Carla Esparza will celebrate 13 years as a professional fighter in early 2023 while spending most of that time as one of the sport’s top strawweights.
She was the first 115-pound champion in both the UFC and Invicta FC and has spent most of the past decade near the top of the rankings. At UFC 274 in May, Esparza even completed what seemed almost an impossible comeback as she reclaimed the strawweight championship with a second win over Rose Namajunas, which came eight years after they first met in the final. season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter.
Winning the title 2,612 days after his last reign ended counts as the longest time a fighter has ever gone between UFC championships. It’s a record that Esparza is happy to boast about on her resume.
“It’s actually one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of,” Esparza said. The fighter against the writer. “That number is very long and this sport is brutal and there are always new hungry fighters coming to take our place. It certainly took a lot of hard work to maintain that level. It was just a lot of intention and making sure my body was taken care of and avoiding injury and working to constantly evolve.
“Because it’s so easy to get stuck in a certain way of training or fighting and stop growing. I certainly had to be very intentional throughout my career, but especially over the last eight years, to rebuild my way to the title.
Esparza doesn’t take for granted the unlikelihood of her becoming champion again after so long, but it’s just further proof that she remains a rarity in a sport known for chewing up and spitting fighters at an alarming rate.
Considering how difficult it has been to stay in the UFC this long let alone remain a contender in the same division for all these years, Esparza can’t help but admire the work she’s done throughout her career. career.
“Even to be able to fight for the title, I was already so proud of myself. Just because it was just a huge step and for Rose and me to start the split and still be on top after eight years, that’s pretty amazing to me,” Esparza said. “I’m like wow this is so cool.
“But I’m not trying to sit back and dwell on accomplishments or anything because I still have things to accomplish. It’s definitely a great feeling. I hope I can continue like this. Unlike football, basketball and all those other sports, [fighting] is not a team sport. Winning a championship, it’s not like we have a great team – and not that these other athletes aren’t top notch and amazing – but it’s just you in that cage. It’s just you in this octagon. So when you win or you lose, it’s all you.
As for what has kept her a contender all these years, Esparza doesn’t have a secret sauce she’s been brewing for eight years that has kept her competitive.
In fact, when asked what advice she would give to the next generation of athletes looking to follow in her footsteps, Esparza says it really comes down to two major factors and both will likely seem basic but somehow overlooked. by many fighters.
“On the physical side, take this time to really focus on your health,” Esparza explained. “Foam rolls, stretches, body treatments. When you are injured, rest. Take time. Even though it’s not about injuries, the training part is easy. This is the fun part. The hardest part for me is knowing when to retire and rest and not burn out in this sport because it is very taxing and demands a lot of you.
“It’s really about taking care of yourself. Not that you should take six months off and go on vacation, just make sure you can do it for a long time, just by taking care of your body, choosing your training partners wisely. Just be smart with your body.
At the gym, Esparza notes that she has always treated her training like going to school to seek an education where there is no chance of graduating.
“On the learning side, I would say just go where it’s hard,” Esparza said. “If you’re really good at wrestling, you should focus on other things, really trying to balance yourself out and keep improving. Never be afraid to be a student and relearn the basics.
“Even though I’ve been doing this for so long, there are even basic things that I still need to review. Keep your hands up, that’s how you poke. You can never stop learning and being that student and beginning almost.
As she prepares to make her first title defense against Zhang Weili at UFC 281, Esparza feels better now than before that same situation in 2015.
After a tough season filming the reality show and then claiming the UFC’s inaugural 115-pound title, Esparza then made an incredibly quick turnaround to defend her belt against Joanna Jedrzejcyzk three months later.
Esparza argues it was arguably her most monumental mistake since she started wrestling because she just wasn’t ready to compete again so soon, but she refused to make that mistake a second time. times now that she is champion again.
It’s a lesson from his past that Esparza took as his own advice for the future.
“It’s a big regret for me that I couldn’t put my foot down and wait a little longer to fight and give myself a little more time that I knew I needed,” Esparza said. “But I was able to do it for that fight and the last fight, that last title defense, I physically wasn’t there. I wasn’t there mentally. I was very small walking around, probably around 115 pounds. Now I feel like I’m in a completely different place.
“Mentally, I feel like I’ve had time to clear my mind, prepare and prepare. Physically, I feel fine. I am stronger than ever. So for me, regardless of the outcome, I can be satisfied to approach this fight as best I can. Win or lose, if you know you’re going for it doing everything you can, you can be happy with the outcome. Because you gave her everything you had. That’s how I’m going to feel coming out of this fight. I’m going there to win, make no mistake about it, but whatever I know, I gave this camp everything I had.
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