Now that she’s reclaimed the UFC strawweight title, Carla Esparza isn’t really in the business of calling out opponents.
That said, the two-time 115-pound champion still has a vested interest in her next title defense, which is why she was a little surprised to hear Zhang Weili crowned the No. 1 contender after her win over Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 275.
Esparza believes Marina Rodriguez is the person most deserving of a title shot. The champ favors Rodriguez’s current winning streak and impressive performances against ranked opponents over Zhang’s recent win after consecutive losses to Rose Namajunas.
“I don’t think [Zhang] is [more deserving],” Esparza told MMA Fighting. “I think that Marina has won five straight, I think she’s beaten top-level competition. She’s been staying active, and for me, she’s proven herself. She deserves a title shot. But for whatever reason, I’m sure there’s a lot that goes into it and Weili is getting the shot.
“For me, I fight whoever’s put in front of me, but doesn’t necessarily mean I think it’s fair or was the right call as far as the athlete goes.”
Esparza holds a split-decision win over Rodriguez in the Brazilian’s most recent loss, but she’s seen real improvements in the challenger’s game since their fight nearly two years ago.
“Every time I watch Marina, I see her getting better and better and beating top girls,” Esparza said. “Even having to knock somebody out twice in one fight in Amanda Ribas. She’s impressive.
“I definitely think she earned the title fight, and this is just the way it goes with the UFC sometimes. Whether it’s marketing or whatever else the reasoning, that’s just kind of how it goes, and you have to just roll with the punches.”
Assuming Zhang ends up as her next opponent, Esparza is more than willing to accept the challenge. But she’s also going to give herself plenty of time to get ready.
Immediately after her knockout over Jedrzejczyk, Zhang called for a title shot in October when the UFC plans to return to Abu Dhabi.
In response, Esparza reminded Zhang that she’s the champion, and has some latitude in when she competes again. Her previous title reign lasted just three months when she rushed into a fight against Jedrzejczyk after beating Namajunas in The Ultimate Fighter 20 Finale.
“I would say that fighting Joanna so quickly — that was my fifth fight in eight months — I would say fighting that quickly back has to be one of my biggest regrets in my career,” Esparza admitted. “I wasn’t 100 percent, and I ended up tearing my shoulder in that fight.
“For me, it’s not taking away from Joanna’s victory, because I made the decision to step into the octagon. That was my choice, but what I’m taking away from that, I have to learn my lesson. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
Despite absorbing minimal damage in her split decision win over Namajunas in May, Esparza didn’t go into the fight at full strength. She is quick to point out that the fight itself is rarely when athletes suffer injuries — it’s the weeks and months leading into an event that take the most out of them.
“I’ve definitely got some backlash on social media about, ‘There’s no way you got injured in that fight, nothing even happened’,” Esparza said. “Some of the trolls [were] smack talking, but what people don’t realize, this is a brutal sport. The camp going into these fights is brutal. No fighter is most likely going to go into any fight 100 percent.
“I had [my thumb] dislocated and taken backward a week or two before the fight [with Rose Namajunas]. I couldn’t even have anyone grab my hand without screaming in pain. I think I did scream one time at the gym. Everyone turned around and I was like, ‘I’m OK, I’m OK.’
“I’m getting two MRIs next week. The doctor checked it out, doesn’t look serious, but I just want to be sure. I want to go into this fight camp 100 percent. I want to be my best. As everyone saw from the fight last week, Weili is a dangerous opponent. I want to go into this fight 100 percent, and I’m not going on her timeline or where she thinks is best.
“Ideally, November-December seems fine for me. Even if I have to do a little bit of rehab over the next month and not kick up training mode, fight camp style quite yet, at least it will give me time to recover.
“You talk about my longevity in this sport, and my longevity I would have to say I attribute a lot of that to my willingness to give my injuries recovery time. Just taking care of my body. You don’t stay in this sport for 12, 13 years at the top of it, not caring about maintaining your body and keeping it at optimal performance.”
If anybody claims Esparza is ducking the fight by asking for a later date, the 34-year-old veteran is quick to point out she’s twice accepted Zhang as an opponent, and she’s not the reason the matchup didn’t happen.
“She turned them down when she was champ,” Esparza said. “I’m not afraid to fight anybody, but I’ve just got to do it on my timeline.
“When there was a hold on the fight that was supposed to happen with Rose and Weili, they offered me the fight with Weili, and I accepted both times. One was a little bit longer time, one was shorter notice, but I was like I don’t care if it’s one week, if I get the opportunity to fight for the belt, I’m going to take any opportunity. I said yes, and she said no.”
Of course, Esparza doesn’t hold that against Zhang. But she’s also not going to get pressured into returning before she’s ready. She fully anticipates fighting before 2022 is over. But until she’s healthy, she won’t be rushed into a title defense just because the No. 1 contender is getting anxious.
“I’ll just say she’s putting her requests out there and she has every right to try and push for a date and a location she wants,” Esparza said. “But like I said, she’s not the champ.
“It’s going to go on my timeline, when I’m healthy and when I can start a strong camp and be at my best for this super tough opponent.”