Now that she has regained her UFC strawweight title, Carla Esparza is no longer in charge of challenging opponents.
However, the two-time 115-pound champion is still interested in her next title defense, so she was a little surprised to learn that Zhang Weili crowned the No. 1 contender after defeating Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 275.
Esparza thinks Marina Rodriguez deserves a title shot the most. The champion prioritizes Rodriguez’s current winning streak and impressive performances against ranked opponents over Zhang’s recent win after consecutive losses to Rose Namajunas.
“I do not think [Zhang] is [more deserving]Esparza told MMA Fighting. “I think Marina won five in a row, I think she won top-level competitions. She remained active and for me she proved herself. She deserves a title shot. But for some reason, I’m sure a lot is invested in it, and Weili gets a chance.
“As for me, I fight whoever is put in front of me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I think it’s a fair or right decision for the athlete.”
Esparza took a split decision victory over Rodriguez in the Brazilian’s latest loss, but she saw real improvement in the challenger’s game after their fight almost two years ago.
“Every time I look at Marina, I see how she gets better and better and beats the best girls,” Esparza said. “Even knocking someone out twice in the same fight in Amanda Ribas. She is impressive.
“I definitely think she deserved a title shot and sometimes that happens in the UFC. Whether it’s marketing or any other reasoning, it’s just how it goes and you just have to put up with the blows.”
With Zhang as her next opponent, Esparza is more than willing to take on the challenge. But she’s also going to give herself enough time to get ready.
Immediately after the knockout over Jedrzejczyk, Zhang called for a title fight in October when the UFC plans to return to Abu Dhabi.
In response, Esparza reminded Zhang that she was the champion and had some leeway when she competed again. Her previous title tenure only lasted three months when she threw herself into action against Jedrzejczyk after defeating Namajunas in Ultimate Fighter 20 Final.
“I would say that such a quick fight with Joanna – it was my fifth fight in eight months – I would say that such a quick fight back should be one of my biggest regrets in my career,” admitted Esparza. “I wasn’t 100 percent and I ended up tearing my shoulder in that fight.
“For me, this does not detract from the victory of Joanna, because I made the decision to enter the octagon. It was my choice, but what I will take away from this is that I have to learn the lesson. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
Despite minimal damage in the May split decision victory over Namajunas, Esparza did not come into the fight at full strength. She is quick to point out that wrestling itself is rarely where athletes get injured — it’s the weeks and months leading up to the event that take the most out of them.
“I definitely have some backlash on social media: ‘You couldn’t get hurt in that fight, nothing even happened,'” Esparza said. “Some trolls [were] chatter, but people don’t realize it’s a violent sport. The camp entering these fights is cruel. No fighter is likely to go 100 percent into a fight.
“I had [my thumb] dislocated and pulled back a week or two before the fight [with Rose Namajunas]. I couldn’t even let someone grab my arm without crying out in pain. I think I screamed in the gym once. Everyone turned around and I said, “I’m fine, I’m fine.”
“I will have two MRIs next week. The doctor checked it out, doesn’t look serious, but I just want to be sure. I want to get into this fight camp 100 percent. I want to be the best. As everyone saw from last week’s fight, Weili is a dangerous opponent. I want to go into this fight 100 percent and I’m not going to go in her timeline or where she thinks it’s best.
“Ideally, November-December suits me. Even if I have to go through a little rehab for the next month and not go into training mode, combat camp will at least give me time to recover.
“You talk about my longevity in this sport, and my longevity I have to say that a lot of it has to do with my willingness to give time to recover from injuries. I just take care of my body. You don’t stay in this sport for 12-13 years at the top without caring about maintaining your body and keeping it in optimal condition.”
If anyone claims that Esparza is dodging the fight by asking for a later date, the 34-year-old veteran is quick to point out that she has accepted Zhang twice as an opponent and she is not the reason the fight didn’t take place.
“She gave them up when she was a champion,” Esparza said. “I’m not afraid to fight anyone, but I just have to do it in my time.
“When the fight that was supposed to take place with Rose and Weili was postponed, I was offered a fight with Weili, and I agreed both times. One was a little longer, the other was shorter, but I thought I don’t care if it’s one week, if I have the opportunity to fight for the belt, I’ll take every opportunity. I said yes and she said no.
Of course, Esparza has nothing against Zhang. But she is also not going to be forced to return until she is ready. She fully expects the fight before the end of 2022. But until she recovers, she won’t be in a rush to defend her title just because the #1 contender gets worried.
“I’ll just say she’s posting her requests and she has every right to try and set the date and location she wants,” Esparza said. But, as I said, she is not a champion.
“It will continue according to my timeline when I am healthy and when I can start a strong camp and be at my best for this super strong opponent.”