‘TUF’ Choice: WSOF Champion Jessica Aguilar May Soon Regret Not Waiting For the UFC
Barring an unforeseen move to the UFC in the next year or so, Jessica Aguilar’s MMA career will likely boil down to one question: What if?
What if “Jag,” the near-consensus top women’s strawweight fighter in the world, had waited a few weeks before signing with the World Series of Fighting late last year?
On the surface, Aguilar’s signing with the WSOF was a major win for the 115-pound queen. At the time, WSOF President Ray Sefo and company were seeming the only major MMA organization in the market for female strawweights. Although Invicta FC had a stranglehold on the top 115-pound women when Aguilar signed, the opportunity to move up to a higher stage with WSOF would have been tempting for fighters looking to push into the mainstream.
Then, almost exactly a month after the news of Aguilar’s deal with the WSOF was made public, the UFC decided to get into the women’s strawweight game. As they usually do, UFC matchmakers Joe Silva and Sean Shelby made sure to grab as much of the top talent as humanly possible in order to start their new division off right. Carla Esparza, the Invicta FC champ and No. 2-ranked 115-pound woman in the world? Check. Claudia Gadelha, the rising Brazilian star who trains with the likes of Nova Uniao teammates Jose Aldo and Renan Barao? Got her, too. Top prospects like Tecia Torres and Joanne Calderwood? Fighting in the Octagon. Fan-favorites Felice Herrig and Bec Hyatt? Now answering to UFC President Dana White.
It isn’t like the UFC took some of the talent at strawweight. No, the promotion added basically every fighter worth noting at strawweight outside of Aguilar. To make matters worse for competitors, the UFC’s working relationship with Invicta is likely going to earn the promotion first dibs on any breakout fighter in Shannon Knapp’s organization. This leaves the WSOF with an extremely shallow pool of fighters to choose from when trying to find a true test for Aguilar, and it’s going to make it difficult for the division’s current queen to keep her hold on the top spot in the strawweight rankings.
To Aguilar’s credit, she hasn’t let the UFC’s purging of the strawweight talent pool get to her in the slightest. In recent interviews leading up to her winning the WSOF’s inaugural strawweight belt last month, she made it clear that she’s determined to maintain her spot atop the division. After all, she’s already defeated Esparza, whose Invicta title belt has made her one of the clear favorites to win the UFC’s 115-pound tournament. Throw in Aguilar’s pair of victories over legend Megumi Fujii and her streak of 12 wins in her last 13 fights, and her resume pretty much speaks for itself at this point.
After running through Alida Gray with a quick and painless—for Aguilar, anyhow—first-round submission win at WSOF 8, Aguilar did an interview with The MMA Corner’s Trey Downey where she made it clear that she believes she is the best female fighter in the world at 115 pounds. When asked if she felt like she was attempting to prove her ranking with a win over Gray, Aguilar quickly said she was out there to solidify her ranking, not prove it. It’s the sort of comment that can easily be dismissed, but it showed the confidence that Aguilar has in her ability to keep her spot on the strawweight throne despite fighting in what an organization that isn’t viewed as the home to the best of her contemporaries.
The last time the MMA world had a fighter who was not in the UFC and yet was almost universally considered the best in their division, it was Fedor Emelianenko in 2010. “The Last Emperor” was the best heavyweight on the planet, and despite everyone from Randy Couture and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira to Frank Mir and Brock Lesnar having some sort of claim to the belt over the course of the previous few years, Fedor couldn’t be budged from his spot atop the heavyweight ladder until he was defeated in June of 2010.
Since Fedor’s loss, other fighters like Gilbert Melendez and Alistair Overeem, during their time in Strikeforce, crept into the discussion as top fighters outside the UFC in a division that existed inside the UFC. But no one outside of the UFC roster, including those two men, has been considered the best in their weight class since Fedor’s decade-long reign finally ended. Aguilar is in position to try to fill that role, and she may be able to pull off such a feat for a while, but it’s going to be much harder to remain on top of the rankings than it was for Emelianenko.
The UFC first shut down Pride FC and gathered most of the Japanese promotion’s talent for its own use in late 2007. Much like in Aguilar’s scenario, Emelianenko soon found himself on the outside looking in while all of his former rivals found stardom in the UFC. Yet, Emelianenko was able to survive as the best heavyweight in the world for over two and a half years without competing inside the Octagon, mostly by taking and winning fights against former UFC titleholders like Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski. They may not have been the guys that MMA fans were pining to see Emelianenko fight, but they moved the needle well enough to add a couple of more names to Fedor’s resume and keep him in the top spot. There’s not a single female strawweight fighter (outside of the UFC, of course) that Aguilar can defeat who represents anything more than another notch on her belt.
Aguilar is on the outside looking in. Sooner or later, her grip on the top spot of the rankings is going to start to loosen, especially once the UFC kicks off its new division with The Ultimate Fighter 20 later this year. Without some real competition outside of the Octagon or a move to the UFC, Aguilar isn’t going to be able to maintain the star power needed to compete with the UFC hype machine and the group of strawweights already Octagon-bound. It’s practically inevitable that the lady who walks out of the TUF house with the UFC women’s strawweight strap is going to be thrust into the two spot in the rankings, and it likely won’t take more than a title defense or two before the amount of Aguilar supporters are completely outmatched by a MMA audience that, rightfully so, puts the UFC and its champions first.
Even those that feel Aguilar is the most talented 115-pound fighter in the world will have a hard time stacking “Jag” up against the resumes of some of the contestants on this upcoming season of TUF. Due to the insane amount of talent that is going to occupy that house, any win on the reality show is a win over a top-20 opponent, and many will be wins over top-10 opponents. By the end of the season, the girls that find themselves in the semifinals will have earned roughly a year’s worth of quality wins in just a few weeks.
Outside of fighting as quickly as possible for the WSOF and then jumping straight into the Octagon when her contract expires, there’s nothing Aguilar can do to compete with that. She may be the most talented strawweight in the world, and there’s no doubt that she’s earned her spot at the top, but without a UFC logo on her shorts in the near future, Aguilar’s standing as the queen of strawweights is in serious jeopardy.