When Carla Esparza won the UFC strawweight title in 2014, it was a slightly overwhelming experience. She didn’t really know what life was like in the UFC and she was asked to defend her title so quickly that she felt like she didn’t get to enjoy being a world champion.
Esparza would go on to lose the title to Joanna Jedrzejczyk just three months after winning season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter. Eight years and twelve UFC fights later, Esparza reclaimed her spot on the strawweight throne by defeating Rose Namajunas at UFC 274.
This time around, Esparza allowed herself to enjoy champ life. Just one week after beating Namajunas, she got married and wrapped the belt around her waist - wedding dress and all. It was a beautiful moment that put the perfect exclamation point on Esparza’s rise back to the top of the division.
Esparza’s return to the top was filled with ups and downs, but there was always a small thought that lingered in the back of her mind that drove her make it happen.
“I think part of me earned my way back up this last eight years not only because I wanted to win the title back, but because I had unfinished business,” Esparza said. “I wanted to defend my title and that’s what I’m here to do with this fight.”
This weekend, Esparza will have her chance to do just that when she faces Zhang Weili at UFC 281 under the bright lights of the world-famous Madison Square Garden.
And Esparza wants that title defense to come in style, not only because she wants to solidify her legacy, but because she wants to make up for the lack of excitement in her victory over Namajunas.
“We are going in there to get our hand raised and, of course, I would have loved the fight [with Namajunas] to be more exciting, but hopefully in this next fight I can erase that and have an exciting finish,” Esparza said. “But it does bum me out that I disappointed the fans. I’m just hoping that doesn’t happen again so hopefully I can rectify that [versus Zhang] and get a great finish. That’s the goal.”
Esparza has come to terms with the fact that the win over Namajunas wasn’t exciting, but she also knows that not everything that happens in a fight is under her control. She had to put the negative messages and criticism behind her and focus in on her bout with former champion Zhang.
“I don’t expect Weili to come out the way that Rose did in my last fight,” Esparza said. “You never know, but I feel like it definitely takes two to dance and I’m definitely going into this fight going to get a finish and looking to win and put on an exciting fight. On my end, I’m hoping to get that finish and rectify things.”
On the other side of the canvas at UFC 281 will be Zhang, who enters the fray fresh off her impressive knockout win over future Hall of Famer Jedrzejczyk. That emphatic victory got Esparza’s attention and is part of the reason why she believes fans will be happy with the fight they see on November 12th.
“I think Weili is obviously a super high-level opponent, she’s a former champion and she’s had a lot of dominant finishes, especially this last one of Joanna, which I don’t think a lot of people saw coming because their first fight was so competitive,” Esparza said. “I think it shows her evolution and how much she is getting better, not only on the feet, which she’s always been good at, but in the grappling realm, too. I just think at this level, her and everyone else fighting for the title is going to be dangerous everywhere.”
Esparza knows that all those same factors apply to her game, as well, and she’s looking forward to the opportunity to silence critics and showcase to the world why she’s the undisputed strawweight champion.
“I think beating Weili will solidify my legacy,” she said. “I’m going to defend my title at UFC 281 because I’ve trained so hard, I’ve worked so hard and I’m going to look for this finish.”
UFC 281: Adesanya vs Pereira took place live from Madison Square Garden in New York City on November 12, 2022. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards, and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!