard Mousasi (185) vs. Alexander Shlemenko (186)
Neiman Gracie (170.5) vs. Zak Bucia (170)
Heather Hardy (126) vs. Kristina Williams (126)
Ryan Quinn (155.5) vs. Marcus Surin (155)
Ana Julaton (125.5) vs. Lisa Blaine (122)

Preliminary Card:

Jordan Young (200) vs. Alec Hooben (194)
Costello van Steenis (185) vs. Steve Skrzat (186)
Vinicius de Jesus (170) vs. Joaquin Buckley (171)
John Beneduce (154.5) vs. Dean Hancock (155)
Timothy Wheeler (144) vs. Pete Rogers (144)
Don Shainis (150) vs. Matthew Denning (149)
Frank Sforza (149) vs. Vovka Clay (150)
Kevin Carrier (156) vs. Jose Antonio Perez (153)
John Lopez (126) vs. Billy Giovanella (125)

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Bellator 185 Fight to Watch: Heather Hardy vs. Kristina Williams

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Heather Hardy will compete in MMA for the second time at Bellator 185 on Friday night, as she faces Kristina Williams in a strawweight contest. The fight takes place on the main card at the Mohican Sun Arena in Connecticut.

Potentially, what Bellator have in Heather ‘The Heat’ Hardy is a major draw that they can build their 125 pound division around. While relatively new to the organisation she is fast becoming one of the more popular names on the roster. Her career is in the early stages, but many have already started to draw comparisons with former boxer turned MMA star, Holly Holm. Holm’s UFC success partly inspired the native New Yorker to make the switch from boxing.

Hardy is already an established world champion in the land of the ‘sweet science’, holding a 21 fight undefeated professional record. She made her MMA debut in June this year with a victory over Alice Yauger, at Bellator 180. At 35, Hardy is a late starter in the sport, but proved at Madison Square Garden against the credible Yauger that she has a bright future.

Hardy’s first outing in the cage was disciplined and composed. Despite a slow start in round one, Hardy grew in confidence as the fight progressed and her cardio never faltered. She mixed in plenty of kicks that complimented her boxing and looked at ease in the clinch, even defending a couple of takedown attempts in the process.

Despite looking on course for a decision win, Hardy forced the TKO stoppage with just thirteen seconds remaining in round three. Even a large cut that required seven stitches from an accidental head clash could not deny her victory.

Hardy was fighting an experienced professional, competing for the tenth time in MMA, which makes the win over Yauger more impressive. However, her upcoming opponent Kristina Williams will be making her professional debut.

There is little known about Williams except that she is 3-0 at amateur level. One of those wins came by way of submission so there may well be a threat to Hardy if the fight goes to the ground. More importantly for Williams is how she copes on the big stage against a popular opponent, who is more familiar competing in high pressure combat situations. If Williams can produce an upset it will be a huge boost in her young career.

But in all honesty, this fight is about Hardy. It’s about getting the win and gaining valuable experience. The boxing career is on hold while MMA takes centre stage. Beating Williams will mean she likely continues fighting inside a cage rather than a boxing ring.

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