LAS VEGAS -- Carla Esparza entered "The Ultimate Fighter" reality series a champion. She left it the same way.
Esparza (10-2) won the inaugural UFC strawweight championship Friday, submitting Rose Namajunas via rear-naked choke at 1:26 of the third round. The 115-pound title fight headlined the TUF 20 Finale inside The Palms Hotel and Casino.
The 27-year-old champion entered the tournament shortly after vacating the Invicta FC title, which she won in a unanimous decision over Bec Rawlings in January 2013.
"Oh my gosh, this is the most amazing, unreal feeling I've ever had in my life," Esparza said. "You know, Rose is such a phenomenal athlete. She's so dangerous and has so many weapons. I knew it was going to be a tough fight. She caught me with a lot of things I didn't see coming. In the end, I think wrestling brought me the win."
Despite her history in the division, Esparza entered the fight a slight underdog to Namajunas (2-2), who had received a lot of attention for her finishing ability.
It was Namajunas who got off to a hot start, sprinting to the center of the cage the second the fight started and connecting on a high head kick less than a minute in. Esparza ate the shot, however, and drove into Namajunas with a takedown -- which would prove to be a theme throughout the contest.
Esparza was unable to keep Namajunas on her back initially, but her efforts to take her to the floor did not go unrewarded. According to Fightmetric, Esparza converted five of seven total takedown attempts and outlanded Namajunas in total strikes 109 to 27. Most of her offense took place on the floor.
Namajunas appeared to be the more lethal of the two on the feet, but her aggressive kickboxing style made her an easy target at times for takedowns. Esparza took her down in the opening 20 seconds of the second and third rounds. She nearly earned a TKO finish late in the second frame, after moving into full mount and dropping a series of unanswered elbows and punches from the top. Referee Yves Lavigne stayed right on top of the action, but Namajunas was saved by the bell.
Esparza now holds three official wins over TUF 20 house members. She defeated Angela Hill, Tecia Torres and Jessica Penne during the tournament, although those wins don't count toward her official record. Fighting out of Team Oyama in Irvine, California, she dedicated the win to Shane del Rosario, a teammate who unexpectedly died in 2013.
Oliveira outlasts Stephens
Oliveira (19-4) dominated Stephens on the ground through two rounds and then survived a late onslaught in the third to take a unanimous decision. All three judges scored the fight for Oliveira via scores of 30-27, 29-28 and 29-28.
"I was training very hard for three months for this fight and he said something that I didn't like and it made me only want to beat him more," Oliveira said. "I came and struck with him despite an arm injury, and I was good on the ground, so it's no doubt to me that I earned this win."
The Brazilian did a terrific job of putting the power-punching Stephens (23-11) on his back foot early. He came forward at the start of the fight and shot on Stephens against the fence. Stephens defended the takedown initially, but when Oliveira fell to his back, Stephens obliged the submission specialist by dropping into his guard.
Oliveira quickly attached himself to Stephens' right arm and started working for the finish. Stephens spent the next 2:30 caught in the position but refused to tap and eventually worked free and back into Oliveira's closed guard. Before the round ended, he got back to his feet and landed one hard right hand.
In the second round, Oliveira pressured Stephens backward again and put him on his back less than a minute in. He threatened again with armbars on the left side -- twice -- at one point fully extending Stephens' limb backward. Somehow, Stephens survived the hold and escaped the position.
Oliveira, 25, came out in the third round looking for a hug, but Stephens pushed him away. The San Diego-based fighter tried to let his hands go, but appeared tired from the first two rounds. Oliveira, however, didn't come forward as much in the third and looked content to stall out the round.
With the crowd booing Oliveira's repeated flops to the ground, Stephens came down hard with a right hand that appeared to hurt Oliveira. Stephens again went into Oliveira's guard and landed a few good elbows from the top but Oliveira made it through the round to solidify his third win in the UFC's 145-pound division.
"That was terrible," Stephens said. "He wouldn't engage me there at the end."
Stephens drops to 1-2 in 2014. He suffered a unanimous decision loss to Cub Swanson in his prior fight in June.
