Heading into Saturday night, Esparza was already considered the No. 1 contender in the division but the UFC opted to give Zhang an immediate rematch against Namajunas after she suffered a head-kick knockout in their first meeting earlier this year.
Namajunas edged out a split decision victory to retain her title and Esparza sent her a message of congratulations along with a message about a potential rematch in the future.
“Congratulations Rose Namajunas on a fantastic victory!” Esparza wrote on Instagram. “Inspiring to so many and I am truly happy for you. Fate had us cross paths when we created this division and I’m proud that seven years later we are both still here at the top of it.
“This is not a call out or anything disrespectful. This is genuine respect. You deserve time to celebrate and enjoy this accomplishment. It will be an honor to run this back when you are ready.”
Esparza defeated Namajunas to become the inaugural UFC strawweight champion following The Ultimate Fighter season 20. A rematch seemed like an easy bit of matchmaking after Esparza secured her fifth win in a row with a dominant finish over Yan Xioanan back in May.
Instead, the UFC opted to go with Zhang for the rematch and despite Esparza’s standing in the division, she may still be stuck on the outside looking in when it comes to the next title shot.
Despite Namajunas expressing interest in the rematch against Esparza, UFC president Dana White encouraged the former champion not to sit and wait while addressing her situation at the post-fight press conference while adding that the promotion has “an option” when it comes to another contender in the strawweight division.
While he didn’t mention anyone by name, White may be referring to former champion Jessica Andrade, who previously mentioned her interest in running it back with Namajunas after they previously split a pair of fights in 2019 and 2020.
Andrade is currently ranked No. 2 overall in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings at flyweight, which is where she’s been competing recently but she’s said that a return to 115 pounds is definitely possible for the future.
Judging by White’s comments, Andrade might just be the person who could jump into the next title shot, which would once again leave Esparza as the odd woman out despite her impressive win streak in the division.