After UFC President Dana White announced his intention to add a female 115-pound division within the next year, it’s safe to say that the UFC’s experiment with women’s MMA has been a major success to this point.

From Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate to rising stars like Cat Zingano and Alexis Davis, the entire UFC women’s roster has taken off over the past year, and after seeing how popular its newest division has become in so little time, the UFC is looking to build on that success. Enter the strawweights.

It may have come as a bit of a surprise to MMA fans when White announced that the promotion was looking to add a 115-pound weight class and skip over the 125- and 145-pound divisions. In hindsight, however, it’s a move that makes a ton of sense for the UFC. With the bantamweight division already in place, it gives top flyweight and featherweight fighters the option to move up or down in weight in order to compete inside the Octagon. By adding the 115-pound weight class, the organization provides the same opportunities for fighters both north and south of the strawweight limit.

Of course, as convenient as the weight class will be for the UFC, it wouldn’t matter in the slightest if the strawweights didn’t have a ton of talent to help build a UFC division from scratch. As it turns out, there’s more than enough firepower for the promotion to churn out a solid foundation of contenders for its newest addition. Although Invicta FC currently employs most of the major talent in women’s MMA, it doesn’t look like acquiring that talent is going to be a major issue for Zuffa. Invicta President Shannon Knapp has been great about allowing her fighters to pursue greener pastures in the form of the UFC, and after she gave the promotion’s addition of a strawweight division a glowing endorsement earlier this month, it would be a bit surprising if she made it difficult for her fighters to leave in order to compete on the biggest stage available.

With getting a hold of talent likely a minor concern, the next step for the UFC is to figure out how to crown the first queen of the Octagon’s 115-pound division. Unlike the women’s bantamweight division, of which Ronda Rousey had firm control over before Zuffa decided to integrate her weight class, there’s no dominant force in the women’s strawweight division. Former Bellator veteran Jessica Aguilar seems to be the consensus top fighter, and her wins over current Invicta champion Carla Esparza and legend Megumi Fujii give credence to that claim, but “Jag’s” dominance isn’t such that the UFC would be forced to immediately hand her the title. Plus, she just recently signed with the World Series of Fighting and may be the one top talent that proves most difficult for the UFC to sign.

With that in mind, it seems more likely that the UFC would opt to create a small tournament, much like it did with its flyweight division last year, in order to crown a champion. Even if a tournament isn’t meant to be, it seems to make the most sense, so for the sake of the next few paragraphs, let’s roll with it.

Assuming that the UFC is reluctant to set up a tournament with more than four competitors (and while I’d love to see it, injuries and scheduling would likely make any more than four a disaster), there are plenty of options to fill out the division’s initial title contender lineup. Aguilar, assuming the UFC can secure her services, is the obvious choice, but the other three spots are likely up for grabs between a handful of women, and the ones selected will have a big advantage over their counterparts due to the exposure that the tournament will afford them.

After Aguilar, the next spot is likely to go to the winner of next month’s Invicta title fight between Esparza and undefeated Nova Uniao product Claudia Gadelha. Esparza has been impressive since a split decision loss to Aguilar in 2011. She has gone 4-0 since, with wins over popular fighters Felice Herrig and Bec Hyatt. But Gadelha is a high-caliber fighter who could easily knock off the champ the same way she has everyone else. The winner of that fight will very likely be sitting right behind Aguilar in the strawweight rankings and would be an easy selection for a spot in such a tournament.

With the two top fighters in the division already locked down, the promotion could easily take a few liberties with the other competitors in the tournament. Fan-favorite Felice Herrig would be the obvious choice for the third spot. A former professional kickboxer, Herrig has overcome a rough 5-4 start to her career and won her past four fights spanning across the XFC and Bellator promotions. To go along with her impressive resurgence, Herrig has a strong fan base and a personality that could provide star potential. Provided she can win her Invicta bout next month, her five-fight winning streak would give her the resume to be included, and the UFC could easily jump on the opportunity.

The fourth and final spot in the tournament could go to the loser of the Esparza and Gadelha fight, but the UFC should opt to take a different route and showcase a European fighter in that spot. Joanne Calderwood has started off her MMA career with a 7-0 record, and if the Scot is successful, she could provide a fever for women’s MMA overseas to rival the strong following in the United States. A handful of combined bouts in Invicta and Cage Warriors proved she’s ready to compete on the big stage, and it would be a fun underdog story if she can pull off a few upsets and win the entire thing.

As easy as it is to get excited about the UFC adding a 115-pound division (obviously I’m on board, I just spent 400 words creating a hypothetical tournament), it’s tough to imagine a future with women’s MMA thriving in the UFC where Invicta doesn’t take a hit because of it. That’s a little hard to swallow. Outside of the 135-pound weight class, Invicta has been the premier source for female MMA over the last year. Yet, with the UFC likely going after its talent in the strawweight division, there has to be some cause for concern.

If the UFC adding strawweights meant only losing fighters like Esparza and Herrig, Invicta would be fine. The promotion still would have the majority of the top talent in the women’s side of the sport, and while the UFC is likely only going to keep expanding, Invicta could keep its foothold on the talent for the next few years. However, with the strawweights falling right in between two of Invicta’s most promising weight classes, the promotion could end up losing more than just a few strawweights.

What if atomweight champion Michelle Waterson, who has fought at 115 in the past, decides she would accept a weight disadvantage and fight at 115 in order to step into the Octagon? What if flyweight champion Barb Honchak decides to try to shed 10 pounds and go after a UFC belt? The addition of the UFC’s strawweight division is only creating more questions for a growing Invicta promotion, and it may be over a year before we truly realize the impact of the new UFC division.

However, Knapp’s statement about the UFC’s new division shows a lot of promise towards the future of Invicta FC. The Invicta leader makes it clear in an interview with Bloody Elbow that she understands what her promotion needs to do to survive.

“I plan to give them a home where new strawweight competitors can be built up. This doesn’t mean the end of anything. Honestly, this is just the beginning,” Knapp stated.

It’s the right outlook from an organization that knows where it stands on the MMA hierarchy. Invicta has nothing to gain by trying to go to war with the UFC over talent, so why should Knapp butt heads with the inevitable fighters that will want to leave her organization to head to the Octagon? It’s the stance that Knapp has taken from the beginning, and it’s led to a solid working agreement with Zuffa. By allowing her organization to transition into somewhat of a feeder league for the UFC, Knapp is proving that she truly does have the best interests of the female fighters at heart by allowing her fighters to reach the pinnacle of the sport.

The growth of women’s MMA is the most important thing for all parties involved at this point, and as a result, the UFC’s addition of a strawweight division feels like one of the rare situations where everyone wins. The UFC gets to add a second women’s division to its quickly expanding roster, and Invicta becomes the premier stomping grounds for any female fighter looking to step into the Octagon. It sounds like a match made in heaven, and hopefully it is. There’s no denying that these two organizations hold the future of women’s MMA in their hands, and how well they work together may eventually determine how far the sport can go.

Photo: Carla Esparza (top) battles Bec Hyatt (Jerry Chavez/The MMA Corner)

About The Author

Vince Carey
Staff Writer

Vince Carey has been writing about the sport of mixed martial arts since 2010. Although he is just 21 years old, the Omaha-based writer is looking to provide readers with interesting content on all things related to MMA.