Nothing came easy for Esparza over three rounds but ultimately she was able to employ a suffocating grappling game combined with her ground and pound to sway the judges in her favor. The scorecards came back 30-27 and 29-28 for Esparza with the third judge giving a 29-28 score to Rodrigeuz.
“I was expecting some heavy punches, big knees and elbows and even off her back, her elbows are deadly,” Esparza said following the win. “I was working really hard to up my finishing game for this fight. Rodirguez was super tough.
“I’m getting a step closer, a step closer so hopefully I’ll be in those [title] talks soon.”
A former All-American wrestler in college, Esparza grounded Rodriguez following an opening exchange as she grabbed onto a leg and brought the fight down to the floor. Posturing up on her heels, Esparza put the pressure on Rodriguez while peppering away with punches from the top.
While she was stuck playing defense for several minutes, Rodriguez did manage to fire an elbow from the bottom that opened up a nasty cut over Esparza’s eye.
Following a failed leg lock attempt, Esparza found herself stuck underneath Rodriguez, who began landing damaging shots and making the former strawweight champion pay for giving up her dominant position from the initial takedown.
The cut over Esparza’s eye eventually ballooned up into a nasty bruise as well but she was undeterred from her wrestling attempts as the fight continued. Esparza wasn’t doing as much damage but she kept busy with punches to the head and body as she maintained control on the ground.
Once again, Esparza made an ill-fated leg lock attempt towards the end of the second round and Rodriguez took advantage with arguably the most punishing strikes during the five-minute session.
After two close rounds, Esparza attempted to secure the victory by dragging Rodriguez into her world on the mat where she began employing a similar ground and pound attack. With less than 30 seconds remaining, Rodriguez did manage to get up to her feet but a moment later she was back on the canvas courtesy of another Esparza takedown.
With reigning champion Zhang Weili still awaiting her next opponent, Esparza could potentially enter that conversation but if not she still has vengeance on her mind as she seeks to revisit a past rivalry.
“Claudia [Gadelha] and I were supposed to fight next,” Esparza said. “I think that’s a fight waiting to happen. Whoever’s going to get me closer to that title fight, I’m down.