Jodie Esquibel had a choice. After what was a controversial end to her short run on The Ultimate Fighter 24, she could have hung around and anticipated a call from the UFC to fight. Or she could have continued her promising career in a familiar place: Invicta FC.
Esquibel chose the latter.
"I'm back in Invicta, because I'm not about to wait around for anybody right now," Esquibel told MMA Fighting. ... "It was kind of like, well that's all great and I'll be ready for the [UFC] call no matter what, but I feel like I'm the best I've ever been and I don't want to sit on the sideline right now. Invicta was gracious enough to allow me to headline this card and I thought, ‘Hey, why not?' It's a great opportunity for me."
Esquibel will meet top prospect Alexa Grasso in the main event of Invicta FC 18 on Friday night in Kansas City. The card will air live on UFC Fight Pass, so once again Esquibel is on UFC programming, but not on the actual roster. If she beats Grasso, Esquibel will get a title shot.
Earlier this year, Esquibel (5-1) went into TUF 24 as one of the prohibitive favorites. But on the premiere episode, she dropped an elimination fight to Ashley Yoder by split decision. The close bout didn't even go to the third round. Two judges thought Yoder won the first and second and a third was not needed. However, many including coaches Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Claudia Gadelha and UFC president Dana White felt Esquibel actually won both rounds. At the very least, most thought it would have gone to a third.
So, Esquibel was gone before even getting to the house. The JacksonWink MMA product felt somewhat validated after watching the season, though. Esquibel, 30, is confident she would have won the whole thing if those judges gave her a fighting chance. Tatiana Suarez ended up defeating Amanda Bobby Cooper at the TUF 24 Finale earlier this month to earn the UFC contract.
"I would have went to the finals," she said. "There's no question about it. There's no way I wouldn't have gone to the finals. It's frustrating, but whatever. I can't sit and think about how it should have been or I wish I could have. We're here now and I'm headlining an Invicta card. It was only a confident booster. I know I could have ran through that house and I can only take the good from that experience. I learned so much about myself and where I want to go as a fighter and what I'm gonna do next. It was perfect."
In some ways, this fight with Grasso is more high profile than a UFC debut fight. It's in a main event and Grasso is one of the top up-and-coming fighters in all of women's MMA. White has publicly said how much he covets Grasso. Esquibel looks at it like her chance to make a statement in a big fight.
"Talk about the ideal opportunity, right?" Esquibel said. "Like having hype behind you and the UFC wants you. Well, I'm glad they took the matchup, but I have everything to gain from this opportunity and I'd love to be that spoiler."
Esquibel said she doesn't really care that she could earn an Invicta women's strawweight title shot against Angela Hill if she beats Grasso. She's taking her fighting career one step at a time. A UFC spot could open up any day and she'll be primed for that as well.
"I'll be ready for the call no matter what," Esquibel said. "There's nobody in the UFC right now that I don't think I can compete against. I think there's even a handful of strawweights on the Invicta roster that might even be tougher matchups than some girls on the UFC roster."
Grasso could be one of them. And that's who Esquibel has in front of her right now. Not White or UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby or those judges from the TUF premiere.
"I don't fight for tomorrow," Esquibel said. "I'll fight for now. Whatever happens after this fight is what is supposed to happen. If I get the [UFC] call, cool. If I don't, I'll be the No. 1 contender for an Invicta title or whatever it is. Whatever happens. I just feel like it's a great fight in any way. I'll be happy with an outcome if it's a win."