The sole female fight on the UFC 249 card features a pair of fighters on the brink on strawweight contendership, but which of Michelle Waterson and Carla Esparza will emerge with their championship aspirations intact?

Both Waterson and Esparza have been in fine form of late. Esparza, the first ever UFC women’s strawweight champion, has won two straight in the division and appears capable of re-inserting herself into the title picture once again, more than five years after she lost her title after a vicious beaten by Joanna Jedrzejczyk. 

Waterson, meanwhile, is chasing her dream of becoming the first “mom champ” in the UFC, and had put together an enviable run in the division before running into Jedrzejczyk last October, as she fell to her loss since 2017. 

The winner of this matchup will be ideally placed for a future bout with current champion Zhang Weili, but will Waterson’s dynamic kickboxing attack emerge on top, or will it be the more grinding, wrestling-based style owned by Esparza that will prove the difference-maker?

Michelle Waterson is one of the more eye-catching fighters in the UFC’s 115lbs frame. “The Karate Hottie,” boasts a relentless striking attack, but her record shows that she is far more than a one-dimensional fighter.

Because I’m still celebrating my birthday ??? . . . ? @bspencerphoto ?@makeitjacque

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Of her 17 wins, an impressive nine victories have come by submission – a stat that suggests that she will be comfortable wherever the fight takes place.

But a willingness to seek opportunities on the ground will likely play directly into the hands of Esparza, a fighter who is among the division’s more oppressive grapplers.

The former champion doesn’t quite boast as diverse an attack as Waterson, but it is equally efficient. She is known for welcoming close-quarters combat, particularly in situations against the cage, and excels from top position.

Her blanket-like control can whittle away minutes from the clock while in a dominant position, a tactic which also forces her opponents to be a little less picky with their attacks – opening up further opportunities for takedowns.

On weight ready to step on that scale!!!??????

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What makes this fight particularly interesting is that Esparza’s weakness – fighting in the stand-up position – is Waterson’s true strength. The principal way to counter any shortcomings on the feet is for Esparza to constantly push forward to engineer grappling situations, but this can come at a significant cost. 

Waterson excels in close-quarters situations where she can disguise high kicks to the head of an oncoming opponent. From that point, there are few more capable fighters of finishing a dazed opponent than the 34-year-old Albuquerque native.

For Esparza to be successful, she will have to diligently follow a strategy of avoiding prolonged exchanges on the feet, while pushing for top control – and 15 minutes is a long time for a fight to progress strictly on her terms. 

Waterson won’t have it all her own way, but should have enough to insert herself into title talk at the expense of the former champion.