The rear-naked choke is the most commonly applied jiu-jitsu submission in MMA. Winning and losing by that method have marked the career of UFC women's flyweight champion Alexa Grasso.
The Mexican standout, who dethroned Valentina Shevchenko in March at UFC 285 with that choke as a heavy underdog (+650), is now set to defend her title for the first time in a rematch against the most dominant champion in the history of the division this Saturday at Noche UFC in Las Vegas (10 p.m. ET on ESPN+). For Grasso, this is the culmination of a dream forged by her will to fight and her love for Guadalajara, her home in the state of Jalisco.
Showing outstanding boxing from the start of her MMA career, Grasso made her mark on the international women's MMA scene with victories in Invicta FC, which signed her in 2014 along with her teammate Irene Aldana. Grasso made her UFC debut in November 2016. The promotion's CEO, Dana White, had praised her style after first seeing her fight a year earlier at Invicta FC 11 in Los Angeles, where she co-headlined alongside Cris Cyborg. That Invicta fight happened the night before Ronda Rousey, the biggest star in women's MMA at the time, had one of her most memorable wins in the Octagon, finishing Cat Zingano in just 14 seconds at UFC 184.
Grasso was one of the female pioneers of women's MMA in Mexico and had shined at local jiu-jitsu tournaments since she was a teenager under the guidance of former pro fighter Tito Castro. She entered the UFC with an undefeated record of 8-0 and a label of a future star. In her first Octagon appearance, boosted by a supportive crowed at Arena Ciudad de Mexico, Grasso secured a strawweight victory against Heather Clark.
But just months later, the 23-year-old began what would be the most important learning process of her career.
Competing in her first UFC co-main event at a Fight Night in Houston, Grasso faced veteran Felice Herrig, who managed to neutralize her striking and end her undefeated streak. Two fights later, in May 2018, Grasso encountered one of the most dangerous grapplers in women's MMA, Tatiana Suarez, winner of Season 23 of "The Ultimate Fighter." The Mexican recalls it as the most frustrating night of her career.
Grasso's team, led by her uncle and coach, Francisco Grasso, had worked hard for months to prepare her for a revered wrestler, but it wasn't enough. Suarez submitted her with a rear-naked choke that night in Santiago, Chile.
"It was an incredibly long camp, and I couldn't even last there for the three rounds," Grasso said, telling ESPN about the moment that would ultimately change her professional life. "I believe that [loss] also made me push myself three times as hard, because obviously at that moment I wasn't good at jiu-jitsu or wrestling."
At that time, it looked improbable for any fighter who lived and trained in Mexico to become a UFC champion.
After that loss to Suarez, analysts and social media followers urged her to move her training camp outside of Mexico, pushing her to the United States, where most of the top gyms focused on improving ground games are based. She did spend some time with Henry Cejudo in Arizona and others in San Diego, but she never contemplated a permanent move. Instead, Grasso's modest gym in Mexico gradually had become more than a typical gym. It had become home to not only Grasso, but other UFC fighters, including Aldana, Loopy Godinez and Brazilians Diego Lopes and Alessandro Costa.
"I love Guadalajara, I love living here, I love being 'tapatía,' I love the place where I was born," Grasso said, referring to the colloquial lingo for someone born in the state of Jalisco. "The truth is that it's beautiful to be able to do what I love, to see my own evolution, from when I started training until now. There's been a huge change in my life, in my training, in everything I do."
The addition of Lopes and Costa to the Lobo Gym in Jalisco represented the most radical change in Grasso's career. Around the same time that submission against Suarez occurred, the fighters from Manaus, Brazil, arrived in Mexico with outstanding jiu-jitsu skills and a need to evolve in their own striking. It created a perfect mix, as coach Francisco Grasso helped them in striking while the hours of training jiu-jitsu together in the gym represented a huge opportunity for growth for Grasso and Aldana.
