In the end, it was the takedown that won the strawweight championship for Carla Esparza, and it was the inability to stop it that cost Bec Hyatt. The Invicta FC 4 main event was a battle of positioning, and the Australian Hyatt spent far too much time down under Esparza, instead of in the standing position where she proved to have a sizable advantage.
Esparza, a Californian who was a two-time All-American while wrestling in college, buried Hyatt in the mat repeatedly, and usually within seconds of Hyatt creating any type of momentum with her strikes.
To her credit, Hyatt lived up to her "Rowdy" moniker by refusing to wilt, finding her way back to her feet repeatedly and taking the standing action to Esparza. But Esparza, who goes by the decidedly benign nickname "Cookie Monster," wouldn't be denied. The repeated takedowns and occasional ground strikes led to a trio of 50-45 scorecards, and the sweep put the gold around Esparza's waist.
"It feels amazing," she said afterward. "Such a hard-fought victory. Bec was so tough but I feel amazing."
Esparza (9-2) admitted that she expected the fight to be easier than it was. Hyatt took the bout on about one week of notice after Esparza's original opponent withdrew due to a broken nose. Hyatt went into the fight believing she could stuff enough takedowns to make the fight competitive, or threaten with submissions. Neither prediction quite came true, though the final scores weren't indicative of the true competition level.
As late as the final seconds of the match, Hyatt was still challenging, knocking Esparza to the mat with a right hand and following up with ground strikes as the closing horn sounded.
All of it was enough to make Hyatt (4-2) feel emboldened about a bright future.
"I'm tired and a little disappointed but a lot of people said I wouldn't make it through the first round," she said. "You better believe the hype. I just went five rounds with the No. 4 [fighter] in the world. Believe it, because I'm coming back to get that belt."
The co-main event featured the night's most exciting bout, as the second of two grudge fights on the card delivered. The bout was a rematch of a 2010 bout between Shayna Baszler and Alexis Davis which Baszler won by decision. This time around, it was Davis getting her revenge, scoring a third-round finish with a rear naked choke submission.
The end came 58 seconds into the round, after Davis took advantage of a scramble to take Baszler's back. She quickly sunk in the choke and Baszler refused to tap, eventually falling unconscious before the referee stopped the bout.
Just seconds earlier, Baszler had drawn Davis' blood with a standing strike, and Davis' nose was leaking on the mat as she finished the choke.
"We're both different fighters," Davis said afterward. "That [first fight] was years ago. Fighters grow so much over the years I knew it wasn't going to be the same fight."
Davis, who scored the only finish on the main card, has now won four of her last five to improve to 12-5.
Leslie Smith and Raquel Pennington were the other fighters to take a rivalry into the cage. The duo promised fireworks and they delivered. Smith overcame a rocky first round to take over with her conditioning and pace, overwhelming Pennington in a three-round decision.
The judges scored it for her 29-28, 29-28, 29-28.
Pennington won the first round largely on the strength of a takedown and some ground strikes, and she briefly threatened with a rear naked choke during the period, but when the two came out for the second round, it was clear she was operating at an energy deficit in comparison to her opponent.
Smith never stopped moving forward, accept for the times she stepped back to taunt Pennington and stress her own aggressive. Smith landed several sharp right hands and body kicks, and largely dominated the final two rounds en route to the win.
Sarah D'Alelio figured out the best way to stay away from Amanda Nunes' knockout power is to keep her on her back. Taking Nunes down repeatedly in their three-round bout, D'Alelio cruised to a decision win on a trio of 30-26 scores.
In a featherweight bout, Ediane Gomes pushed her win streak to four straight, taking Hiroko Yamanaka the distance in a unanimous decision.
Gomes' power was the difference, as she unleashed several barrages during the fight that backed up Yamanaka. The Japanese fighter was never in any real trouble but seemed to be affected by it, appearing to be reluctant to step into her punches. She did come on in the third round, but it was too late.
Gomes is now 10-2. It was the second straight loss for Yamanaka, who dropped to 12-3.
Joanne Calderwood opened the main card with a striking clinic, dominating Livia Von Plettenberg in a lopsided unanimous decision by scores of 30-27, 30-27 and 30-26.
Von Plettenberg accepted the fight on short notice after Calderwood's original opponent Hyatt was bumped into the main event. The fight got away from her in the opening seconds and she could never get her offense on track as Calderwood controlled the standup with her reach and mastery of distance.
Calderwood landed an impressive variety of offense, with kicks, punches, even a reverse elbow that was reminiscent of Anderson Silva's knockout of Tony Fryklund during his Cage Rage days. The frequent barrages left Van Plettenberg with bruises, bumps and a hemotoma on her forehead, as well as her first pro loss.
The undercard featured strong action, including a first-round knockout from Veronica Rothenhausler in her professional debut. Rothenhausler had competed three times as an amateur, with three first-round KO's, including two straight 5-second finishes.
Moving into the pro ranks, it took a little longer - 72 seconds -- but she closed her bout in style with a one-punch KO of Katalina Malungahu.
In the other undercard fights, Cassie Rodisch beat Stephanie Frausto via TKO, Laura Marcusse-Sanko and Rose Namajunas won submission victories, and Tamikka Brents, Jodie Esquibel and Tecia Torres captured decisions.