There are many firsts that a person experiences throughout their lifetime. First steps, first words, first airplane ride, first love, the list could go on and on. However, not many people can say that they’ve been a first champion in a sport.
UFC strawweight Carla Esparza is one of the few that gets to claim that title. Flash back over eight years ago on December 12, 2014, when Esparza stepped into the UFC Octagon to fight for the inaugural UFC strawweight title against Rose Namajunas. It was The Ultimate Fighter: A Champion Will Be Crowned Finale, which was the first season in the show’s history to feature only female fighters.
When she sat back and thought about that night, Esparza remembered it being nerve racking.
Carla Esparza | Career Retrospective
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Carla Esparza | Career Retrospective
“My opponent had so much hype behind her, and I thought I wasn't going to be able to deal with her jiu jitsu and it was going to be really scary,” Esparza recalled. “My coach even told me in between rounds, 'It's not as bad as you thought. It's not as scary as you thought. Just keep doing what you're doing on the ground like you got this.' I was really hard on myself going into it, but I was able to dominate.”
What made it even better for Esparza was that it was a finish, a third-round rear naked choke submission over Namajunas. It made the win that much more satisfying and left her with no questions like a decision win might have done.
“To win that historical title, that first title in the strawweight division, was the best feeling of my life and probably still is to this point,” Esparza said.
Being able to experience the victory with teammates, friends, and family is what made the night special for Esparza.
“The night that I became champion, the biggest memory that comes to mind is the finish and the 'Oh, my gosh, my hand is being raised,’ feeling” Esparza said. “That moment of pure, almost disbelief and happiness, that was the best feeling. Walking out with the belt and then just seeing all my teammates and friends after. I got to fight alongside my teammates on The Ultimate Fighter, including one of my best friends, Felice Herrig.”
Since then, the strawweight division has had a lot of changes and the belt has bounced around between a few different people such as Joanna Jędrzejczyk, Namajunas, Jéssica Andrade, and Zhang Weili. In addition to the legends and champions of the sport, there have been new names that have emerged into title contention, such as Amanda Lemos, Mackenzie Dern, and Marina Rodriguez.
The ever-changing landscape of the division is something that makes it exciting.
“I think the strawweight division has changed a lot in the last eight-plus years,” Esparza said. “It's always been really exciting and this great division full of very skilled fighters, but I think every year, just as the whole sport of MMA, it's just continuing to evolve and evolve and get better and better and we're seeing new rising stars come up in this division every day.”
Three months after claiming the belt, Esparza lost to Joanna Jędrzejczyk at UFC 185. Despite the setback, Esparza continued to work on her game in order to get back to a title shot one day. That chance came once again against an opponent that Esparza was all too familiar with, Namajunas. And she reclaimed the belt at UFC 274 last May.
Over the course of the eight years since she first became champion, Esparza has learned a lot about herself as a fighter.
“This is a constantly evolving game and my love for being a student and learning new things and my passion for this sport has just kept the fire alive in me. It helped propel me to just get better and better and be able to contend for this title again and win it eight years later,” Esparza said.
Esparza hopes she can convey to young girls that no matter how far you’ve fallen, don’t feel like you can’t get back up. Continue to keep getting better and learning, and success will come your way.
And even though she doesn’t hold the current title of champion anymore, she has still earned a mentality that she will carry with her throughout the rest of her life and it’s something she hopes to pass on to others.
“Being a champion, to me, is not just about a belt around my waist, it's a mentality,” Esparza said. “I think that I've always been a champion, but I've just been waiting for that belt to come into my life. Being a champion is not just about a belt or a medal; it's so many other things. It's a mentality. It's the lifestyle, the way you carry yourself every day.”