Carla Esparza is thrilled to be a UFC strawweight champion again, even if her second win over Rose Namajunas came after one of the most lackluster title fights in the promotion’s history.
“That’s always a bummer,” Esparza said at the post-fight press conference for UFC 274, where she won a split decision over Namajunas with a chorus of boos accompanying the decision at Footprint Center in Phoenix. “You always want to put on a show for the fans, so it’s unfortunate to be a part of a fight like that.
“But I felt that I was putting the pressure on, I was coming forward, I was the aggressor, I was holding on to the center of the octagon, so at the end of the day, I did what I could, and I tried to fight my fight, but fights go like that sometimes.”
Esparza was slightly surprised that Namajunas didn’t engage more aggressively, but she attributed that to the threat of her takedown, which from the start had been her path to victory in the eyes of most MMA observers. When the fight failed to pick up, she didn’t feel overly pressured to change what she was doing – her coaches told her she was on the right track.
“I felt that I fought a smart game plan,” Esparza said. “I felt that if I would have gotten too wild and too reckless, I would have set myself up to be a highlight reel. Rose has incredible timing and placement on her strikes. She’s had some awesome head-kicks finishes and dropped people, so I didn’t feel like it was a smart person to get reckless with.”
As it turned out, Namajunas’ coaches had given the same encouragement, and when the official decision was read, the deposed two-time champ reacted in shock. Later, she was still trying to comprehend how she lost the fight.
But from Esparza’s perspective, there was a simple explanation.
“I don’t feel that Rose pushed the pace,” she said. “As a champion, you really need to go after it, and [say], ‘This is my octagon.’ I don’t really feel that she was aggressive enough to say, ‘Hey, this was my win,’ so at the end of the day, I got the belt, and if she wants a rematch, I’m down for that, too.”
The prospect of a trilogy between the strawweights appears quite dim after their second showing. More likely for Esparza’s next move is a meeting with the winner of a meeting between ex-champs Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Zhang Weili at UFC 275. Esparza, who lost the belt to Jedrzejczyk seven years ago in her first title defense, also welcomed a rematch with Marina Rodriguez.
The latter against Rodriguez was another nail-biter on the scorecards with the media split over the winner. Headed into the championship rounds, Esparza said she tried to put a stamp on her performance – she just didn’t have a cooperative partner.
“I really want to set it in the eyes of the judges,” she said. “I hate to say it this way, but, it’s hard to fight someone that doesn’t want to fight.”