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More than six years after she was forcibly removed from the top of the Ultimate Fighting Championship women’s strawweight division, Carla Esparza still holds out hope that she can someday return to power.
The resurgent Team Oyama export will put a four-fight winning streak on the line when she toes the line against fast-rising contender Xiaonan Yan in the UFC Fight Night 188 co-headliner on Saturday at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. Esparza, 33, has compiled an 8-4 record through 12 appearances inside the Octagon. She last competed at UFC on ESPN 14, where she eked out a split decision over Marina Rodriguez on July 25.
As Esparza prepares for her pivotal showdown with the once-beaten Yan, a look at five of the moments that have come to define her:
1. A Brush with Greatness
Esparza, just 22 years of age at the time, stood face to face with an all-time great in just her fourth professional appearance when she squared off with Japanese legend Megumi Fujii in the Bellator MMA Season 3 women’s flyweight tournament quarterfinals. It did not go according to plan for the Colin Oyama protégé, as she submitted to an armbar from Fujii in the second round of their Bellator 24 pairing on Aug. 12, 2010 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida. A short-notice substitution for Angela Magana, Esparza conceded defeat 57 seconds into Round 2. It remains the only submission defeat of her 23-fight career.
2. Golden Ticket
“Cookie Monster” laid claim to the inaugural Invicta Fighting Championships strawweight title when she took a five-round unanimous decision from Bec Rawlings in the Invicta 4 main event on Jan. 5, 2013 at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas. All three cageside judges scored it the same: 50-45 for Esparza. Rawlings did all she could to remain competitive but found herself woefully outmatched on the mat. A two-time NAIA All-American wrestler at Menlo College in her native California, Esparza executed repeated takedowns, applied her ground-and-pound whenever the situation called for it and stalled whatever momentum her Australian counterpart might have generated in their standup exchanges. Her reign was short-lived. Esparza vacated the 115-pound championship less than a year later when she signed to compete on Season 20 of “The Ultimate Fighter.”
3. Queen’s Ransom
Esparza left nothing to chance, as the Team Oyama product submitted the hyperaggressive Rose Namajunas with a third-round rear-naked choke to take the inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship women’s strawweight title in “The Ultimate Fighter 20” Finale headliner on Dec. 12, 2014 at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. Esparza sealed it 1:26 into Round 3. A competitive first round gave way to sheer dominance from the “Cookie Monster.” The former Invicta Fighting Championships titleholder struck for repeated takedowns in the second, advanced to full mount and tore into Namajunas with thudding lefts and rights. “Thug Rose” survived but never seemed to recover. Esparza executed another takedown inside the first 15 seconds of Round 3, moved to the back and locked in the choke.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk took out Esparza with second-round punches to claim the undisputed women’s strawweight championship in the UFC 185 co-main event on March 14, 2015 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. Esparza succumbed to an accumulation of blows 4:17 into Round 2, her five-fight winning streak snapped in decisive fashion. Jedrzejczyk denied all but one of the Team Oyama star’s takedown attempts, trapping her on the feet. Esparza grew increasingly desperate, as hopelessness and fatigue set in. By the time the second round arrived, she was little more than a sitting duck. Jedrzejczyk fired away with grisly right hands and stinging jabs, slowly wearing down the Californian. With less than a minute remaining in the frame, she backed up Esparza with a right hand and swarmed with a brutal volley for the finish. With that, Jedrzejczyk became the first Polish fighter to win a UFC title.
5. Hostile Territory
Takedowns and top control were enough to propel Team Oyama’s Esparza to a contentious majority decision over Alexa Grasso in the UFC Fight Night 159 co-feature on Sept. 21, 2019 at Mexico City Arena. Two of the cageside judges—Douglas Crosby and Rick Winter—scored it 29-28 for Esparza, while Brian Puccillo had it deadlocked at 28-28. Esparza struck for multiple takedowns in the first and second rounds, managed to neutralize the Lobo Gym rep and kept the fight in her comfort zone. Everything changed in Round 3, where Grasso nearly finished it on two separate occasions. She rocked Esparza with a left hook, flurried with punches and stuffed two subsequent takedown attempts. However, she did not fully capitalize on the moment. Later, Esparza snatched a single-leg, scrambled on top and wandered into an armbar. Grasso rolled to a dominant position and bent the former strawweight champion’s arm beyond its bounds. Esparza refused to tap, withstood a final standup exchange and put her fate in the hands of the judges. The loss was Grasso’s first in seven career appearances in her native Mexico.
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