LAS VEGAS – Season 20 of the UFC's reality series, "The Ultimate Fighter," was the first to feature an all-female cast and marked the first time the winner of the season would win the championship.
UFC president Dana White raved about the bouts on the show before it went on the air and predicted fans would be enamored by the season because it represented the best 16 strawweight fighters in the world competing against each other.
Finalists Rose Namajunas and Carla Esparza, who meet in the Fox Sports 1-televised finale for the inaugural UFC title on Friday at The Palms, are clearly elite-level fighters.
Namajunas was regularly the most aggressive fighter and she won all three of her bouts in the house by submission. She submitted Alex Chambers with a rear naked choke and defeated Joanne Calderwood and Randa Markos by Kimura to make it to the finale.
Namajunas' boyfriend, former UFC heavyweight Pat Barry, predicted long ago that Namajunas would win the world title. She fought like she was defending the belt, fighting with a passion few others showed.
"I went into the house knowing in my heart and in my soul that I was the best in the world," Namajunas said. "But to get out there and prove it was something else. I'm surprised by how much fun I had and I'm pleased by what I was able to do."
Namajunas earned White's respect early because of her attitude. She wasn't looking to win by decision, and she fought as if she were behind and needed to finish to win.
White told reporters before the season aired that he'd found the second coming of Ronda Rousey.
It turned out that he was referring to Namajunas.
"Rose is really dynamic and explosive and she's mean," White said. "I said we have a little Ronda Rousey in the house at the beginning of the season and she is who I was talking about. She has that mentality that Ronda has about wanting to go out there and finish.
"I really like this fight [between Namajunas and Esparza]. Esparza is very tough. She's a great wrestler and she takes control when she's in there. Maybe she'll outwrestle Rose or maybe Rose has too many weapons. There are a couple of ways this could go and that's why it's an interesting fight."
The best fights came in the semifinals, when Namajunas and Esparza were pushed by their opponents. Esparza, in particular, didn't show her all-around game until her semifinal victory over Jessica Penne.
In her earlier bouts, Esparza controlled the match with her wrestling skills. Penne, though, pushed her and Esparza showed a robust all-around game.
In her first two bouts, her wrestling was the difference, but she was a true mixed martial artist against Penne.
"I wouldn't say it was my game plan to wrestle [in the first two bouts]," Esparza said. "Going into every fight, I want to do what is smart in order to get the win. If that happens to be heavy on wrestling, that's what I'll do."
Her fight against Penne, though, was one of the best of the season. Penne, who will meet Markos on Friday's main card, was good enough that she brought out the best in Esparza.
Overall, though, the competition wasn't nearly as good as it would have been had the top 16 fighters in a different division were stuck in that house for six weeks. There is more competitive balance in the UFC's other divisions and that would have led to some incredible competition.
Imagine if White had put the top 16 from the men's lightweight division into the house and instead of watching the women strawweights we were treated to a season featuring Anthony Pettis, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Gilbert Melendez, Donald Cerrone, Rafael dos Anjos, Benson Henderson, Edson Barboza and the other top-rated lightweights.
It's clear that while the women were at least 16 of the 18 or 20 best – since fighters like Claudia Gadelha weren't in the house – the division right now has precious little depth.
The gap between the top fighters and the bottom is large in the strawweight division. Namajunas and Esparza, in particular, are sure to be standouts, and the winner of their fight Friday will give the division a high-level champion.
Building depth at strawweight remains an issue for White and matchmaker Sean Shelby. White, though, is optimistic. He raved about Namajunas and Esparza, and said he was also high on semifinalists Penne and Markos.
"When you think of our lightweights or our welterweights, and even the middleweights, we spent years and invested a lot of money in building up those classes," White said. "The same thing is going to happen with these strawweight girls, believe me. Girls are going to start popping up everywhere.
"There's so much exposure now and so much money. There are some really good girls coming out of this season, but you're going to see this division explode not too long from now. We're literally launching a brand new class. They came from a small promotion where there was no money but now [expletive] is getting real. There's money, exposure, sponsors, the whole nine yards, and you're going to see this division grow so quickly you will be shocked."