Cross-posted from a post at Gal's Guide to MMA.
With the recent news that Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos is now officially a free-agent after failing to come to terms with Strikeforce, and may be heading elsewhere, for now, Womens' MMA is finding itself in serious peril of not surviving an eventual Strikeforce/UFC merger. What good is having a women's division in the UFC if you don't have the best in the world after all?
Yet strangely, with recent signings, Strikeforce now has eight of the top ten women at 135 listed in the June Unified Women's Rankings under contract, or at least seven (Hitomi Akano's contract status is unclear). They aren't far away from having an unprecedented monopoly on a single women's division. So it seems like at least matchmaker Sean Shelby cares quite a bit about women's MMA. But it still is going to be a very hard uphill battle to legitimize their top division without the woman undisputedly seen as the best in the world. One thing about that though:
That doesn't mean she actually is.
Most of Cyborg's wins since coming to the United States have been over women who don't even normally fight at 145. Yoko Takahashi and Gina Carano are the only opponents she's had since then that are in fact in her natural weight class. The Girlfight Monster Hitomi Akano certainly is a tough, elite grappler but she's not even a natural 135 lbs. fighter, she's a Flyweight. And her last opponent, Jan Finney, was not only a weight class below Cyborg, she wasn't even very good within that weight class. She has a chin and guts and little else. Why the athletic commissioners sanctioned a bout between Cyborg and an 8-7 Bantamweight is beyond me, and the incredibly brutal mauling that followed was all too predictable. Cyborg may be incredibly dangerous, but if you took Cain Velasquez, Brock Lesnar, JDS, Shane Carwin, or Overeem and had them fight a journeyman off the indies with a hard head and not much else, and added a referee who would not stop the fight until one fighter had multiple broken bones in their face, I suspect the results would be quite similar, and no one thinks any of those guys are outright invincible.
At any rate, it would take quite a bit of effort to give someone enough credibility that they could be considered on the same level as Cyborg, especially at what is by far the thinnest of the 12 significant divisions, Women's 145. After looking at who was available though, I realized it wasn't impossible. Zuffa has traditionally shied away from doing tournaments because in an eight-person tournament, seven of them leave it on a loss. However, there is no surer way to create a credible champion in a division where none exists.
Fantasy match-making is the sort of thing that can be groan inducing to some people since it leads to disagreements about whether a particular match-up is moronic or not. However in Women's 145, the bigger challenge is simply to find enough women to field a tournament who aren't tomato cans. So I came up with a list of 14 women for a hypothetical Eight-Woman Grand Prix with four alternate slots (two of which are play-ins), and it was actually much easier than I thought it would be. Most of them are not under contract to Strikeforce, but none of them should be implausible acquisitions. All of them have good resumes. All of them have fought at 140 or higher. Some of them would be better off at 135--and if they lose early on those people could simply change divisions and keep their credibility--but too my knowledge none of them are natural 125 lbs. fighters like Hitomi Akano or Roxanne Modafferi. And with two play-in fights, all but one of them would be entering on a win (hint: if you can guess which fighter would be entering the main tournament on a loss, then you were probably aware of at least one female MMA fighter before reading this article). After the jump,there's a bio of every hypothetical participant, along with who isn't in the tournament.
First off, I tried to be semi-realistic about who Strikeforce could get. Belgian judoka Cindy Dandois, who had a controversial win over Marloes Coenen in her very first match and has gone 4-1 since then, is pregnant right now, so she's out. The loan woman to have beaten Dandois, surging prospect Yana Kunitskaya, is under contract to M-1 Global and my understanding is there is no way that they would willingly hand her over to Strikeforce exclusively, and more co-promoting with M-1 is a rather irksome prospect considering what Strikeforce has gone through with Fedor. I would also have liked to put 2008 Olympic Bronze Medalist freestyle wrestler Randi Miller on here except that she has zero professional fights to her name, and none scheduled anymore to my knowledge after a debut against Hiroko Yamanaka fell through twice. Being a professional Mixed Martial Artist requires one to professionally fight in MMA fights, and while I have no doubt that it is probably very difficult to find opponents for her due to her wrestling pedigree (just to be clear though, Miller was the one who withdrew against Yamanaka), until she does so, I can't really consider her for any sort of tournament. Also, there is another U.S. Olympic wrestler I would have liked to have included on this list, 2004 Silver Medalist Sara McMann (who apparently had extreme difficulty finding a first opponent herself). While McMann did compete at the same weight as Miller (63 kg or approximately 139 lbs.), and she does have two fights to her credit now, both of which she won in under a minute, she's made it pretty clear she wants to fight at 135. Again, being realistic, if I ran Strikeforce, it's not like I could force her to fight higher than that (and for the record I would hire her for whatever division she wanted to be in).
