Based on merit alone, Carla Esparza should probably earn a strawweight title shot if she’s able to defeat Yan Xiaonan at UFC Vegas 27, which would be her fifth win in a row overall.
But as much as words like “deserve” get tossed around with championship opportunities on the line, quite often the top contenders in any division are determined by hype, public outcry or just the right amount of luck and timing.
In Esparza’s case, her chances of receiving a title shot increased exponentially after Rose Namajunas reclaimed UFC gold with her stunning first-round knockout against Zhang Weili back in April. Nearly seven years ago, Esparza became the UFC’s inaugural 115-pound champion by thumping Namajunas at The Ultimate Fighter 20 Finale.
While she wasn’t rooting for anybody in the recent title fight, Esparza knows Namajunas winning the belt helps her chances of securing a rematch as she seeks to become a two-time UFC champion.
“I definitely feel that’s a more highly sought after fight in the eyes of the UFC and the fans,” Esparza told MMA Fighting when asked about the potential rematch with Namajunas. “I think that her getting that win worked out in my favor ensuring that this is a No. 1 contender’s fight.”
Prior to Namajunas securing her title shot against Zhang earlier this year, Esparza was the other name in the conversation as UFC President Dana White touted her as an option for the championship fight. After winning four fights in a row including victories over Marina Rodriguez and Michelle Waterson, Esparza has put together an impressive enough streak to earn that consideration.
Combining Esparza’s resume with Yan’s undefeated run through the first six fights of her UFC career would put the winner of their upcoming battle in an advantageous position when it comes to the strawweight division.
“No one has come to me from the UFC and been like ‘this is going to happen’ but I know I was pretty close to potentially having the title shot before when there was some possible issues with Rose,” Esparza explained. “I know I was the next in line in that case.
“In my mind, this is 100 percent, this is it — this is the No. 1 contender fight. On paper, that tells the same story. Especially with Rose winning the title, I think a lot of people are just seeing this as a potential match if I win this fight.”
The talk about a possible title fight in the future might seem like a distraction to some but Esparza can’t deny the magnitude of her showdown with Yan and what likely comes afterwards.
That certainly doesn’t mean she’s lost sight of the challenge directly in front of her.
“If I’m being totally honest with myself, [the title shot] has crossed my mind many times,” Esparza said. “People bring it up to me so it’s hard to avoid thinking of that.
“But I’m also really trying to be very thoughtful in keeping my mindset on the fight in front of me and focusing on my game plan and my skill set. What I need to do to win. Because without this next fight, that all goes away.”
There was a time not that long ago that Esparza wasn’t in the conversation for the title hunt after she went 3-3 in the six fights following the end of her first title reign. An argument could be made that Esparza deserved wins in two of those three losses — both came by split decision — but she still ultimately had to find a way to bounce back after a somewhat disappointing run between 2016 and 2018.
She can’t pinpoint one particular change that was made to help her turn things around but instead, Esparza can look at several things that helped her get physically and mentally ready for another run at the title.
“I wish I could say it was one thing but honestly I’ve taken a huge step up in my mentality. I’ve done a lot of reading and changed my mindset. I’ve made huge changes in my nutrition and supplementation to put on some size and strength.
“As far as my game goes, I’ve really taken a look at the holes in my game and tried to make adjustments and fix those things that brought me my last loss. I really worked on improving that.”
Esparza knows nothing in this world is guaranteed but she definitely hopes a win over Yan will lead her back to the strawweight title and the rematch with Namajunas later this year.
Losing the championship back in 2015 was devastating but Esparza was far from finished writing the story of her career and she’s looking forward to adding another chapter on Saturday night.
“It’s not just a me story,” Esparza said. “It shows that no matter how down and out you are, no matter how far you fall, you can fight your way and you can keep coming. There’s no bad thing that could happen to deter you from getting where you want to go.
“For me, it’s a comeback story. I hope people see it like that. I hope it inspires people who aren’t where they want to be or they had something and fallen from that, to not give up. To keep fighting and you can accomplish your dreams.”