To claim the UFC’s first strawweight title Carla Esparza waded through a 16-woman tournament, stopping the division’s elite and silencing her critics at every turn.
This feature originally appeared in the Feb/March 2015 issue of UFC: The Official Magazine.
As soon as it was revealed that Rose Namajunas was going to be facing Carla Esparza in the finals of The Ultimate Fighter: A Champion Will Be Crowned—a bout that would produce the UFC’s first strawweight champion—the media hype went into overdrive, preemptively anointing the 22-yearold Namajunas as a lock for the belt and becoming the next Ronda Rousey. Esparza heard every word. “One hundred percent,” she said. “It was hard for me and my coaches seeing all the people not believing in me and everyone counting me out, saying, ‘Rose has this one in the bag. Rose is the next Ronda Rousey.’ Nine out of 10 people had Rose winning that fight—and not only winning it, but dominating me, finishing me.”
The five-round fight at The Palms in Las Vegas went into the third stanza, and at the 1:26 mark it was over. And the winner may not have been the next Ronda Rousey, but she showed the world that being the first Carla Esparza isn’t bad at all. “When I got the belt it didn’t even feel real,” said Esparza, who submitted Namajunas via rear-naked choke. “I kept waiting to wake up from a dream. It was such an unreal feeling, and it didn’t hit me how significant it was. Even the day after, I was still blowing my own mind, thinking, Oh my God, I cannot believe this. It was crazy.”
For a few days leading up to the bout, it may have seemed crazy to think Esparza was going to derail the hype train of “Thug” Rose. But before that, the only way you would get funny looks when talking about the 27-year-old Los Angeles native was to say she wasn’t the best 115-pound fighter in the world. And that’s because she has been on top for years. The only problem was that as Esparza came up the ranks, the market for female fighters wasn’t exactly lucrative. Being the best strawweight in the world was akin to being the best water polo player in Brooklyn. If you were going to do it, you were doing it for the love of the game and nothing else. “I was fighting for $800 with the win bonus and spending $850 on the medicals,” she laughs when discussing her first pro fight in 2010, a 48-second TKO of Cassie Trost. “I lost money on my first fight, even though I won. It was a realization for me that I’m doing this sport because I love it. I’m not doing it to make money. I have my college degree, and I could go out and get a job. Honestly, I could go out and work at a burger joint and make much more than I was making then. But I told myself I was going to sacrifice for this, and I wanted to do this because it’s important to me. I didn’t really see it as something I could ever have a career in.”
Owner of a business degree from Menlo College in Atherton, California—where she also wrestled under two-time Olympian Lee Allen and picked up All-American honors in 2008 and 2009—Esparza’s eventual home when it came to mixed martial arts was the Team Oyama gym led by no-nonsense coach Colin Oyama. If you could hang with the monsters in that Irvine, California, gym, you could fight. And Esparza was a quick study, fighting as often as she could and winning five of her first seven bouts. It wasn’t an easy road for her, and she assumed that eventually she was going to have to stop, if only for practical reasons. “I said, ‘I’ll do this for a couple years and then I’m probably going to stop, just because I need to survive. I need to have money to put food on the table and a roof over my head,’” Esparza said. “I did sacrifice. I lived at my parents’ house for a long time, and I didn’t have money to go out and do the things that I wanted to do or buy the things that I wanted to buy, but I loved doing this.”
And as opportunities cropped up, Esparza kept telling herself, One more fight, one more fight. In 2012 she was signed by the all-female Invicta FC promotion, which offered more money than she had been making before. She went 3–0 there, capping it off with a win over Bec Rawlings in January of 2013 that earned her the organization’s first strawweight title. Then the UFC called, signing her up for the new 115-pound division and putting her in the nation’s living rooms as a member of The Ultimate Fighter: A Champion Will Be Crowned cast. “I said, ‘All right, I can stick with this for a little bit longer now.’” She laughs about it now, and she can afford to—considering that she made UFC history, is a world champion and now has a career path that didn’t seem possible a few years ago. But that didn’t mean there weren’t obstacles to getting here, even as recently as her stint on the show, where she was the No. 1 seed and expected to run through the field. That’s enough pressure, but when the drama in the house that comes part and parcel with reality TV hit the airwaves, it was something that took Esparza by surprise.
“Carla’s never been out there as much as I have, so she’s never really gotten as much crap and grief for the things she does, and she’s never been dissected the way I’ve been dissected,” said Felice Herrig, Esparza’s fellow strawweight and one of her best friends. “So after the show she had me to turn to in that respect because now she’s been going through what I had for years upon years. Hearing the heated back-and-forth banter between the participants on the show once it began airing was an unfortunate aspect of a historic season that produced some serious fighters for the UFC’s strawweight division and plenty of exciting fights. Yet through it all Esparza showed her championship mettle in victories over Angela Hill, Tecia Torres and Jessica Penne. And while Esparza’s peers knew how good the “Cookie Monster” was, the fighter got a crash course in just how fickle the fans could be.