Also, some people have pointed to Erin Toughill in the comments below, and though she is already mentioned briefly, I should probably make it explicit why she's not listed, even as an alternate. The fact that she has come off as delusional in web rants doesn't exactly help her, but isn't why she's not on here. First off, she cannot make 145. She has, in fact, never made 145. The lightest she has ever weighed in for a fight was in a 148 catchweight fight against Emily Thompson. When Strikeforce was desperate for more challengers for Cyborg, and both Cyborg and Toughill had difficult times getting opponents, she was granted an immediate title shot by Scott Coker, only to pull out weeks before the fight because she felt she could not possibly make weight. When she was later called out by Shana Olsen on one of her web diatribes and on her weight ("put down the fork, put on your running shoes, and meet me in Strikeforce"), she was offered a #1 Contender's match by Scott Coker and she still couldn't agree to it due to not feeling she could make 145. Coker then told her that he was not going to use her in a fight until she made 145 elsewhere. If that's not enough motivation to make weight then I don't know what is. More recently, after a nearly two year layoff, she fought Ashley Sanchez at 160 catchweight apparently so she would not have to cut much if any weight (although she apparently cut some weight anyway since she came in at 161). This leads to the second reason she is not listed below: she is no longer good enough. She hand-picked an opponent to lose and pretty much got schooled. There are more details on that below. At any rate, until Toughill can both come anywhere near 145 again and then win a match she does not belong on a list like this.
As it regards those who are actually in the tournament though, there is by no means any assurance that all of the fighters listed below would be truly obtainable, or would make it through the tournament uninjured. Thus I came up with a list of six alternates. Three of them are coming off losses but are otherwise proven fighters (and all of whom are under contract already), and thus would have to fight there way into the alternate bracket. Being an alternate in this tournament isn't as bad as it sounds though. The winner of the alternate tournament could definitely find themselves in a #1 contender's match following it. I should also mention that I will be using the term "prospect" a lot here, because, well, I could probably count on one hand the number of potentially decent fighters in Women's 145 who have really proven where they belong in the pecking order. Which is all the more reason to have a tournament like this.
Finally, I tried to put this roughly in reverse order of who I thought the best or most qualified participants were, but that's hardly set in stone. So, starting with the alternate list:
If Sarah D'Alelio sounds familiar but you can't quite place her, it's because she was the girl initially selected to face Gina Carano in her comeback match. She actually has a decent resume, with her only loss coming by decision to highly regarded 135 lbs. fighter Julie Kedzie. The only problem: that loss was her most recent fight. Also none of her victories were over anyone well known even to those well-versed in WMMA. Nevertheless she's under contract so I'd give her a chance. She just needs a win first.
Shana "Rock Solid" Olsen was formerly a Top 10 fighter in this division under the Unified Women's Rankings, at one point being the top ranked American female fighter at Women's 145, and she is built just like her nickname. Then she got smacked up hard in her Strikeforce debut by Julia Budd, losing by 2nd round TKO. Then she lost again on the indies. So I'm a little less than sold on her. But she's still on Strikeforce's roster page and I assume she's still under contract, plus she boasts a win over the very tough Yoko Takahashi. So I'd give her a play-in chance.
