LAS VEGAS – After three submissions in as many fights during the filming of "The Ultimate Fighter," Rose Namajunas was the trendy pick to win the inaugural UFC strawweight championship.
Even Carla Esparza, who held the 115-pound belt in Invicta, wondered if she had what it took to beat Namajunas.
"You know, I had a lot of expectations on me, being the No. 1 seed, being the first pick, coming in as the champ," Esparza said. "I didn't know if I could do it."
But she easily did, using her wrestling to throttle Namajunas repeatedly before finishing the fight in the third round with a rear naked choke.
Namajunas tapped at 1:26 of the third round, but the fight was over long before that. Esparza was too strong, too smart and simply too good for the far less experienced Namajunas.
"I just have to go back and ponder everything and try to evolve and grow as a woman," a dejected Namajunas said. "I felt like a kid in there."
Namajunas raced out of the corner firing strikes and kicks at Esparza, who bided her time until she could get her distance.
But Esparza was winning the battle in the clinch and was repeatedly taking Namajunas to the mat. Namajunas has an active guard and is often working for submissions from her back, but Esparza gave her nothing.
It was a dominant, one-sided performance that left no doubt who deserved to be the champion.
"She did an outstanding job," UFC president Dana White said. "Standing on her feet and on the ground, she completely dominated. She took her down at will. I say it every season but the best rise to the top on the show, and she definitely did tonight."
Esparza dominated her three fights on the reality show and was no less dominant on Saturday. There is clearly a gap between Esparza and the next level of challengers, and then there is a gap between those women and the ones further down.
White said Brazilian Claudia Gadelha, who twice was supposed to fight Esparza in Invicta, would likely be Esparza's first defense assuming Gadelha defeats unbeaten Joanna Jedrzejczyk on Saturday in Phoenix.
Esparza said she didn't care who she fought. Her goal is simply to prove each time out that she's the best strawweight in the world.
"Each new fight, and then the next fight and the next fight, I have to keep proving myself," she said. "A lot of people say you're only as good as your last fight, so I just try to make sure that each of my performances is at a good standard."
She made a quality fighter look ordinary on Friday, though Namajunas conceded she played a role in that by rushing. Namajunas came out extraordinarily aggressively and tried to push the pace.
Esparza admitted that she felt several of the strikes, but she was never rattled or in trouble. Namajunas, who rose as high as a 2-to-1 favorite Friday at the Palms sports book before the fight dropped back to pick 'em, admitted she needed to fight at a more measured pace.
Namajunas knew what she was up against, and Esparza gave her everything she expected – and more.
"I always gave her props," Namajunas said. "I always respected her. I always thought she was one of the toughest people in the house. So, yeah, of course. I give her all the props in the world. I went in there trying to go for the finish. I put it all on the line and I was super aggressive.
"Obviously, this is an investment in my future. I'm going to tweak some things and work harder and I'll be back."
She has a lot of ground to cover if she's ever going to defeat Esparza, who looked before the fight as if she wanted to be anywhere but where she was.
She said it's something she's done going back to her wrestling days. It's her way of getting ready for the fight.
Whatever she did, it clearly worked, and she's established herself as the woman to beat moving forward.
"There are so many amazing fighters in this division coming out of everywhere," she said. "I definitely will have to have my eyes peeled."
But those women are going to have to be ready, as well, because Esparza proved she's a cut above the rest.
More MMA coverage: