Carla Esparza

Missing The Boat on Esparza vs. Namajunas 2 – A Career Retrospective on ‘The Cookie Monster’

They’ve done it again. The UFC, the premier MMA organization in the world, has made another head-scratching matchmaking decision that has left many in the community wondering “why?” and reminding us yet again that there really isn’t any such thing as “earned” or “deserved” when it comes to this sport.

Carla Esparza, the No. 3 strawweight in the UFC rankings, on a five-fight win streak, appeared to be the logical next challenger for the strawweight championship. But despite the great position she has put herself in, Esparza will not be on the receiving end of that title shot opportunity. Instead, Rose Namajunas will face off in an immediate rematch with the woman she took the belt off in just 1:17 in April of this year at UFC 261, Zhang Weili. The fight will serve as the co-main event of UFC 268: Usman vs. Covington taking place at MSG on November 6, 2021.

Many online expressed frustration with that decision, as an Esparza vs. Namajunas 2 match seemed like the obvious and more interesting choice. Not just because of Esparza’s ranking or her win streak, but because of her history with the current champion, and how their first collision at the Ultimate Fighter 20 finale impacted both of their careers. With Zhang losing so decisively, and nearly everyone else in the top 5 being tied up, the opportunity for the UFC to revisit their story was right there. From a business and sporting sense, it would have been smart, creative, and frankly bold. Esparza has less star power and doesn’t have an entire regional market behind her like Zhang, but their backstory is something out of ESPN Film’s 30 for 30, and long-term it is better for the health of the division.

What now?

With Namajunas vs. Zhang 2 fight booked, the question is what the organization will do with Esparza in the meantime? They could match her up with Jędrzejczyk — the No. 2 strawweight in the UFC rankings — as she is the only fighter in the top five available other than Yan Xiaonan, who Esparza just defeated in May. But Jędrzejczyk seems hellbent on only coming back for a title shot or a big fight with big money tied to it.

The UFC could have Esparza wait out the title shot, which would put her out of commission until likely spring of next year. Esparza seems to favor that. For her part, Esparza is taking the perceived snub well. After the announcement, Esparza posted on her Twitter account, “I’ve worked many years to fight my way back to a title shot. I have faith good things will come, and in the meantime I will use this time to strength build and skill build! May the best woman win… I got next”.

Either of those things could happen, or any other number of possibilities. But for many, this is such a lost opportunity on the part of the UFC. Because having Esparza wait is not foolproof, neither is having her take a fight. If Namajunas loses to Zhang, or Esparza loses to someone, then that great fight, which would be a beautiful culmination of their two careers thus far, doesn’t happen. Of course, they could find themselves in each other’s path again at some other point, but the potential of the moment might not be what it is now.

To really appreciate the merits of a possible Esparza vs. Namajunas 2 matchup, one must look back at Esparza’s career and journey, one that is not too dissimilar from Namajunas’, just maybe more understated.

Beginnings

Before Esparza met Namajunas in the TUF 20 finale, she had amassed quite the career and reputation, with her being widely regarded as the best 115er in the world. Nicknamed the “Cookie Monster” (an homage to her love of cookies), Esparza started her MMA career in 2010 at 3-0 on the regional scene of California, thanks to a strong base in high school and collegiate wrestling, as a two-time All-American out of Menlo College. Her earliest opposition came in her fourth fight at Bellator 24 (which she took on short notice) against the incomparable Megumi Fujii who was 20-0 at the time. She lost the bout via a second-round armbar. Esparza bounced back with two wins in a row in smaller regional shows, including one over Nina Nunes (née Ansaroff).

Her second defeat came after, to the pioneer and great Jessica Aguilar by split decision at Bellator 46. After that Esparza went on a four-fight win streak, three of those under the Invicta FC banner, including capturing the inaugural Invicta FC strawweight title against Bec Rawlings (née Hyatt). Then, the Ultimate Fighter 20 started casting in April of 2014 for strawweights, with the prize being a bit more than the winner getting the standard UFC contract and a prized Harley Davidson; The opportunity to be the first UFC strawweight champion.

The Ultimate Fighter

The Ultimate Fighter had a tournament bracket based on seeding and coming into the show the UFC had Esparza as the No. 1 seed with her aggressive mixture of striking, grappling, and ground and pound. After beating Angela Hill, Tecia Torres, and Jessica Penne on the show she clinched her spot in the finale as 1 of the 2 fighters who would be fighting for new UFC gold. The other half of that duo was none other than Rose Namajunas, who had grown into the other favorite to win the season.