Dutch fighter Germaine de Randamie certainly has one of the most impressive resumes outside the sport, having gone 48-0 in Muay Thai, getting bored of the sport only because she was so dominant that girls just didn't want to fight her. She was the Cyborg of Muay Thai. However in MMA she's 2-2 and is more potential than she is proven. Coming off a decision loss to Julia Budd, I figured it would probably be best if she got a win before getting into this tournament. And yes I know that most of her fights have been at 135. It's not like she couldn't go back down is she lost.
I really cannot find a lot of information about this product of Alaska's surprisingly active indy scene (I guess there's not a lot else to do in Alaska), although Lauren Taylor evidently did enough to land on Fight Matrix's Top 10, after beating former boxer Willow Bailey to take her spot. From the accounts I can find though, she has a BJJ base and wicked ground strikes, winning all three of her matches by TKO. However, even as an alternate, Taylor seems like too much of a question mark to just throw into a tournament like this. Beating a world class striker like Germaine de Randamie would do a lot to clear up some of those questions though.
Alternate #2) Ashley Sanchez (4-2)
Ashley Sanchez was not supposed to ever be on a list like this. She was not supposed to be relevant. This is because this past April when she came off a three-year hiatus to be Erin Toughill's comeback opponent, she was not supposed to win. Fighting at a catchweight of 160 lbs. presumably so Toughill wouldn't have to cut much if anything, the smaller Ashley Sanchez danced around her with jabs and high kicks, and then severely outworked her in the clinch, and practically clowned her, winning 30-27 on all three score cards. Apparently despite gaining at least 15 lbs. (she used to fight at 135), Sanchez hadn't spent her three years away from MMA eating potato chips. At the end of three rounds against Toughill, she still had cardio to burn against the gassed former #1 female fighter on the planet. I don't know if Toughill has simply deteriorated, but either way it seems the newer generation in the sport have passed her on by. Sanchez, despite the fact she's not exactly a rookie, is one of those people who have passed her on by. 6 weeks later she followed this up with another winning performance at 150 lbs. catchweight. Admittedly, it seems she was doing some resume padding of her own with that fight, but it also seems she's working her way back down to 145. She's an interesting prospect with some beautiful roundhouse kicks and a great clinch game, who looks to be a natural 145 now, and is worthy of an alternate slot.
Alternate #1) Kelly Kobold (17-3-1)
This is the woman who is by far the most established alternate. She has 17 wins. 15 by stoppage, including pounding out Shayna Baszler until she tapped to strikes. Her three losses were to Gina Carano, Julie Kedzie, and Tara Larosa respectively, all of them excellent fighters. So why is she in the alternate bracket? Because those three losses happened all in a row. Then she took 2.5 years off. And only resumed fighting this past April, with a first round armbar over then-undefeated prospect Pipi Taylor. Nevertheless her resume is extremely solid, and if her comeback fight is any indications, she's still a very strong fighter. If she won the imaginary alternate bracket here, she'd definitely be "in the mix" in the new division.
Well, onto the main field fighters. This isn't really in a seeded order, as I don't think I'd do this tournament in a seeded format for the sake of the most marketable match-ups (the winner would still be the winner regardless), but again this is roughly in order of what I considered a mix of perceived legitimacy and potential. If I went with purely who I figured was the most likely to win a tournament like this, it would be the girl I ranked #3, but she doesn't have the resume to justify being put any higher than that.
8) Romy Ruyssen (4-1)
Romy Ruyssen is a former FILA Grappling World Champion out of France, with four wins all coming by first round armbar, and a loan loss to Marloes Coenen. She's definitely a hot, marketable prospect. I do wish I had more background information, but her grappling is certainly very strong.
7) Milena Dudieva (6-1)
After losing her first match, this Russian went on to win her next six in a row, winning the first five by first round stoppages, in the space of under a year, before decisioning well-regarded Bantamweight Sheila Gaff this past December. I wasn't able to find a whole lot of information about this woman, currently ranked #5 in the world in the Women's Unified Rankings. Her base being in judo, Dudieva seems to have little trouble ragdolling her opponents and also straight overpowering them, finishing one fight by ye olde Bulldog Choke. Her striking on the other hand, while enthusiastics, is, um, Leonard Garcia-esque, to put it charitably. She throws wild heymakers that make it seem like her first choice of careers was to be a wind turbine, but with two TKOs and a submission win via punches, she does seem to have power, if not precision. She's not cut like a world class athlete, but neither is Gina Carano. She's an interesting prospect who I think could go pretty far with the right training. And since she is on a hot streak and has at least one notable name on her resume, I would put her in the tournament.