“It’s kind of a trip,” she said. “Before my first fight, people were counting me out—even against someone with less experience like Angela Hill, saying she was gonna beat me. I saw that a lot. But after I won people were saying I was going to be number one and win the whole thing. And then after I fought Tecia people said I’m a one-trick pony, that I have nothing. And this is in a matter of weeks that people are changing their opinions of me. I guess it’s hard not to take things personally, but I have to try not to focus on what people are saying and just have belief in myself and my coaches.” That was the game plan leading up to the Namajunas fight. She heard everything people were saying, but she blocked it out as much as she could. That doesn’t mean some of it didn’t slip through.
“I’VE BEEN UNDERESTIMATED MY WHOLE CAREER, AND THAT’S PART OF THE REASON WHY I WAS HAPPY TO BE IN THIS TOURNAMENT FORMAT AND NOT HAVE THE BELT HANDED TO ME. NOBODY CAN DOUBT ME NOW.”
“I saw her more nervous for this fight than I’ve ever seen her before, so that made me more nervous,” said Herrig, who won her UFC debut earlier that night against Lisa Ellis. When you add in the fact that she was in the main event in her UFC debut with a chance to make history, Esparza’s game on fight night could have gone south in a hurry. “I didn’t want to focus on all the things that came with it,” she said of winning. “I just wanted to focus on the specifics of the fight. For me, thinking about what I would get with the win would just be jumping ahead of myself.” Eleven minutes and 26 seconds after the opening bell she got what she was looking for. And while Namajunas had some brief moments of success early on, once Esparza got into her rhythm it was just a matter of time until she lowered the boom. “The fight didn’t go the way I expected it to, actually,” she admits. “I thought there was a possibility that there would be a finish because both Rose and I are finishers. The majority of my fights end in stoppages, and it’s the same with her. So I expected it would be a finish either way, but I definitely didn’t expect to dominate like that. And I hate to say dominate, because she is such an excellent fighter. And I don’t want to take away from her, but that’s kind of what I’ve been hearing.”
If Esparza’s humility doesn’t come shining through after that statement, you may want to watch the fight again for her post-fight interview, in which she takes her moment in the sun and shines it on one of her teammates, the late UFC heavyweight Shane del Rosario, who passed away on December 9, 2013. “Shane was such a huge part of my gym and my team,” Esparza said. “He had been with Team Oyama from the beginning. He’s our family, and last year when we lost him was a very hard time for everybody at the gym. We have a whole wall at our gym dedicated to his memory, because we never want to forget who he was to us. He was the lifeblood of our gym, and it’s hard not having him there. You feel the vibe at the gym around this time of year, and everybody’s hurting a little bit, especially my coach, who was so close to Shane. That was his boy. I just wanted to show the world that we didn’t forget and that he’s still in our hearts.” That kind of selflessness may come as a surprise to some, but not to Herrig, who ironically became close friends with Esparza after they fought in 2011. “Carla is the most unselfish person I’ve ever met,” she said. “For her, everything is about the people around her that she cares about. Everything is about her friends. You couldn’t ask for a better friend than Carla.” Esparza gets quiet, almost embarrassed, when you bring up topics like her humble and classy attitude, simply chalking it up to who she is as a person and as something she learned over the years in sports, where anything can change in the blink of an eye.
“I have had times, even in my wrestling career, where I did get cocky, and that’s when you get caught off guard and end up losing because of this overconfidence,” she said. “And I have lost, so I know anything can happen at any time, and you must always respect your opponent. You never know what they’re going to bring to the table and how badly they want it. So I think it’s just my experience in life and in competition that’s given me this attitude.” She won’t change it either. So while she may have been overlooked or underestimated over the years, getting through a tournament of 16 elite strawweights more than proves that she is the best of the best at 115 pounds.
“I’ve been underestimated my whole career, and that’s part of the reason why I was happy to be in this tournament format and not have the belt handed to me,” Esparza said. “Just having people know without a doubt that I am a champion because I went through this journey and beat all these fighters to be the champion made it that much more undeniable. And nobody can doubt me now.”
Esparza vs. Jedrzejczyk
Despite taking some time off for a trip to Australia after the Namajunas bout, there was really no rest for the new champion, as the night after Esparza’s title-winning effort, she watched Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Claudia Gadelha battle it out for the No. 1 contender’s spot. Esparza was impressed with the Polish Muay Thai expert, who Esparza will now face at UFC 185. “I thought it was a great fight,” Esparza said. “Both women looked phenomenal. When I watched Joanna fight, I was like, ‘Dang, that girl looks like she hits hard.’ She looks very physically strong, and she’s an excellent fighter—and that’s to be expected. If you’re a possible next contender for a belt in any weight category I expect you to be an amazing fighter, and that she is.”
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