Carla Esparza dedicates Invicta title defense to teammate Shane Del Rosario

Esther Lin

Invicta strawweight champion Carla Esparza is channeling the power of positivity as she juggles the mental challenge of coping with the plight of a fallen teammate and the demands of her upcoming title defense.

The 26-year-old from Los Angeles' South Bay area was winding down her hard training sessions for her Invicta 7 match with Claudia Gadelha when the news came down last week which rocked the Team Oyama gym: Shane Del Rosario, the popular and gregarious UFC heavyweight, was taken to the hospital last week with what was termed a catastrophic cardiovascular collapse.

"Shane is the one guy everyone in the gym gravitates to," Esparza said. "He's so kind, so warm, such an easygoing guy. He's one of those people in life you come across that no one in their right mind would ever say a bad word about. When he's in the gym, it picks everyone else up."

An awful Thanksgiving Day was filled with erroneous reports that Del Rosario had passed away, followed by clarifications that he was still alive. Del Rosario's parents were prepared to remove Del Rosario from life support and end things on Friday. But here, a week later, Del Rosario is still alive, though he remains in dire condition.

"There's hope," said Esparza. "As along as there's still hope, I'm going to have faith and we're all going to be stronger. I never gave up hope.‘[As of Tuesday] he's off life support, he responded to nurses and squeezed his mother's hand, he's gone in for another surgery. This could still go either way, but there are encouraging signs."

It has been an eventful 2013 for Esparza, filled with good, bad, and everything in between. On January 5, Esparza decisioned Bec Hyatt to claim the inaugural Invicta strawweight belt. She was scheduled to make her fight title defense at Invicta 6 on July 13 against Ayaka Hamasaki, but had to pull out due to a knee injury.

"I hated it," she said. "I was so ready to go. I'm the type of person who always needs to be doing something, so I was torture not being able to go. Originally they told me the shows going to be in October or November and that probably would have been a little soon, but even then, I was so ready to get back into action that I probably would have done it, no matter what anyone told me."

If Gadelha's name rings a bell, it's because these two were originally slated to square off back in January. But a broken nose suffered in training put Gadelha on the sidelines. Nearly a year later -- and with a victory over Hamasaki in between -- Gadelha is back in Esparza's sights.

The 24-year-old is an unbeaten product of Brazil's Nova Unaio camp, home of Jose Aldo Jr. and Renan Barao. And like her famed teammates, Gadelha is a finisher, with eight of her 11 victories coming via stoppage.

An accomplished jiu-jjitsu practioner, Gadelha has six submissions on her ledger. But as far as Esparza is concerned, if Gadelha wants to bring it, she'll be ready.

"I know her jiu-jitsu credentials and I know she comes from a good camp," said Esparza, a two-time women's collegiate wrestling All-American. "But I can handle myself wherever the fight goes. I'm more more focused on myself and what I can do than my opponent."

As if there wasn't enough swirling around Esparza in recent months, a news item which could affect her career down the road popped up in recent weeks. Hot in the heels of the recent season of The Ultimate Fighter, which featured women's bantamweights, UFC president Dana White said that the next weight class the world's biggest MMA company will target on the women's side is 115 pounds.

Esparza, of course, holds the 115-pound title in the most important all-women's MMA promotion. She can't pretend the news didn't get her attention.

"Of course I heard about it," Esparza said. "I think it's great. But I think it's a thing that's great for the sport, not for me. Let me make this clear: I'm happy in Invicta. I'm under contract to Invicta and I'm happy with the way they've treated me. But I think it's an awesome thing for the sport of women's MMA. If they're adding another weight class, that means they're committed to this, and it's going to mean more opportunities for more fighters. That's an awesome thing."

Understandably, Esparza didn't want to go into too much detail about how Del Rosario's situation has affected her preparation for the fight. But as she got set to head out to the Kansas City area for fight-week festivities, the Invicta champion's final comment came straight from the heart: "This fight's for him," she said. "Whatever happens, Shane will be in my thoughts."

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