After being submitted by Suarez, Grasso promised herself she would not get submitted again. Even more than that, she wanted to be the one submitting her opponents. She's held true to that ambition and out of her last three Octagon appearances, Grasso has earned her first two submissions in the UFC: first against veteran Joanne Wood, then against the former champion, Shevchenko. Both came by rear-naked choke.
"Alexa has evolved a lot as a fighter and as a person," Lopes said. "She has changed her way of thinking. She's a very disciplined athlete, her goal is always the same -- as soon as she's past the last fight, she's already thinking about the next one, which in this case is the title defense."
Similar to what happened with Brandon Moreno, who trained at Tijuana's Entram Gym and added teammates from all over Latin America to help him evolve into the first Mexican-born world champion in UFC history, Grasso and her team facilitated the development of an environment where new abilities are welcome. The silver lining is that she could stay where she loves to be and become a better fighter without having to leave her home and lifelong coaches.
Since moving up from strawweight in 2020, Grasso is undefeated in five fights. Suarez, who is now close to her own title shot in the 115-pound division with a 10-0 record and two solid wins since her return this year, celebrates Grasso's progress and being part of her awakening.
"She looks excellent in all her fights," Suarez said. "She has made tremendous progress, and I love seeing another Mexican at the top."
It doesn't seem too far-fetched to imagine the path of the two intertwining once again.
Although the UFC's travel schedule seems to be returning to normal in 2023, there remains a good number of events at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas.
It was widely unexpected that Moreno, Yair Rodriguez, Grasso and Aldana would find themselves in position to fight for titles seven times in the first nine months of the year. Logistics were not in place to hold an event in Mexico City in order to celebrate in front of a home crowd.
The company's effort to remedy that was Noche UFC, a first attempt to offer an event for the Mexican fans who flock to Las Vegas during Mexico's Independence Day weekend every year.
With Moreno and Rodriguez losing their gold over the past few months, Grasso was left alone as the only current Mexican-born champion. She became the best option for the UFC to appeal to those fans who have been accustomed to huge boxing cards on this September weekend for decades. Canelo Alvarez typically fights on this weekend every year, but his bout this year will take place on Sept. 30.
A fan of Mexican boxing since childhood, with a great grandfather and a grandmother who were pioneers in the sport, Grasso saw Julio Cesar Chavez, Juan Manuel Marquez and Jackie Nava as her inspirations when she began her journey in combat sports. Grasso was proud to take on the responsibility of being the main event on Sept. 16.
"Canelo has also been a great figure and a role model for me. I've always wanted to be like him," Grasso said. "I've always watched many very important people who inspired me, who motivated me, and I've always followed their careers and tried to learn as much as I can from them, to be like them -- obviously with my own stamp."
Grasso understands this might be a one-time opportunity for her to lead this night, but regardless of whether a boxing event steps into the spotlight at some point in the future, she wants to be involved.
"It's great to be able to fight on that date, on that day," she said. "I don't know if Canelo will fight next year [on Mexican Independence Day weekend], but I hope I can also fight on Sept. 16 in Las Vegas every year."
On Saturday night, the two will enter the Octagon once again. Shevchenko comes in as the favorite for the rematch, but the odds have narrowed in a dramatic fashion (Shevchenko -175).
That variation of the rear-naked choke that Grasso used to win the title -- with the arm pressing her opponent's chin rather than the neck, as is traditionally executed -- was the masterpiece of the Grasso-Lopes tandem. They spotted the opening on video of past fights, seeing that when the Kyrgyzstani fighter launched her signature spinning kick attacks, she created an opportunity for an opponent to take her back without having to go for a takedown. Shevchenko has been vocal with her intentions to knock Grasso out with the same spinning kick that gave Grasso the opportunity the first time.
Grasso not only wants to retain her belt on Saturday but also is aiming for another convincing victory to silence those who still doubt her abilities.
"It's going to be a historic night," Grasso said. "There will be a lot of Mexican people attending the arena that night. We'll see many Mexican warriors in the cage giving their all in each of the fights, and mine is the first title defense, my championship. I'm training hard every day so that everyone enjoys every minute of that fight."