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Carla Esparza on UFC 249: ‘Honestly I don’t think it’s going to feel 100 percent real until that cage door closes’

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Carla Esparza just wanted to fight.

Originally scheduled to compete on April 11, the former strawweight champion had her bout against Michelle Waterson postponed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The disappointment didn’t stop Esparza from continuing to train in hopes that she would get booked as soon as the UFC was up and running again.

In fact, Esparza loudly voiced her support of UFC president Dana White as he planned to promote shows during the global pandemic. A few more cards were either postponed or cancelled but eventually the UFC settled on May 9 for the first show back in nearly two months after the state of Florida deemed sports an “essential service” so long as the events happened behind closed doors without an audience in attendance.

Esparza wasted no time accepting an opportunity to fight at UFC 249 but considering the long list of delays, postponements and cancellations, it’s still difficult for her to fully believe the event will be moving ahead as scheduled.

“Honestly, I don’t think it’s going to feel 100-percent real until that cage door shuts,” Esparza told MMA Fighting. “It’s been so crazy. Even the Bellator fighters weighed in and then fight day it’s cancelled.

“This thing is so crazy and so unpredictable. So until it’s actually here and I’m in the location, I think it will start feeling real at that time.”

Thanks to her experience winning The Ultimate Fighter back in season 20, Esparza has already fought without a crowd in attendance so UFC 249 won’t be anything new for her in that regard.

A great number of fighters on the card haven’t faced that kind of unique situation and Esparza warns them that it’s not as easy to stay focused as it might seem.

“It’s definitely a totally different experience,” Esparz explained. “The adrenaline is different. You can definitely hear a lot more. You think a lot more. When you’re in front of a crowd, it’s almost like an out of body experience. On The Ultimate Fighter, you can feel things a little bit more than you would in front of a crowd. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

“I’ve had success in both, especially on The Ultimate Fighter. No music walking out, no crowd, not knowing what day I’m going to fight. There was a lot of unpredictability in that situation as it’s been in this situation.”

While Esparza has been training for a fight for longer than expected considering she was originally slated to compete almost exactly one month ago, she’s still been forced to face a whole new set of obstacles as she prepares during a global pandemic.

As a resident of California where gyms have been shut down, Esparza faced a lot of challenges when it came time to work with coaches and teammates but she certainly doesn’t want anybody to feel sorry for her.

“I’m still getting my training in. I’m still doing my private sessions. I’m still running. I can run outside. But it’s not the same,” Esparza said. “You just have to think nobody is getting their regular training camp so everybody is relatively in an even playing field. You’ve got to do what you’re got to do.

“If somebody tried to fight you in the street are you going to be like ‘no, well I haven’t properly trained for this.’ When it’s time to fight, your body naturally takes over and you do what you’ve got to do.”

From travel plans to the precautions being taken to ensure athletes are healthy and safe, Esparza knows nothing is going to feel quite like a regular fight week once she arrives in Jacksonville but that doesn’t matter much to her.

Even in the aftermath if Esparza is forced to go into a self-quarantine for two weeks after returning home, it will all be worth it as long as she gets the chance to fight.

“I want to fight,” Esparza said. “For me, obviously the worst thing, I would not want to get anybody else sick. For me, I’m young. I’m healthy. I don’t smoke. At the worst, I’m going to get sick for a couple of days or a week. I’m not worried about myself. I’m very precautious right now. I just want to fight.

“When I come back, I’m definitely going to stay home. Not have contact with anybody. I live with my dogs. I heard a tiger got [COVID-19] but I’m not too worried about them. For me, that’s not a concern at all. I don’t want to get anybody sick so I’ll stay home in isolation.”

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