Could Zhang Weili be next for Carla Esparza after UFC 274?

The UFC’s strawweight division is possibly the wildest division in the promotion currently, with five championship changes in five years, usually by some form of spectacular finish by the underdog.

Carla Esparza would be crowned the inaugural champion of the division after beating Rose Namajunas in the finale of that year's The Ultimate Fighter, before losing the belt in his first title defence to one of the greatest female fighters of all-time in Joanna Jedrzejczyk.

Esparza would reclaim the 115lbs title this past weekend at UFC 274, once again beating Namajunas, but who is next for the 'Cookie Monster'?

Planet Sport looks at three possible challengers for the strawweight title.

Zhang Weili

Zhang Weili might just be the best Chinese fighter the UFC currently has on the books with slick, aggressive striking, a hard-nosed approach to taking on fights and a likeable personality making her very marketable.

Zhang has previously held the 115lbs title, beating Jessica Andrade in 42 seconds in front of a home crowd back in 2019.

In 2020, Zhang would defend the title against Jedrzejczyk in a Fight of the Year winner where both women showed just how much damage they could not only inflict, but also take.

Following this bout, Zhang would lose her title to Rose Namajunas by spectacular knockout, and failed to reclaim the gold in the rematch, losing a split decision.

Zhang might be on a run of two losses, but her upcoming rematch with "Joanna Violence" at next month's UFC 275 works perfectly as a title eliminator and could set up an absolute corker of a fight with Esparza for the end of the year.

Joanna Jedrzejczyk

What is there left to say about Joanna Jedrzejczyk that hasn't already been said?

The 20-fight veteran still holds the record for the most defences of the strawweight title, with five defences of the belt to her name.

Joanna might be on a run of patchy form with two wins in her last four fights, but it's worth noting one of those fights was against the dominant Valentine Shevchenko at 125lbs and the other was the split decision loss to Zhang that won Fight of the Year.

If the former champion can find the mentality she had as champion - which struck fear into opponents - JJ could be a real problem.

A win over Zhang next month in their rematch surely grants the former champion a shot at reclaiming the gold in a rematch with the woman she took the title off originally, Carla Esparza.

Marina Rodriguez

With UFC president Dana White ruling out a trilogy bout between Namajunas and Esparza - following a contentious fight where there was very little action that caused a lot of scrutiny of the judging criteria in MMA - Marina Rodriguez could very well be looking at a shot at UFC gold.

Rodriguez is riding a four-fight win streak, beating fellow Brazilian contenders Mackenzie Dern and Amanda Ribas, as well as the experienced Michelle Waterson and Xiaonan Yan, with her last loss being a split decision to Carla Esparza back in 2020.

With seven wins inside the distance, Rodriguez has some serious stopping power and will now have a good read on the current champion.

With the rematch of Zhang and Jedrzejczyk likely to be an absolute bloodbath that both women will need time to recover from, and Esparza taking very little damage in her most recent fight, Rodriguez could effectively jump the queue at 115lbs and get her shot at redemption against Esparza.

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