6) Julia Budd (2-1)
Julia Budd first burst onto the MMA scene making her debut against then Top 10 W145 fighter Shana Olsen. Someone with an 0-0 record debuting against what at the time was an undefeated prospect in Olsen seemed like a raw deal. Budd's main claim to fame was that she had a Muay Thai victory over Gina Carano, but as Budd herself showed against Germaine de Randamie, how well you do in Muay Thai doesn't necessarily translate to MMA. And all Olsen had to do here was win, and she was supposed to get a title shot at Cyborg (provided Strikeforce and Cyborg could come to terms). This did not happen. Budd dismantled Olsen, dominating the first round before finishing her off with a TKO in the second. As she was only 1-0 herself at that point, unfortunately for Budd she wasn't allowed to take Olsen's title shot. So she was paired with another Top 10 fighter in Amanda Nunes. This time things did not go so well and she was knocked out in 14 seconds. Nunes is no joke. Nevertheless, Budd is still an excellent striker, who after outpointing the aforementioned de Randamie to victory at Strikeforce Challengers 16, showed she was developing a better all-around game, taking de Randamie down repeatedly and controlling he on the ground. She's still green when it comes to MMA, but she certainly has a lot of potential.
5) Rin Nakai (10-0)
This girl is a lot more well known than most of the people on this list. Part of it may be her (mildly NSFW) blog full of cheesecake photos (one of the hazards of belonging to a Japanese talent agency is that this sort of thing is strongly encouraged for your career, and they will organize it for you). Part of it may be that she has ten straight wins, is built like a tank, and has learned to bob and weave while taking her opponents down at will. See her quickly dismantle Windy Tomomi Sunaba here. There are not many female athletes of her caliber in MMA, so she's definitely been one to watch. The only reason she's not ranked higher is she lacks any signature wins, and at the same time she is all of 5'1" and would probably be better off fighting at 135. If she lost, it's not like she couldn't drop down in weight though. As it is, she's a top flight prospect and highly marketable, and would still be those things even if she lost in the first round. Some may question the quality of her opponents, and they may have a point, but you could take a magnifying glass to most good fighters in any women's division and pick apart their records, particularly at 145. Rin Nakai though is definitely one to watch.
4) Gina Carano (7-1)
You didn't think I'd leave her out did you? She is the star attraction here, much like Fedor was supposed to be in the Heavyweight Grand Prix. Whether she gets very far, I have no idea. Furthermore, I don't really think she could become the next Cyborg, because to become the next Cyborg it helps not to have been violently bludgeoned by the current Cyborg (to be fair, Carano did have full mount at one point, and simply gave it up, allowing for some "what if?" speculation). However, for the champion in this tournament to have credibility, the tournament needs to draw attention, and Carano can do that like no other. Plus she's better than at least half the main field, in my opinion. Whether or not people think Cyborg "exposed" Carano, she's still one very dangerous girl, and more than just a bombshell with a pretty face.
Not to demean the people who came before here in this article, but this is the point where I introduce the women that have a very solid shot at being able to replace Cyborg's legitimacy if they won.
