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Carla Esparza adjusts to life as Invicta strawweight champion

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Esther Lin

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. -- Carla Esparza knows that injury fallouts and late substitutes are part of the fight game.

But the fighter known as "The Cookie Monster" was still surprised with how Bec Hyatt was able to keep fighting and fighting at Invicta 4.

Hyatt was a substitute for an injured Claudia Gadelha and came halfway around the world from Australia to compete in their Jan. 5 main event. Esparza took a unanimous decision and claimed the inaugural Invicta strawweight championship, but not before Hyatt showed tremendous resilience in taking everything Esparza could dish out for 25 minutes.

With the fight in her rear-view mirror, Esparza looked back in admiration at her opponent's fighting spirit.

"She totally shocked the hell out of me," said Esparza (9-2). "I wasn't expecting her to be so mentally tough. I don't think there's a lot of men or women who can go in there and be on their back and you punch them in the face and you totally push the pace on them, but they keep coming. I don't think there's a lot of people who can do that and that takes a lot of heart."

Since then, the Redondo Beach, Calif. native and Team Oyama fighter has taken a bit of time to appreciate how far she's come along. The NAIA wrestling All-American at Menlo College has been making her name in mixed martial arts for the past four years, but carrying the 115-pound title belt for the premiere promotion in women's MMA has helped validate her efforts in a tangible way.

"I've been on a high ever since I won," Esparza said. "I'm so happy, to have this thing I've always wanted since I started fighting. I'm so happy, you know, it has been really life changing it feels good. The way that people look at you is different. You wake up one day and you know, you're a champion. People look at you different, you have this status and it feels good."

Esparza knows, of course, that such a feeling can be fleeting, and she'll soon be back to work. A contenders' fight between Gadelha and Ayaka Hamasaki to determine her next challenger is expected on an upcoming Invicta show. As to whom she's prefer to fight, Esparza says she simply wants to fight as often as she can.

"Obviously it takes a lot out of you mentally and physically to fight [frequently], but your body can only be in the sport so much so I definitely like to take lots of fights."

In the meantime, Esparza has an opinion on the main topic of conversation in the women's MMA world these days, the UFC 157 fight between Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche. Redondo Beach is about an hour's drive from Anaheim and the Invicta champ plans on being in attendance at the Honda Center on Feb. 23.

"Definitely going to be there, it's history," she said. "I think Liz is going to surprise people. I personally want Liz to win because she's a friend of mine. But I don't want to take anything from Rousey because she's a phenom and her armbars are just awesome."