UFC 228 Under the Radar: Tatiana Suarez

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Prior to every event, Under the Radar will cast the spotlight on an up-and-coming talent who shows the potential for growth in their division and isn’t getting enough attention as they head into battle.

  • Name: Tatiana Suarez
  • Record: 6-0 overall, 3-0 UFC
  • Division: Strawweight
  • Team: Millenia MMA

Tatiana Suarez has superstar potential.

Two years from now, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see the Ultimate Fighter winner sitting atop the strawweight division, enjoying a dominant reign. In all honesty, it might not even take her that long to get there.

As of this moment, she is the best prospect in the UFC.

Not the best female prospect. Not the best American prospect. Not the best undefeated prospect. The best prospect, period.

Part of what sets her apart is, undeniably, the fact that the level of athleticism and skill in the women’s ranks is still trailing what we see in the men’s divisions, as the opportunities for female fighters were never been as plentiful as they have been for their male counterparts and still aren’t now.

Although there have been Olympians and world-class competitors from other disciplines who have made the transition to mixed martial arts in the past with varying degrees of success, Suarez benefits from crossing over into Brazilian jiu-jitsu and MMA at a point where she’s been able to stitch the two together seamlessly and arrive on the biggest stage in the sport when she is just in the early stages of her athletic prime.

She made relatively quick work of everyone she encountered on Season 23 of The Ultimate Fighter, submitting Amanda Cooper in less than four minutes in the finale and beat the more experienced Viviane Pereira in her sophomore appearance in the Octagon following a 16-month layoff.

Last time out, Suarez showed that her days as a prospect are numbered by rolling into Santiago, Chile and trucking former Invicta FC darling Alexa Grasso. It took just over half a round for the 27-year-old Californian to get Grasso on the canvas and wrap up her neck, a victory that carried her into the Top 10 in the strawweight division and set up this weekend’s showdown with former champion Carla Esparza at UFC 228 in Dallas.

It’s not the path Suarez wanted to take, as her Olympic ambitions on the wrestling mats were derailed by a cancer diagnosis when she was 20 years old, but that life-changing moment sent her in a different direction and now she is on the road to stardom in the UFC.

The overall lack of depth in the division has certainly played a roll in expediting Suarez’ ascent towards contention. However, she’s very much done her part as well.

Dominant performances always hasten a fighter’s rise up the rankings, just as winning tepid decisions slow them down. In two of her three Octagon appearances, the Millenia MMA product has made quick work of two talented, more experienced opponents, just as she did during her time on The Ultimate Fighter.

JJ Aldrich has quietly put together a three-fight winning streak to arrive at the fringes of the Top 15 in the strawweight division, is 7-2 overall and was the first pick of Joanna Jedrzejczyk on Season 23 of the long-running reality TV competition.

Suarez was the only competitor selected ahead of her and when Claudia Gadelha matched them up, Aldrich got submitted in the second round and bounced from the tournament.

Think of it as how we view and grade established fighters when they take on short-notice replacements: they’re expected to go out and dominate. How they perform helps determine how we see those fighters going forward.

It’s the same with prospects as they work their way up the divisional ladder – the truly special ones don’t just limp by and eke out victories; they turn in impressive performances at every turn, no matter the challenge.

Look at Conor McGregor or Cody Garbrandt during their respective ascents to UFC gold; more often than not, they stepped into the cage and left no room for wavering about their potential.

That’s what Suarez has done thus far and Saturday’s pairing with Esparza is an opportunity for her to graduate to being a full-blown contender in the strawweight division.

While she might still be flying somewhat under the radar now, beating a former champion – even one who doesn’t get as much as credit as she deserves, like Esparza – is the kind of triumph than can’t be ignored or undervalued, especially if Suarez goes out and continues to dominate the way she has up to this point.

She has good size for the division, but it’s her grappling acumen set her apart and is the key to her elite potential.

Go back and watch the fight with Grasso – she’s in on a single leg within 40 seconds and never lets the Lobo Gym product out of her grasp from that point forward.

Every time Grasso reacts and looks to scramble, Suarez was one step ahead, as noted by Jimmy Smith on the broadcast. She’s not stalling out in a position, wasting energy and working for something that isn’t there. Instead, she adjusts and moves in a different direction.

Her transitions are effortless and while it certainly takes energy, her takedowns and transitions are more akin to Demian Maia’s work in the clinch and on the ground than the more exaggerated, power-based moves associated with high-level wrestlers on the men’s side of the sport.

Suarez is fluid and so much more advanced on the canvas than her previous opponents, which is what makes this pairing with Esparza particularly compelling, as the former champion was an outstanding collegiate wrestler and used her own grappling skills to dominate on Season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter and secure her title victory over Rose Namajunas in December 2014.

She is the first opponent with the potential to match Suarez on the ground and how those exchanges play out will dictate the outcome of the fight.

If Suarez comes away with another victory, she’ll head into 2019 ranked in the Top 5 and positioned as a very serious threat in the strawweight division.