DALLAS – Heading into UFC 228 this week, you knew the UFC women’s ranks were about to undergo a significant change. The most common idea seemed to be that Valentina Shevchenko would go through a cruel ritual ceremony with Nicco Montaño to claim the flyweight title, thus at last aligning her destiny with her considerable prowess. The other idea was that whoever emerged out of the Jessica Andrade-Karolina Kowalkiewicz conflict would likely position themselves for a title chance against Rose Namajunas at 115 pounds.
All of this held relatively true.
Montaño did cough up her tenuously held flyweight title, though it was taken from her by the UFC a night earlier than expected. She was stripped, unceremoniously, after a health scare during her weight cut forced her out of the co-main event. Shevchenko’s anointment as the new queenpin at 125 will have to wait, but she’ll be fighting for the vacant title soon — perhaps even against former strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who has flirted with the idea of a division switch.
The real story that emerged in Dallas, though, was that Jedrzejczyk is somewhat expendable at the moment.
That’s because Andrade — along with undefeated mega-prospect Tatiana Suarez, who absolutely annihilated Carla Esparza — both came through with flying colors. Taking advantage of her inherited co-main event status, Andrade charged poor Kowalkiewicz from the opening horn like she was enacting the ballroom blitz. She landed a volley of shots early that seemed to catch the “Polish Princess” by surprise, downing her with a vicious right hand dead to the jaw a couple of minutes in. If there has ever been such a show of that kind of power in a 115-pound frame, we have yet to see it. Kowalkiewicz was out on her feet as she tumbled to the canvas.
Yet as improbable as it might seem, Andrade needed that kind of showing just to trump what the Inland Empire’s Suarez did to former champion Esparza on the last fight of the prelims. Suarez didn’t just bully a cage bully, she made it an exercise in existential vertigo. Esparza is a bulldog in the cage when she uses her wrestling, you say? Then Suarez is the Tyranny of Evil Women. She took Esparza down with relative ease, and began to (quite literally, if temporarily) rearrange her face. Suarez held Esparza in the deep water for 14-and-a-half minutes, pummeling her on the ground the whole way, before being called off with just 27 seconds left.
Even in a conservative scoring state like Texas, scorecards should have been 30-24 across the board if it went to the judge’s. Suarez made damn sure not to leave it in such hands.
If ever there was a fight to declare that she’s the future of the division, this was it. Suarez didn’t just show well; she made the idea of a title at some point feel inevitable. Not only that, but she put the fear of god into the nearest competitor. Is that Namajunas? Not yet. The UFC has plenty of options, but Andrade versus Namajunas should be a top priority. The only reason to book Suarez against Namajunas right now would because the UFC is tired of the “Thug Rose” era. Doubtful it’s gotten to that.
What’s brilliant about the UFC’s strawweight division after Saturday night is that there are not too many wrong answers, even if its chock full of difficult questions. Should the UFC book a bout between Suarez and Jedrzejczyk? Given where the latter has been and where the former is going, that would be a flammable affair. Would Suarez consider fighting Claudia Gadelha in a penultimate test before a title shot? Remember that Suarez was on Team Claudia during her stretch on The Ultimate Fighter. There might be lingering allegiances, but that too would be a hot baton. Should the UFC give Suarez a fringe top-fiver, like Tecia Torres? Only if the UFC matchmakers are Tiny Tornadophobes. Facing Suarez on a two-fight losing streak is cruel and unusual.
In every case, Suarez would likely be the betting favorite. She is no longer a prospect so much as she is a harbinger of change. Whoever the UFC sticks in front of her, that person had best be prepared to stare at the cage lights from their backs for as long as they can last. Suarez doesn’t even try to dupe opposition into thinking she might want to stand and bang; a wrestler her whole life with an instinct for submissions, she wants to take the it all down…the opponent, the rankings, the division. All of it.
Could the UFC go so far as to book Suarez against Andrade if Namajunas isn’t ready to get back in there? This, too, is a ridiculously inviting possibility. Andrade, the pressure-bent gunslinger who fights like she has a roast in the oven that needs tending, against a marauder who is capable of rendering human beings helpless inside of mere seconds?
Can’t go wrong in which way the UFC wants to do it, which is a sign of a very healthy division.