Twenty-one years after the the Ultimate Fighting Championship broadcast its first open-weight competition in 1993, the world's largest MMA promotion is returning to its roots with a single-elimination tournament to crown its initial women's 115-pound title holder.
Debuting on September 10, the twentieth season of The Ultimate Fighter (10 P.M. EST/7 P.M. PST, Fox Sports 1) pits the world's top female strawweights in a winner-takes-all bracket. And for the first time in its history, the UFC will crown a divisional champion on the reality TV airwaves.
"[In] the strawweight division ... you have so many characters, so many personalities, and so many fighters with entertaining styles," comments TUF 20 contestant Carla Esparza, one of 11 women who was signed by the UFC last December.
Esparza, 26, is perhaps the most decorated of the show's 16 contestants, having previously claimed the Invicta FC strawweight title in 2013. A former All-American collegiate wrestler, Esparza is vocal that the UFC's newest female arrivals will make an immediate splash in the world of mixed martial arts, building on the recent success of women's MMA and bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey.
Rose Namajunas, 22, is another alumna of Invicta FC set to compete in the UFC's foray into strawweight territory. And while she is known for a brutal and precise brand of taekwondo inside the cage, Namajunas is all smiles heading into the show's premiere, excited to share her unique fighting style with a national audience.
"Our division's more artistic ... it's gonna be way more interesting, way more compelling" offers Namajunas. "The coaches ... were showing me things that just added to my game ... [and] just let me be my creative self and take risks."
Two years ago, it seemed a certainty that women would never fight inside the Octagon; UFC President Dana White was adamant that the public would not accept female MMA fighters at the highest level. But after Rousey became a breakout star, both in competition, where she recently won an ESPY Award for "Best Female Athlete," and in Hollywood, where she co-starred in "The Expendables 3" and takes a turn opposite Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel in next year's "Fast & Furious 7," the UFC boss has become smitten with women's MMA, welcoming the strawweights with open arms.
Also in favor of the promotion's expansion into the women's market is UFC mainstay Gilbert Melendez, who served as one of the reality series' two mentors, coaching opposite 155-pound champion Anthony Pettis. Set to clash with Pettis for the lightweight title on December 6, Melendez has long been a proponent of women's MMA, dating back to his days as top dog in the Strikeforce promotion.
"I always followed women's MMA for a long time. ... I've always respected it. They're talented fighters ... they had some things to show. They have different styles themselves," states Melendez. "I think it's terrific and I'm happy to be a part of it."
Melendez, who has fought professionally since 2002, winning titles domestically and in Japan, also believes that expansion of the UFC's roster to include the 115-pound women will potentially have exponential residual effects, pushing mixed martial arts further toward the pantheon of mainstream sports.
"It's gonna be a family thing, like it was in Japan," says Melendez. "It can be recognized as a smart sport, a respected sport. And I think women's MMA adds that."
Unlike previous seasons of The Ultimate Fighter, where winners earn contracts with the UFC, this upcoming run takes the reality competition format one step further, as all 16 women have already been signed to exclusive contracts. The mass import of talent is unlike anything the UFC has done during its two decades, providing the promotion with a solid divisional base with which to build a weight class.
In addition to Esparza and Namajunas, fighters like Jessica Penne, Felice Herrig, Joanne Calderwood, and Tecia Torres were brought in from Invicta FC, while lesser-known athletes like Angela Hill and Randa Markos secured lucrative spots, advancing through a series of national casting calls and open tryouts.
The mix of established talent and newcomers also is a departure from previous seasons of The Ultimate Fighter, changing the dynamic for many of the athletes, including Esparza.
"As soon as I stepped into the house ... it put a lot of pressure on me," comments Esparza, who hails from Redondo Beach, California. "I like to study my opponent ... it's a good idea to like get a general idea of what you're dealing with. It's scary having that unknown factor going into a fight. I didn't really know what to expect."
For Namajunas, a Milwaukee native who currently trains in Colorado, the experience on The Ultimate Fighter also came with pressure and expectations. But the opportunity to compete for a UFC title represents the culmination of her lifelong quest to compete in combat sports.
"Martial arts has always been a part of my life; I started off in taekwondo when I was real little ... but I've always ventured out into different styles of martial arts. I did stick fighting, I did Pankration, I did jiu jitsu," adds Namajunas. "I met guys like Pat [Barry], Anthony [Pettis], and Eric Schafer who were in the UFC at the time ... they opened my eyes to the possibility that maybe I could make a living out of my hobby. And here I am."
With the date of the women's strawweight title fight still in limbo, it's unclear how the division will resonate with fans of mixed martial arts. But even before The Ultimate Fighter premiers on Wednesday, it's apparent that Esparza and Namajunas are part of a new breed of MMA fighters.