Carla Esparza offers no excuses for her performance at UFC 274, but she also understands there was only so much she could do while facing an opponent in Rose Namajunas whom she said just refused to engage with her.
The lackluster five-round affair has been criticized as arguably one of the worst title fights in UFC history, and Esparza isn’t going to argue the contrary with anyone as she begins her second reign as strawweight champion.
If anything, Esparza accepts blame for her part in the fight. She also believes Namajunas may have been somewhat defeated before ever setting foot in the octagon this past Saturday night.
“I definitely feel that she lost the fight to herself,” Esparza explained on The MMA Hour. “I think she went in there, and she fought, I don’t want to say with fear, but she was worried about the takedown and very focused on that and didn’t fight her game. [She] didn’t let off as much as she could have. I definitely feel it was a lot of a mental thing.
“She’s beat the best of the best. She’s fought high-level opponents, but she hasn’t fought a lot of wrestlers to get where she is. She hasn’t fought a lot of people like me, and I’ve fought a lot of people like her. I feel I was more comfortable fighting someone with her style, and she wasn’t as comfortable fighting someone my style.”
Esparza dominated Namajunas in their first fight back in 2014, which helped her become the UFC’s first ever 115-pound champion.
Despite the rematch happening eight years later, Esparza wonders if the memories from that initial meeting didn’t shape how Namajunas fought at UFC 274.
Add to that, Esparza also rewatched the fight and saw how Namajunas’ coaches were praising her defense between rounds. In fact, offense is the only scoring criteria counted by judges in MMA.
After the fight, Namajunas lamented, “I don’t get no credit for good defense?”
“Maybe in their eyes, maybe in some judges’ eyes they could have felt they were getting the advantage,” Esparza said. “Not in my opinion, but it’s easy if you have open scoring and you know what’s happening. But I think maybe they worked a lot on this takedown defense and she was having success with the defense, so they’re like, ‘You’re doing good, you’re doing good, you’re doing what we trained.’
“In my head, you can’t win a fight by defending. Like, ‘Oh, I defended that shot, I defended that punch.’ You’ve got to go after it more and that should have been more emphasized by her corner going into the next rounds.”
Because Namajunas was so focused on playing defense, Esparza said she wasn’t able to produce much offense of her own, and that’s what led to a stalemate for the better part of 25 minutes.
“She was being very cautious, so it made it very difficult to get my offense going,” Esparza said. “My opinion, you can’t fight not to lose. Sometimes you’ve got put yourself out there, and what’s the saying? Come back with your shield or on it.”
Considering how it all played out, Esparza can’t fault anybody for having a problem with the fight. She’s not exactly celebrating that type of performance, either. As happy as she might be about becoming a two-time UFC champion, she would have much rather earned a victory that left no doubt in anyone’s minds and provided an action-packed fight that left people buzzing.
“When I was in the fight, I was like, ‘Is this really happening?’” Esparza said. “Each round I was almost in a lot of disbelief. As far as after the fight, to hear how bummed she was, I’ve been there. You can’t get to this level in the sport and not felt those tough losses and gotten crap from fans. I definitely feel her pain, especially having been in there.
“I wanted us to have a great fight. I was like I hope we get a ‘Fight of the Night,’ and it was by far the opposite.”
With two wins over Namajunas now, Esparza is anxious to move forward with her career rather than focusing on this past rivalry. While UFC President Dana White has already shot down a third fight, Esparza isn’t necessarily opposed to the idea if that’s ever something the promotion asks of her.
“I feel like that’s a chapter I’m kind of settled with, but if they wanted to make the rematch, I’d be down for it at some point or whenever,” Esparza said.
“I don’t know if that’s something the fans want to see because the last fight was pretty lackluster, but I’m down for whatever. If it’s something she really wanted to just feel whole again or to get another chance, I’d be down for it.”