When they did meet for the TUF 20 Finale on December 12, 2014, despite Esparza’s ranking and dominance, you could be forgiven for thinking it was the 22-year-old Namajunas who was on the cusp of greatness. She was dynamic, athletic, a finisher, and had a style and swagger to boot. Along with having a backstory filled with adversity that would make anyone want to root for her to ascend from that, all the way to sporting glory, and by extension, to a better life.

But the moment turned out to be too great for young Rose. The fight was fought at a frantic pace — mostly instigated by Namajunas — and was competitive, but saw Esparza dominant the grappling, as well as hold her own in the striking; an area that was thought to be Namajunas’ advantage coming into the bout. Throughout the contest, Namajunas threw a lot of high-energy attacks like jumping kicks and spinning attacks, most of which didn’t land, and some that led to easy takedowns for Esparza. By the end of the second round, Namajunas was visibly fatigued and stumbling to her corner after getting mounted and absorbing ground strikes. It was just 1:26 into the third round that Esparza secured a rear-naked choke and the tap, crowning her the 1st UFC strawweight champion.

UFC Start

It was then only three months late at UFC 185 that she would have her first title defense. Facing the boisterous, charismatic, trash-talking, multiple-time Muay Thai world champion that was the Pole, Joanna Jędrzejczyk, Esparza wasn’t prepared. She wasn’t prepared for Jędrzejczyk’s sustained pre-fight promotional build-up — that consisted of constant attempts at lowering her confidence through verbal attacks, and frequent invasions of her personal space — and by the fight night on Saturday, March 14, 2015, it was clear Esparza was physically prepared either. Her striking was nonexistent, and her wrestling failed her. She had nothing to offer Jędrzejczyk, besides a pretty consistent target, and she suffered a TKO loss at 4:17 of round two.

The defeat was bad, as far as defeats go. For Esparza’s talent and level, she did not show a good account of herself, and her loss was one of the more embarrassing ones in memory, and as time has passed, still is.

After losing her belt, Esparza sat out for a year dealing with a shoulder injury that required surgery, as well as dealing with the emotional injury of a poor performance that showcased none of who she was or what she had to offer, to the viewers, the organization, the sport, and even herself.

She returned from her year off and came back to defeat Juliana Lima by unanimous decision at UFC 197. She was able to start putting the Jędrzejczyk loss behind her, telling the media post-fight “It’s a huge relief off my shoulders to go out there and get my hand raised.” She went on to state:

I’m definitely glad to have moved past my last loss. That was a very hard loss for me. I would say the higher you are the harder you fall, and especially with the injury, it was just a very low time in my life, and of course after something like this I do feel better. It’s emotional even to think about.

But she struggled with consistency going forward, going 3-2 from 2017 to 2018, notably getting stopped via TKO by the decorated Olympic-level wrestler, Tatiana Suarez (who is now a flyweight).

A Rebuilding

Following that fight, Esparza made some changes. She found whatever was missing because since that loss she has won five in a row, including wins over the highly touted strikers, Alexa Grasso and Marina Rodriguez, as well as an impressive 2nd round TKO of Xiaonan in May.

When one looks at Esparza coming off her loss at UFC 185, they could be forgiven for doubting if she could ever reach the top of the division again. She went from being the UFC strawweight world champion, and among the top 3 strawweights in the world, (on most rankings lists) to be a kind of punching bag for fans and fighters alike, held as one of the standards and examples a fighter didn’t want to be.

For her to have built herself back up (in confidence and skill) to a place where she has a legitimate claim to challenge for the title again is a victory within itself. Anyone who has followed Namajunas’ career knows, much like Esparza, she had to go through several stages of reinvention on her UFC journey. Now they seem to have figured out what works for them and have been able to apply it consistently, and it is just too convenient that they’ve both realized it at the same time.

The MMA Game

That is why it is confounding that Esparza will not be Namajunas’ first title defense in her second championship reign. Their journeys are aligned and would have made for an incredible full-circle moment. Because of the nature of the sport, the moment for her and Esparza’s second fight may very well be gone by early next year due to various factors. Yes, they may meet again down the road, but when opportunities like this reveal themselves in the sport, they should be taken advantage of as soon as possible, because too often great fights and moments “get away” from us. Why? Because, well, things like unimaginative matchmaking and politics that have little to do with meritocracy. And of course, the MMA Gods.

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