Photos by Dan Shapiro
UFC strawweight Carla Esparza is really into Ivanka Trump shoes.
On the road promoting her upcoming appearance on the twentieth season of The Ultimate Fighter, Esparza is quick to dish and trade fashion tips at the end of a long day of interviews. And after fielding countless questions about mixed martial arts and her reality television debut with the UFC, she’s eager to change the conversation to pumps and flats.
But make no mistake, despite her feminine exterior and current preoccupation with wardrobe selection for the TUF 20 premiere, Esparza is ready to show the world that 115-pound women belong at the highest level of mixed martial arts competition.
“I think it’s gonna do a lot for our division and women’s MMA,” offers Esparza, a former All-American collegiate wrestler from Redondo Beach, California, who was shipped over to the UFC from Invicta FC in December 2013.
One of 16 women selected to partake in the UFC’s initial foray into strawweight fighting, Esparza, 26, is already a decorated mixed martial artist, having claimed the Invicta belt 20 months ago. And after relinquishing her title in order to sign with the UFC, she now has her eyes set on a new prize.
Although the move up to MMA’s biggest stage came with some added weight, on account of her previous success.
“People are expecting me to come out and be in the finals… it put a lot of pressure on me,” comments Esparza of The Ultimate Fighter’s single-elimination format that will culminate in a championship bout later this year. “I was sitting on the sidelines when the show was announced, I hadn’t fought since January 2013… so I think it definitely hit me hard… it’s a scary feeling.”
Esparza has spent her entire adult life fighting stereotypes about female fighters. Diving directly into professional MMA after graduating with a degree in business from Menlo College, she found her way to Orange County’s Team Oyama, initially taking up jiu jitsu and Muay Thai in order to stay active while away from the wrestling mat.
Somewhere along the way she decided to fight for a living, which coincided perfectly with the meteoric rise of the women’s MMA movement.
Compiling a 9-2 record in regional and national competition, Esparza quickly ascended up the ranks of the women’s strawweight class, besting fellow TUF cast mates Bec Rawlings and Felice Herrig under the Invicta and XFC banners. At the time, those shows were the best available opportunities for female fighters, but that quickly changed after UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey became a breakout success, busting the doors wide open for athletes like Esparza.
“Nobody can take away from what she’s done for the sport of WMMA,” states Esparza. “I have nothing but respect for what she’s done. She’s a tremendous athlete… I think she’s awesome for the sport.”
Rousey’s trailblazing efforts have created a new market and appetite for women in mixed martial arts. And while it’s easy to think that Esparza and her fellow competitors on The Ultimate Fighter are riding the coattails of, arguably, MMA’s biggest star, her road to the Octagon has come with intense highs and epic lows.
After claiming the Invicta title in January 2013, Esparza was slated to defend her title in July of the same year against Ayaka Hamasaki. But after injuring her knee prior to the bout, Esparza was forced out of competition for five months.
With her knee finally at full strength, her defense was re-scheduled for December 2013, this time against Claudia Gadelah. It was during this period that her gym, Team Oyama, hit rock bottom after the premature death of beloved teammate, UFC veteran Shane del Rosario.
“That was a really rough time at our gym. He was part of the lifeblood at our gym… one of the main fighters,” adds Esparza. “I was preparing to defend my title so I had a really rough time myself. Nobody was at the gym, everyone was at the hospital for a while, so it was a rough time, but… everyone has to keep moving on with life.”
Following del Rosario’s passing, Esparza’s bout with Gadelah was canceled just hours before competition. Unable to defend the Invicta strawweight belt due to injuries and out-of-competition factors for a second time, she vacated the title when the UFC purchased her contract.
However, born from the turmoil Esparza encountered in 2013, came a new challenge and opportunity from the UFC, one that will play out on the cable airwaves this fall.
“It was nice to be able to wake up, eat [and] breathe, fighting,” says Esparza. “We didn’t have all those outright distractions. We were able to focus 100-percent on our training.”
Ready to seize her shot on primetime television and claim the UFC’s inaugural 115-pound title, Esparza is adamant that the strawweights will make an immediate impression on the MMA world and quickly alter the sport’s narrative of brutality. And rather than talking about techniques and the typical topics of MMA, she’s adding a feminine touch and sensitivity to the masculine-driven rhetoric.
Now it’s just a matter of what she’ll wear tomorrow night.
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