Carla Esparza ‘tired of being the gatekeeper,’ wants shot to become champion again

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Carla Esparza has enjoyed running off four straight wins and becoming the strawweight division’s halter of hype trains. Now she’s ready to get back to a title fight in one of the UFC’s most competitive divisions.

Esparza earned a hard fought split decision win over Marina Rodriguez at UFC on ESPN 14 this past month in Abu Dhabi. “Cookie Monster” was able to overcome some admitted mistakes, and some unique striking from Rodriguez off of her back to get her hand raised once again.

“Honestly, I feel we were pretty well prepared for everything that she had,” Esparza told MMA Fighting while appearing on What the Heck. “The only thing that may have caught me off guard a little bit were the strikes off of her back. I didn’t think she would be as dangerous as she was. When I gave her the opportunity being on top and going for those foot locks, she was very aggressive and took advantage of that short amount of time down there.

“She was super tough. She does have a lot of grit and a no quit attitude. When I went for my second foot lock, I thought I heard a few pops and she would tap, but she was super, super tough.”

The judges’ scorecards were all over the place following the super competitive matchup with one judge giving Esparza the first and third rounds, another giving Rodriguez the first and second, and the final judge giving Esparza the clean sweep.

Although the fight was very close, Esparza believes that Clemens Werner was accurate in his scoring.

“I felt that I won all three rounds, but I was a little scared at that moment,” Esparza said. “I would’ve been kicking myself going for those heel and foot lock attempts had the decision gone the other way, but I was able to pull it off.”

One of the bright stars to come out of the UFC’s trip to Fight Island was fellow 115er Amanda Ribas. Following her first-round submission win over Paige VanZant at UFC 251, Ribas called for the winner of the fight between Esparza and Rodriguez.

Esparza has been eyeing a fight with longtime rival Claudia Gadelha, who is now booked to fight Yan Xiaonan on Sept. 26, but she is more than willing to face another rising star in the division.

“Amanda has been someone I’ve been hearing about for a while in the division as an up and coming star,” Esparza explained. “I would definitely love the opportunity to take that challenge—especially since she’s been asking for it. I would love that fight, I think it’s a really good one.

“Claudia Gadelha, it’s gonna happen at some point. It’s tough because I’ve been wanting to fight her and we’ve had this back-and-forth since Invicta, seven-plus years having this rivalry. She wants to fight me, I want to fight her and it’s going to happen eventually, but I’m not gonna hold my breath for it. If Amanda’s the next fight for me, she’s the next fight for me.”

Esparza’s current streak includes victories over Michelle Waterson, along with Alexa Grasso and the previously unbeaten Virna Jandiroba. The Team Oyama standout has taken great pride in knocking down some of the division’s rising contenders, but admits that she feels like the UFC has put in the litmus test spot at 115-pounds.

At 32, Esparza no longer wants to be the one to protect the proverbial gate, she wants to run through it en route to getting the chance to become a UFC champions once again.

With some of the division’s top contenders on the shelf, Esparza believes she has put herself in a position to fight Zhang Weili for the strawweight strap.

“That’s what it’s starting to feel like,” Esparza said. “I feel like I’m kind of the gatekeeper for the young up and comers. I’m tired of being that gatekeeper. I feel like I’m ready for another title shot. I feel like I’m the next fight that makes sense. There’s a lot of people that are out right now, or coming off losses and, for me, I’ve been knocked down and I’ve been crawling my way back to get that shot.

“I would say I am ready for that fight (with Weili) and with everything going on in the world, it would be like stars aligning. It’s kind of worked out this way and everything is lining up with Rose (Namajunas) out, Tatiana (Suarez) has a neck injury, Nina (Ansaroff) is pregnant and there’s a lot going on in this division right now. I’m coming off four straight wins against tough competition and I think the stars are aligning for this opportunity. My hands are open.”

It would seem, currently, that it would be a two-horse race to determine Weili’s next title challenger. The UFC could give Esparza the shot, or they could set up fight between Weili and former, longtime champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk in a rematch of the 2020 “Fight of the Year” frontrunner from UFC 248.

Esparza and Jędrzejczyk have a little history between them. After Esparza became the inaugural strawweight champion at the TUF 20 Finale in December 2014, she would have her first title defense against Jędrzejczyk at UFC 185 three months later. Jędrzejczyk would become champion via second-round TKO.

Should the rematch between the two former champions come together in a No. 1 contender scenario, Esparza believes things would go differently over five years later.

“I think if we fought again, it’s a tough fight,” Esparza said. “Joanna is one of the best fighters in the world. Who knows where the fight’s gonna go, but I definitely feel it would go differently than the first time. I’m not one who’s hungry for rematches, for this person or that person, I just want that top spot. Whoever it’s gonna be: whether it’s Joanna, it’s Weili, or whoever. I’m not chasing any specific person—aside from Claudia and the rivalry—but I’m game for whoever will get me to that title shot.”

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