3) Ronda Rousey (2-0)
When asked approximately one year ago in an interview what she thought of the women she'd seen in women's MMA, this Olympic Bronze Medalist judoka very bluntly cracked "not much." She made it clear that with some cross-training she felt she could beat any of them. And then she started moving forward. First she went through three amateur opponents (including the highly regarded Taylor Stratford), and finished all of them by armbar, each in under a minute. Now she's done the same thing in her first two MMA fights, starting with former Top 10 fighter Ediane Gomes (who, as a former street urchin growing up in the slums of Brazil, if nothing else is as tough as nails), and then taking out the very physically imposing 6' tall kickboxer Charmaine Tweet in a 150 catchweight bout. Both by armbar, both in under one minute. You'd think that people would be looking for that armbar by now, and I'm sure they were, but that's a move she's been practicing since she was about five, or roughly as long as she has been practicing judo. She wasn't just any five year-old judoka either, she was the daughter of another world class female judoka in her own right, who had the same slick armbar transitions. You can find Ronda's mother's blog here. Although it seems to be largely about her daughter. And armbars. Go figure. Basically Ronda Rousey has been tapping fools since she was a wee lass before the UFC even existed. Very few male fighters start training so young, and I honestly think she could be the future of this sport, and legitimately she's the one here who I think has the best chance of beating Cyborg, at least with more experience. Her upside is just phenomenal. But with only two professional fights, and with none of her fights lasting long enough to show whether or not she can strike, I can't really rank her higher than this.
2) Hiroko Yamanaka (11-1)
This 5'11" former dominatrix is generally ranked #2 in the world. She's had one loss, to Hitomi Akano, which she has since avenged. She doesn't have a hugely well rounded skillset, but her boxing, footwork, clinch game, excellent sprawl and highly unusual size, strength, and reach have been enough to make her an absolutely dominant force. Then again she's never fought in a cage, and never been in a match where elbows are allowed. On the other hand, she has actually called Cyborg out. Having previously fought at Openweight at 169 lbs., she actually dropped all the way down to 143, seemingly in hopes of getting signed by Strikeforce, and actually has gotten better as a fighter since dropping weight. From a marketing standpoint, the fact that she's pretty easy eyes, combined with her former vocation, also make her easy to market. I don't know what the true pecking order is, but I think no matter how you slice it this girl is in the very top echelon. And winning a tournament like this could make a case that she's #1.
1) Amanda Nunes (6-1)
She's the one on the right, glaring at Julia Budd like she stole her boyfriend.
Amanda Nunes' record bares some striking similarities to Milana Dudieva, listed earlier. "The Lioness of the Ring" lost her first match, only to come surging back, and won the next five all by stoppage. Her victims weren't all unknowns though. She beat Ediane Gomes whom I mentioned earlier in this article, and current Top 10 Bantamweight Vanessa Porto. And then she won her sixth straight this past January, smashing the aforementioned Julia Budd in just 14 seconds. Lithe, extremely athletic, and mean, and sporting one of the best nicknames in the sport, this former amateur boxer and BJJ practitioner seemingly had earned the #1 Contender spot, at the age of 23. Except 145 wasn't fully on her mind. She was not a natural 145 lbs. fighter and wanted to add more muscle first. Whether she was dodging Cyborg, I have no idea, but I don't think it's really fair to accuse her of wanting to be as prepared as possible before facing her. And for Cyborg, fighting in Strikeforce apparently wasn't on her mind, at least until she got a new contract. Thus Nunes took a fight with Julie Kedzie at 135 in the interim, which she unfortunately had to pull out of after breaking her foot. As far as I'm concerned, with Cyborg gone for now, Nunes is the baddest woman in Strikeforce, and has all the tools to be the baddest woman on the planet. She just needs to go ahead and prove it now.
As far as brackets, I'm not really sure how that'd go. Possibly something like this:
Winner of: Amanda Nunes vs. Rin Nakai
Winner of: Ronda Rousey vs. Romy Ruyssen
Winner of: Hiroko Yamanaka vs. Julia Budd
I'm open to suggestions though.
At any rate, would this hypothetical tournament actually produce someone better than Cyborg? If Cyborg isn't fighting, or at least isn't fighting anyone worthwhile, then we wouldn't actually know. But for a promoter, perception is as if not more important than reality, and in order to replace Cyborg, they do need to create the perception that someone is her equal or better. If you can put the best of the rest in a single tournament, and have them fight it out, while Cyborg fights lesser fighters like Fedor did, the end result may be that the women fighting where the concentration of talent is may surpass Cyborg anyway. Training to fight someone just as good as you is going to make you better than training to fight some journeywoman. And I'd watch this tournament anyway. Thoughts, suggestions, insults, and ad hominem attacks are all welcome. Idiotic comments about how women shouldn't be fighting are also welcome.