Now that she’s reclaimed the UFC strawweight title, Carla Esparza isn’t really calling out her opponents anymore.
That said, the two-time 115-pound champion still has a vested interest in her upcoming title defense, which is why she was a bit surprised to hear Zhang Weili crowned No. 1 contender after her victory over Joanna Jedrzejczyk at the UFC 275.
Esparza thinks Marina Rodriguez is the person most deserving of a title shot. The champ prefers Rodriguez’s current winning streak and impressive performance against ranked opponents over Zhang’s recent victory after back-to-back losses to Rose Namajunas.
” I do not think so [Zhang] is [more deserving]Esparza told MMA Fighting. “I think Marina has won five times in a row, I think she’s beaten the top competition. She’s stayed active, and for me she’s proven herself. She deserves a shot at the title. But for some reason, I’m sure there’s a lot going on and Weili gets the hang of it.
“For me, I fight whoever is placed in front of me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I think it’s right or that it was the right decision as far as the athlete is concerned.”
Esparza holds a split decision victory over Rodriguez in the Brazilian’s last defeat, but she has seen real improvements in the challenger’s game since their fight almost two years ago.
“Every time I watch Marina, I see her improving and beating the best girls,” Esparza said. “Even having to knock someone out twice in a fight in Amanda Ribas. She is impressive.
“I really think she won the title fight, and sometimes that’s how it is with the UFC. Whether it’s marketing or any other reasoning, that’s how it goes, and you just have to roll with the punches.
Assuming Zhang becomes her next opponent, Esparza is more than up for the challenge. But she will also give herself a lot of time to prepare.
Immediately following his knockout against Jedrzejczyk, Zhang called for a title shot in October when the UFC plans to return to Abu Dhabi.
In response, Esparza reminded Zhang that she was the champion and had some latitude when she competed again. Her previous title reign only lasted three months when she rushed into a fight against Jedrzejczyk after defeating Namajunas in The ultimate fighter 20 final.
“I would say fighting Joanna so quickly – it was my fifth fight in eight months – I would say fighting so quickly has to be one of my biggest regrets of my career,” Esparza admitted. “I wasn’t 100% and I ended up tearing my shoulder in that fight.
“For me, it doesn’t take away from Joanna’s victory, because I made the decision to enter the octagon. It was my choice, but what I get out of it, I have to learn my lesson. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
Despite taking minimal damage in her split decision victory over Namajunas in May, Esparza did not enter the fight at full strength. She is quick to point out that the fight itself is rarely where athletes suffer injury – it’s the weeks and months leading up to an event that make the most of it.
“I definitely got some backlash on social media about ‘There’s no way you got hurt in this fight, nothing even happened,'” Esparza said. “Some of the trolls [were] smack talk, but what people don’t realize is a brutal sport. The side that gets into these fights is brutal. No fighter will most likely go into a fight 100%.
“I had [my thumb] dislocated and taken back a week or two before the fight [with Rose Namajunas]. I couldn’t even have someone grab my hand without screaming in pain. I think I screamed once at the gym. Everyone turned around and I was like, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine.’
“I am having two MRIs next week. The doctor checked, it doesn’t look serious, but I just want to be sure. I want to get into this fight camp 100%. I want to be my best. As everyone saw in last week’s fight, Weili is a dangerous opponent. I want to get into this fight 100%, and I’m not going to her timeline or where she thinks she’s best.
“Ideally, November-December seems fine to me. Even if I have to do some rehab over the next month and not hit the battle camp-style training mode yet, at least it will give me time to recover.
“You talk about my longevity in this sport, and my longevity, I have to say I attribute a lot of that to my willingness to give my injuries time to recover. Just taking care of my body. not in this sport for 12, 13 years at the top, not worrying about maintaining your body and keeping it performing at peak performance.
If anyone claims Esparza is ducking the fight by asking for a later date, the 34-year-old veteran is quick to point out that she’s twice accepted Zhang as an opponent, and that’s not why the match did not take place.
“She turned them down when she was champion,” Esparza said. “I’m not afraid to fight anyone, but I just have to do it on my schedule.
“When there was a suspension of the fight that was supposed to take place with Rose and Weili, they offered me the fight with Weili, and I accepted both times. One was a little longer, the other was shorter, but I was like I don’t care if it’s a week, if I get the opportunity to fight for the belt, I’ll seize any opportunity. I said yes and she said no.
Of course, Esparza doesn’t hold that against Zhang. But she’s also not going to be pressured to come back before she’s ready. She fully anticipates fighting before the end of 2022. But until she’s healthy, she won’t be rushed into a title defense just because the No. 1 contender gets anxious.
“I’ll just say she’s making her demands and she has every right to try to push for any date and location that she wants,” Esparza said. “But like I said, she’s not the champion.
“It’s going to go on my schedule, when I’m healthy and when I can start a solid camp and be at my best for this super tough opponent.”