The 115-pound division is one of most exciting division’s in the sport– regardless of gender.
The division is championed by Weili Zhang, who in less than two years into her UFC career has become a superstar. China’s Zhang, the owner of a massive 21-fight win streak, most recently competed at UFC 248– defeating former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk by split decision in an instant classic fight to successfully defend her title for the first time.
Sitting behind the champion in the top five is a mix of elite martial artist– former champions and specialists alike. We’ve got powerful brawlers like Jessica Andrade, striking purists such as the aforementioned Jedrzejczyk, wrestling ace’s like Tatiana Suarez and dangerous, well-rounded stars like Rose Namajunas.
Beyond the division’s top five, the excitement doesn’t stop. Veteran contenders like the inaugural champ Carla Esparza, fan favorite Michelle Waterson, and former title challenger Claudia Gadelha are still factors inside the top ten– defending thier spots as a new wave of talent surges.
Here are four up-and-coming strawweight stars in the UFC that have the potential to become climb the ranks and one day challenge for the title.
AMANDA RIBAS (9-1-0)
SUMMARY: Three fights in the UFC and three dominant wins for the 26-year-old Brazilian. You’d be forgiven if you forgot completely that her UFC career was delayed by two years– she signed with the promotion in 2017 but didn’t make her debut until 2019 due to an USADA suspension– one that was eventually terminated, clearing her name of any wrongdoing. Now with that in the past and a spot in the top fifteen, Ribas is primed to continue climbing the ranks.
WHAT MAKES HER SPECIAL: A well-rounded attack and an infectious personality. Ribas trains at American Top Team alongside some of the sports best and is showing improvements each time out. She is a well-rounded fighter with a very balanced record– three wins by KO/TKO, three by submission, three by decision. In the striking department, she is an aggressive yet defensive fighter on the feet (74% striking defense rate) who throws powerful and effective combinations– often mixing shots to the head and body. She is rarely out of position on the feet and has a great setup for a powerful spinning back heel kick– one that she lands consistently. On the ground, Ribas has particularly good BJJ. She threatens from the bottom and top with submissions, establishes good positions for ground-and-pound, and maintains strong top pressure. Lastly, while an infectious personality doesn’t win fights– it sure helps with the marketing and business side of fighting.
OUTLOOK: Ribas has fought talented grapplers in the UFC so far– a legnthy wrestler in Emily Whitmire, a BJJ ace in Mackenzie Dern, and an experienced MMA wrestler in Randa Markos. She has yet to face someone with a heavy striking attack. The sole loss on her record comes by way of KO/TKO to Polyana Viana prior to entering the UFC– it will be a solid test to see how Ribas handles a striker, especially since the top ten is comprised of several skilled stand-up artists.
MARINA RODRIGUEZ (12-0-2)
SUMMARY: After earning a contract on the Contender Series: Brazil in 2018, Rodriguez had a fairly quick rise into the rankings. Her first three fights came against recognizable names with more experience than her: Randa Markos, Jessica Aguilar, and Tecia Torres. She has finished half of her career wins; five by way of KO/TKO, one by way of submission, and six by decision. She has yet to be defeated but has fought to a draw twice– a rarity in the sport.
WHAT MAKES HER SPECIAL: Some serious Muay Thai skills. Rodriguez is a rangy striker who is comfortable in the clinch and does an exceptional job at picking her opponents apart from the outside. While she usually fights in the orthodox stance, she will switch from time to time to set up combos– her frame and style somewhat reminiscent of a young Jędrzejczyk. Rodriguez is an active striker, landing about 5.6 strikes per minute, higher than the UFC average. She mixes in jabs, overhands, teeps, and roundhouse kicks beautifully. She is arguably most dangerous in the clinch– powerful and precisely placed knees and elbows are a consistent factor in her fights.
OUTLOOK: The big question surrounding Marina revolves around her grappling. While is she is sound defensively on the canvas and has been able to survive grappling transitions without getting caught in submissions, talented grapplers like Randa Markos and Cynthia Calvillo have been able to keep her grounded and neutralize her for a round or more. She is scheduled to face Claudia Gadelha at UFC Oklahoma City in May– this is a critical bout for both fighters. Claudia’s high-impact takedown and strong BJJ style will really allow us to see if Marina has made the improvements necessary to avoid a draw and collect a win. Doing so here will find Rodriguez lingering, if not in, the top five.
YAN XIAONAN (12-1-0)
SUMMARY: Like the champion, Yan Xiaonan hails from China. After five straight wins in the UFC, and a 10-fight win streak in total, Yan is the bonafide dark horse in the strawweight division. She most recently scored the biggest win of her career, a UD over former title challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz in February. While she has yet to score a finish in the Octagon, most of her wins have been dominant performances.
WHAT MAKES HER SPECIAL: Heavy volume and high aggression. Yan rarely takes a step back in fights– she often charges forward overwhelming opponents with a barrage of strikes, in fact, she lands about 6.72 strikes per minute. Her background in Sanda provides a look that many opponents don’t seem too familiar with. While we haven’t seen a ton of ground work from Yan in the UFC, we have seen her ability to defend on the ground. In the clinch, she maintains a high pace and mixes in tricky trips and throws to put her opponents off balance, though usually opts to let them back into striking range. Yan also possess a beautiful side kick– one that she often throws to the face and lands consistently, even against skilled strikers.
OUTLOOK: Yan has shown little weakness so far in her UFC career. She has ousted talented strikers like Angela Hill and Karolina Kowalkiewicz over the course of fifteen minutes, maintaining a high level of output but also keeping a sound 63% striking defense rate. However, we have yet to see Yan face a fighter with a grappling heavy attack. She has a 70% takedown defense rate but that hasn’t truly been tested yet– a match-up with a strong grappler should be next for her. Seeing if she is able to defend against consistent takedowns and submission attacks will be telling.
BRIANNA VAN BUREN (9-2-0)
SUMMARY: BVB has only had one fight inside of the Octagon but if her first UFC fight and her Invicta FC career is any indication, she’s got the potential to climb the rankings. After a three year hiatus, Van Buren returned to action in 2018– earning a decision in Invicta over former UFC fighter Jamie Moyle. 2019 was a breakout year for Buren. She won the first-ever Invicta FC Phoenix Series– an eight-women, one-night tournament and thus captured the vacant strawweight championship in the process. Her performance in the tournament sparked interest from the UFC– she debuted in July on short-notice, filling in for Cynthia Calvillo against Livia Souza and winning a fairly dominant unanimous decision.
WHAT MAKES HER SPECIAL: Focus and aggression. Often times we see UFC jitters spoil the debut of a fighter making their UFC debut, however, Van Buren seemed to be in complete control of her emotions in hers. She was unfazed by the big show and was able to handle a skilled opponent and former champ like Souza. Brianna has a strong wrestling base and often shoots well-timed single and double leg takedowns where she establishes heavy top pressure and threatens with submissions– like the two she scored in one night at Phoenix Series 1. On the feet, she’s a southpaw and fights with a rounded boxing attack. She puts together nice combinations, often going body-head-body with wide hooks, backing up her foe.
OUTLOOK: Even though BVB currently rides a six-fight win streak and has looked fantastic in her recent performances, it is hard to gauge where she currently plays into the division. She’s shown a well-rounded game so far and a willingness to engage. Some recent injuries have kept her out of the Octagon, forcing her out of a scheduled bout with Hannah Cifers in January. With some more cage time we’ll have a better understanding of just how high BVB’s ceiling is.
Stats from UFC Stats