Noons, Cruickshank settle for no-contest
During the opening minute of the second round, Noons (13-7) caught Cruickshank's left eye with outstretched fingers during a flurry. It was the second time in the fight Noons accidentally poked Cruickshank in the eye.
Cruickshank (16-5) immediately reacted to the foul, falling back into the fence in pain. Noons backed off, and referee John McCarthy brought in the cageside doctor. When it was determined Cruickshank's vision had been significantly impaired, McCarthy waved off the fight at the 0:25 mark.
"I don't think I've ever eye-poked a guy. I'm so bummed right now, especially for Daron," Noons said. "I totally didn't mean to do that. It was going to be fight of the night, too, I think."
The outcome ruined what was shaping up to be one of the best fights of the night. Cruickshank, 29, came out hard from the opening bell, cracking Noons with an early right hand and nearly following it up with a clean left head kick.
Noons stood his ground, however, eventually responding with several hard left hooks, including one near the fence that nearly spun Cruickshank around. Cruickshank went back after Noons with flying knees and scored a takedown with 10 seconds remaining in the frame.
"I knew right it away something was wrong because I couldn't see and I don't think the ref realized it," Cruickshank said. "So I tried to circle away from KJ and buy some space to get the fight broken up and see what kind of damage I had."
The UFC has booked immediate rematches in situations similar to this in the past.
Medeiros submits Proctor
Medeiros (11-2) struggled to find his rhythm early in the lightweight fight, but it took only the one shot to basically end Proctor's night. Proctor (10-2) fell to his butt after the kick and left his neck out, which was all Medeiros needed to produce the tap. Referee Yves Lavigne stopped the bout at 4:37 of the round.
"Tonight, I'm happy to represent Hawaii because so many people came out to watch me," Medeiros said. "I've seen Proctor take big shots to the head and not go down so my plan was to attack the body and take his gas and land head shots if they were there. After I landed that spinning kick, I smelled blood and smelled victory."
It was a disappointing result for Proctor, who held his own on the feet until the fight-changing kick. He landed several hard outside leg kicks in space and threw a spinning back-kick of his own that Medeiros said was low but Lavigne ruled legal.
"It was awesome; Dana White came up to me after the fight to congratulate me because I think he's starting to realize I'm ready for the best competition in the weight class," Medeiros said.
Penne edges Markos in debut
Penne (12-2) defeated Markos via split decision in a back-and-forth strawweight fight. Judges Junichiro Kamijo and Tony Weeks scored the bout 30-27 and 29-28 for Penne, respectively. Judge Lester Griffin had it for Markos 29-28. ESPN.com scored the 115-pound fight 29-28 for Penne.
"My surprise wasn't in that it was a split decision; my surprise was that I didn't finish her in the first round," Penne said. "Competing in the UFC is something I never dreamed was possible. Even fighting on 'The Ultimate Fighter,' it didn't feel like I was fully there yet. Now I can finally say I'm a UFC fighter."
Markos (4-2) made a name for herself on the show mostly behind offensive wrestling, but her skill set failed to match up against Penne's grappling. The bout featured several slick sweeps and scrambles by Penne, who controlled key moments of the bout and threatened with several submission attempts.
In the opening moments, Markos let her hands go, only to be hip-tossed onto her back. Penne moved to mount at one point but was quickly shucked off. She lost position while trying to take the back but was pretty effective from the bottom, scoring elbows and nearly catching Markos in a triangle choke. She opened a cut near Markos' right eye.
Markos turned the tide a bit in the second round, as she sized Penne up with the right hand. A hard counter right hand after slipping a Penne right scored clean for Markos, but she allowed Penne to take top position during a scramble near the end of the round.
At the start of the third, Markos landed a spinning backfist that caught Penne off guard. She attempted the same strike three more times in the round but never connected again. Eventually it was Penne scoring with the double leg midway through the round, to ride out the rest of the fight on top.
"I shouldn't have let her take me down," Penne said. "I can't believe I let her do that to me."
Penne's official record moves to 2-0 since losing the Invicta FC title to Michelle Waterson in April 2013.