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Carla Esparza: Women's strawweight title fight not being promoted 'as much as it should be'

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

When the first artwork for UFC 185 came out, Carla Esparza was surprised. Because she wasn't on it.

Anthony Pettis, the UFC lightweight champion, was there. So was his opponent, Rafael dos Anjos. Also on the design were the faces of Johny Hendricks and Matt Brown.

Meanwhile, the co-main event -- a women's strawweight title fight between Esparza and Joanna Jedrzejczyk -- was nowhere to be found.

That was amended in newer versions and the official fight poster. But Esparza initially and rightly felt slighted.

"To be honest, I don't think our specific fight is being promoted as much as it should be," Esparza told MMAFighting.com "It is what it is. I'm gonna just keep winning fights and then those things will come. I'm not really too focused on that."

Esparza's résumé cannot be understated. She's clearly the best women's strawweight on the planet and that was demonstrated in a third-round submission win over Rose Namajunas in December that earned Esparza the UFC's first 115-pound title. Namajunas was someone the UFC was promoting as a next Ronda Rousey-type and she was undone by the technical, scrappy and hard-nosed wrestler.

In all, Esparza (10-2), the former Invicta FC women's strawweight champion, has won five straight and has not lost in four years. She made her way unscathed through the gauntlet of The Ultimate Fighter 20. Yet it seems like there's always someone else the UFC would rather push, like rising strawweight prospect Paige VanZant, who has done countless photo and video shoots.

VanZant, 20, only has five pro fights and doesn't seem especially close to a title shot. Yet her fight against Felice Herrig, Esparza's best friend, is getting tertiary billing at UFC on FOX 15 on April 11 in Newark. VanZant and Herrig have been very proactive about marketing themselves -- and their looks -- while Esparza is quiet and unassuming.

"I guess I can look at it in a positive or a negative way," Esparza said. "I can look at it as, 'Hey great, females are getting on the card for whatever reason.' And it's a business. But at the same time, I can look at it in a negative way and say 'Hey, it's a business, so does that mean it's all about sex sells, promoting yourself as that?' So, I try not to focus too much on that. I'm just happy for my friend. Maybe if it was somebody else in that fight, I wouldn't be as happy, but it's all good."

VanZant was also recently signed by Reebok, joining the likes of Rousey, Jon Jones and Conor McGregor, some of the UFC's biggest stars. Esparza has mixed feelings about the situation.

"I'm never gonna hate on someone," Esparza said. "I'm not gonna hate on Paige for taking an opportunity that was given to her. But as far as the decision that Reebok made for that, I understand wanting to deal with someone who is very marketable. But I think it has to go hand in hand with someone's skill level and experience, what they do in the sport."

Esparza joked that maybe if she were blonde she would get more love from the UFC and sponsors.

"I think that's what it may be," Esparza said. "The only two [female] fighters to sign [with Reebok] have been blonde, so I'm thinking about throwing a blonde wig on."

The promotion for Esparza-Jedrzejczyk has increased. Both women were a part of the UFC's Welcome to the Show press conference Saturday in Los Angeles and spoke to media afterward. The UFC announced Wednesday that it would be holding a media day for Jedrzejczyk in Las Vegas on Friday.

Esparza is mostly over it. Training camp is almost finished and she's focused now on doing what she does better than anyone else in the world: beating strawweights.

"I don't think it's a bad message," Esparza said. "I think it's a realistic message. That's the way the world works. If you're marketable, you can make your money in different ways. That's the way it is. It's like with a job, if you're good at networking, you may not be the best person at the specific job, but you know how to get your opportunities. It is the way it is."

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