UFC on ESPN+ 46 - Esparza vs Xiaonan - Analysis & Prediction 5/22/21
Carla Esparza vs Yan Xiaonan
In the co-main event, we have rising Chinese prospect, Yan “Fury” Xiaonan, taking on former champion Carla “Cookie Monster” Esparza. This is very clearly the UFC trying to build Yan’s profile if she was to challenge for the belt, as well as using Esparza’s “former champion” status to justify a co-main event slot. Honestly, there are at least 3 other fights from this card alone that would be a more deserving co-main event but anyway, I get what UFC is trying to do - top 5 ranked strawweights, shining the spotlight, etc. Both fighters have not finished an opponent in half a decade though so it's likely that trend will continue. Nevertheless, let's look at it.
Yan Xiaonan (13-1-0) made her UFC debut back in 2017 after amassing a 7-1 (with 1 no contest) record on the regional scene. She has fought 6 times in the UFC and has won all by decision. Her most notable victories were her last three against the likes of Angela Hill, Karolina Kowalkiewicz, and Claudia Gadelha. She was actually the first Chinese female fighter signed by the UFC.
On another note of firsts, Carla Esparza (17-6-0) was actually the inaugural strawweight women’s champion, which she captured after defeating the current champ, Rose Namajunas. She failed to defend the title, getting stopped by Joanna Jedrzejczyk in her next bout. In her next 10 UFC fights, she went 7-3. All 7 of those wins came by decision. She was also involved in 4 split decisions so her fights tend to be close. Currently, she is on 4 fight winning streak against very good competition in Virna Jandiroba, Alexa Grasso, Michelle Waterson, and Marina Rodriguez.
How They Match Up
This is an ole fashion wrestler vs striker match-up. The only problem is it’s probably going to the judges as neither fighter has much in terms of finishing ability. “Fury” will hold considerable edges when things are on the feet, using push kicks and countering with her hands the entire time. Esparza will only strike as a disguise for what she really wants to do, get inside on a single leg to drag it to the mat. Once she does get it to the mat she’s quite good at keeping her opponent from getting up, even if that means the ground and pound or submission attempts aren't spammed as she prioritizes position over submission most times. It’s a good strategy as long as the judges are rewarding effective grappling and octagon control.
So the question will be whether she will get the fight to the mat with any sort of consistency. When dissecting Xiaonan’s grappling game, we’ve seen that she does have some skill in this realm. We saw her land several good hip tosses on Kowalkiewicz, and she’s managed to not stay on her back too long during the times she was taken down (like in her last fight with Gadelha).
Esparza is really a different beast though. The speed and timing at which she changes levels and gets in on her opponent is something that Xiaonan hasn’t faced before. It also doesn’t matter if Esparza grabs hold of a single leg or if she gets a body lock trip (like the one Gadelha landed on Xiaonan in their fight), one way or another she gets her opponents down with pretty good consistency.
However, the one thing that gives me pause about fully recommending the underdog (more on that in our betting article), is even when Xiaonan is on her back, she’s still surprisingly busy throwing up elbows. If “Cookie Monster” lays in guard for too long, she may eat just as many shots as she attempts to deliver, which never looks good when you have judges who are probably looking for any reason not to reward lay n pray.
Even still, the breadth of competition faced by the former champion is substantially higher than the fighters Xiaonan has faced. I do think Esparza is going to get this fight to the mat fairly consistently but it will probably be another, in the long list of her split decisions if she does get the W.