Carla Esparza will celebrate her 13th year as a professional fighter in early 2023 while spending most of that time as one of the best strawweights in the sport.
She was the inaugural 115-pound champion in both the UFC and Invicta FC and she’s spent the better part of the last decade near the top of the rankings. At UFC 274 in May, Esparza even completed what almost seemed like an impossible comeback as she reclaimed the strawweight championship with a second victory over Rose Namajunas, which came eight years after their initial meeting on The Ultimate Fighter season 20 finale.
Winning the title 2,612 days after her last reign ended counts as the longest time any fighter has ever gone between championships in the UFC. Esparza proudly boasts this record.
“It’s actually one of my proudest accomplishments,” Esparza told The Fighter vs. The Writer. “That number is a very long time and this sport is brutal and there’s always new, up and coming, hungry fighters coming to take our place. It’s definitely been a lot of work to maintain this level. This was all about intention, making sure my body was well taken care of, avoiding injury and working hard to always improve.
“Because it’s so easy to get stuck in a certain way of training or fighting and to stop growing. I’ve definitely had to be very intentional my whole career but especially these last eight years to build my way back to the title.”
Esparza does not take as a given the possibility that she was crowned champion once again after so long, but it’s yet another proof of her rarity in an sport that is known for spitting out fighters at a shocking rate.
Considering the difficulty just staying in the UFC for that long much less remaining a contender in the same division for all those years, Esparza can’t help but admire the work she’s done throughout her career.
” I felt so proud to have been able to compete for the title. Just because it was just this huge step and for Rose and I to sort of start the division and still be at the top of it after eight years, it’s pretty amazing to me,” Esparza said. I’m just like, “Wow that is amazing.
“But, I try not to dwell on my accomplishments because there are still things I need to do. This is a wonderful feeling. I hope I can continue that. [fighting] isn’t a team sport like basketball, football and other sports. To win a championship, it’s not like we have a really great team — and not that those other athletes aren’t at the top and amazing — but it’s just you in that cage. You are the only one in the octagon. So when you win or you lose, that’s all you.”
As far as what’s allowed her to remain a contender all these years, Esparza doesn’t have some secret sauce that she’s been brewing for the past eight years that kept her competitive.
Esparza answers questions about what she has to say to the next generation athletes who want to be like her. She says that there are two main factors to consider and they will seem simple but often forgotten.
“On the physical aspect, taking that time to really focus on your health,” Esparza explained. “Foam rolling, stretching, body care. Rest when you are injured. Take the time. As much as it’s not about the injuries, the training part is easy. This is the most enjoyable part. It’s the hard part, I think. Knowing when to take a break and not get too tired of this sport is difficult.
” It’s about taking good care of your body. Not that you should be taking six months off and going on vacation but just making sure you can do this a long time, just taking care of your body, being intelligent choosing your training partners. Being smart about your body
Esparza explains that her training has always been like going to school for an education.
“On learning, I’d just suggest that you go to the hard places,” Esparza stated. “If you’re really good at wrestling, you should be focusing on other things, really trying to balance yourself out and keep improving. Never be afraid to be a student and relearn the basics.
“As much as I’ve been doing this so long, there’s even some basic things that I’m still having to go over. Keep your hands up, this is how you jab. You can never stop learning and being that student and that beginning almost.”
As she prepares to make the first defense of her title against Zhang Weili at UFC 281, Esparza actually feels better now than she did ahead of this same situation back in 2015.
Following a difficult season shooting the reality show and then claiming the inaugural 115-pound UFC title, Esparza then made an incredibly quick turnaround to defend her belt against Joanna Jedrzejcyzk just three months later.
Esparza maintains that as arguably her most monumental mistake since she started fighting because she just wasn’t ready to compete again so soon but she refused to make that mistake a second time now that she’s champion again.
That’s one lesson from her past that Esparza took as her own advice for the future.
“It’s a big regret of mine not being able to put my foot down and wait a little bit longer to fight and give myself a little bit more time that I knew that I needed,” Esparza said. “But I was able to do that for this fight and last fight, that last title defense I was not physically there. I was not mentally there. I was very small walking around, probably like 115 pounds. It’s like I am in another place.
” Mentally, it feels like I have had the time to recharge my brain and be ready for whatever comes ahead. Physically, I feel great. I feel stronger than ever. So for me, no matter what the outcome is, I can feel satisfied that I’m going into this fight at my best. Win or lose, if you know that’s you going in there doing everything you could, you can feel satisfied with the outcome. You gave everything. This is how I feel when I walk out of the fight. It’s clear that I want to win. But, I also know I gave everything I could .”