Carla Esparza had already identified her UFC Vegas 27 co-main event showdown with Yan Xiaonan as a potential No. 1 contender’s bout but she also knew nothing was guaranteed.
That’s why the former strawweight champion decided to put an exclamation point on her performance by absolutely dominating Yan from the first second of the fight until the last as she bludgeoned the previously unbeaten fighter with punches and elbows to ultimately secure a second-round finish.
“I felt like I really needed to make a statement and there was a lot riding on this fight,” Esparza told MMA Fighting. “I felt like I needed to make a statement to solidify my spot for a potential title fight.”
According to Esparza, she executed her game plan to perfection even if she expected a little more resistance from Yan after watching her previous bouts in the UFC.
Up to that point, Yan was perfect inside the octagon with six straight wins, but Esparza decimated her with a vicious ground-and-pound attack that eventually led to the stoppage.
“I expected her to control the distance a little bit more,” Esparza explained. “In her fight with Claudia [Gadelha], it seemed like every time Claudia went in or anybody went into strike with her she was out. In and out, in and out, kind of everything was on her time. I was expected a little bit better distance management with her. She did come with the elbows that I’ve seen her throw off the bottom but I felt like we game planned and really brainstormed figuring out how to deal with everything. She did exactly what she thought she was going to do and we had an answer for everything.
“I was actually really thinking I was going to pull off the finish in the first round but I’ll take it in the second. I felt like it was so secure. After her initial bucking out and trying to go crazy, I felt her settle down and it was really wearing on her. She didn’t have an answer, she was getting tired.”
Following the lopsided win, Esparza immediately called for a title shot against reigning champion Rose Namajunas but UFC President Dana White wasn’t ready to commit to anything that night. Instead, he said he was undecided on booking Esparza against Namajunas or possibly granting former champion Zhang Weili an immediate rematch after she lost the title via first-round knockout back in April.
Despite White’s hesitation to declare anybody as the next challenger for the 115-pound belt, Esparza believes he will ultimately do the right thing and give her the title fight.
“I do feel confident. It’s the only fight that makes sense,” Esparza said. “Come on, Dana. She wants the fight, too. She loves rematches that she’s lost.
“I feel with a dominant performance over the No. 3 fighter in the division, I think for me and my opinion, that should be hands down my title fight. I think that makes sense. It’s the fight that the fans want to see. It’s an intriguing matchup with an intriguing storyline.”
Beyond her five-fight win streak capped off with the performance against Yan at UFC Vegas 27, Esparza also has a shared history with Namajunas after they clashed to crown the first ever strawweight champion at The Ultimate Fighter 20 Finale.
On that night, Esparza was able to control Namajunas on the ground before sinking in a fight-ending rear-naked choke in the third round to claim the inaugural title.
Now seven years later, Namajunas is enjoying her second reign as champion but she’s never had the opportunity to avenge that past loss to Esparza and that just adds to the drama surrounding a possible rematch.
“I think it’s almost poetic,” Esparza said. “It’s really cool. Seven years later, I saw somebody posted that the only inaugural title holders to win their title back were Jose Aldo and I think Dominick Cruz. To be in an elite group like that and to do it after such a long period of time for me would be so rewarding.
“I think it would be super inspiring to other fighters and other people. No matter how hard you get knocked down and how low you may feel you are at the time, you can always come back.”
Of course, Esparza knows she’ll have her hands full with Namajunas in a rematch but she welcomes the chance to face her again and hopefully reclaim the strawweight title as well.
“Honestly, I think we’re just better versions of ourselves from back then,” Esparza said. “Her precision and her knockouts are so much sharper than they were at the time.
“I think my wrestling and my jiu-jitsu and everything, I’m sharper as well in every aspect. It’s just a question of how we matchup, who’s going to be able to impose their will. With a fighter who’s so dangerous like Rose, a knockout is always on the table at any moment in any fight. I think it’s an intriguing matchup.”