As she begins her second reign as UFC strawweight champion, Carla Esparza isn’t trying to dictate her next opponent, but she definitely has some ideas in mind.
With two victories over Rose Namajunas, capped off by a split decision win at UFC 274 to reclaim the title, Esparza is ready to put her rivalry with “Thug Rose” in the past, with hopes that she can reignite another one instead.
On June 11 at UFC 275, Joanna Jedrzejczyk faces Zhang Weili in a featured bout on the main card — and if Jedrzejczyk is successful, Esparza would love the chance to avenge a loss to the woman who took the belt from her the first time around back in 2015.
“That would be such a great moment to come back and fight my fight, and I feel like I’ve come such a long ways since then,” Esparza said of Jedrzejczyk on The MMA Hour.
“She’s just been sitting on the sidelines so I definitely feel like it would be a different fight. It would be sweet revenge or sweet justice, whatever you call it.”
UFC president Dana White has already targeted Jedrzejczyk vs. Zhang 2 as a potential No. 1 contender’s fight, especially after their first meeting was heralded as the Fight of the Year in 2020.
The rematch is expected to produce just as many fireworks, but Esparza knows the rematch with Jedrzejczyk would mean more to her personally just because of their previous interaction.
One other loss that stands out on Esparza’s record came in 2018, when she was finished by former The Ultimate Fighter winner Tatiana Suarez at UFC 228.
It was the last time Esparza tasted defeat prior to her current six-fight win streak, and that particular setback was damaging in more ways than one, because it also had Esparza questioning if she’d ever get back to title contention again.
“When I lost to Tatiana, it was definitely a devastating loss,” Esparza explained. “To lose in that way in my own game, that was a hard pill to swallow. I can say at that moment, I had lost hope in potentially ever fighting for the title again. It took a lot of work and changes to happen. Just trusting that process and following the steps over time. As time went on, I garnered more hope because the things that I was doing were giving me success.
“Tatiana’s been injured for almost three years. That goes to show that anything can happen in this game. Styles make fights. Sometimes someone can beat you, sometimes the stars can align. Someone who you’ve lost to can get beat by someone you can beat. Just the way things work out. I think you have to keep the mindset open, like never give up. In a fight, you can be losing 14 minutes of that fight but if you don’t give up, you can come back and knock somebody out. It’s that mentality that can bring you success. I think that’s brought me success.”
It appeared after her win over Esparza, along with an additional victory against Nina Nunes, that Suarez was about to get her own opportunity to compete for UFC gold,, but it never happened.
Sadly, Suarez has been dealing with long-term health problems that have prevented her from competing since 2019. She was last scheduled to fight at UFC 266 in September 2021 but was ultimately forced off that card as well.
As much Esparza would love the chance to erase that loss off her record as well, she doesn’t expect to cross paths with Suarez again, not only because of the uncertainty surrounding her ability to fight right now, but the two-time bronze medalist in the World Championships of wrestling is expected to compete at 125 pounds when she finally returns.
“Even if she made a comeback, I don’t think that would happen again,” Esparza said of Suarez. “But, I mean, it’s always nice to get the opportunity to avenge a loss. Most people I’ve lost to are either retired or not with the UFC anymore except Joanna and Tatiana.
“It’s always good to get that opportunity. I feel like I’ve come such a far way since I fought both of them, so it would be nice to avenge a loss. But whoever I fight, I fight. The rematch with Rose was my first ever rematch.”