MMA Ratings Podcast

July 23, 2020

UFC on ESPN 14: Carla Esparza Wants To Remind You She's Still Relevant

By Raphael Garcia

The strawweight division is regarded as one of the most stacked weight classes in the sport. The women at 115 pounds continue to put on action-packed fights, and there are several contenders waiting to challenge Weili Zhang for her title. One of those individuals is former champion Carla Esparza. Six years after winning the title she is poised to make another run at the belt. This surge is coming amid an evolution that is rarely seen in this aspect of MMA.

This weekend at UFC on ESPN 14, Esparza is expected to face undefeated Marina Rodriguez, a dangerous opponent who is below her in the rankings. At first glance, this may appear to be a “set-up fight” for Esparza, but that is only on the surface. Looking at where she is now, compared to where she was a short time ago, Esparza is cutting a fierce swath back to the position of prominence she once held, and this fight represents the next big slice.
Back at UFC 185, Esparza took a hellacious thumping at the hands of Joanna Jedrzejczyk. For just over nine minutes Esparza took one of the worst beatings fans had seen at that time in a UFC women’s bout. Jedrzejczyk took the title in a manner that led some to question whether Esparza was even a legitimate titleholder. Esparza did not look like an elite fighter at that time, and the UFC was still building up a division that would later develop into one of the promotion's most intriguing.

When Esparza joined The Ultimate Fighter, she was regarded as a veteran who might make a strong showing, but few thought of her as a top option to win that season. Her victory over Rose Namajunas at the Ultimate Fighter 20 Finale did not come with much fanfare, as Esparza was not afforded the respect that should come when a title is strapped around a person’s waist. And losing the title the way she did to Jedrzejczyk did not help to silence the claims of "impostor" champion either.
But that’s not where Esparza’s story ends. Fast forward six years, where in many ways Esparza is held in higher regard than when she was a champion. She continued to improve when she needed it the most. Originally described as a wrestler whose striking is only used to set up takedowns, Esparza has turned that narrative around noticeably. Since dropping the title, she has been able to out-strike nearly all her opponents. Only Randa Markos and Tatiana Suarez were able to land more than Esparza. (Though it is important to note that in that fight Suarez dominated Esparza from a wrestling standpoint, limiting any chances of her being able to strike from the start.)

However, the most important way that Esparza has improved is her decisionmaking and fight IQ. We have seen her change up her game plan mid-fight to secure victories, as she did in her wins over Michelle Waterson and Cynthia Calvillo. In both bouts she had to make adjustments during the fight that were enough to help her pull out decision wins after initial struggles. She is no longer a fighter that spams takedown attempts in hopes of getting the fight to the floor. She can win bouts in other ways, and this type of evolution is key if she is going to remain relevant and avoid having a rapidly developing weight class pass her by.
Carla Esparza is currently sitting on a three-fight win streak, and although she is just outside the main list of title contenders, if she can pick up a dominating win this weekend, she might be able to successfully campaign for the rematch against Claudia Gadelha that she has been looking for. At that point, we may be looking at a situation where Esparza is the top name available to fight for a belt. And that would certainly prove a lot of her doubters wrong.

UFC on ESPN 14
Carla Esparza vs. Marina Rodriguez

UFC Fight Night on ESPN 14: Whittaker vs. Till takes place July 25, 2020 at Flash Forum in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi.

Click HERE for more UFC on ESPN 14 Pre-Fight Analysis

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