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. It’s a record that Esparza is happy to tout on her resume.
“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. It was just a lot of intention and making sure that my body was taken care of and avoiding injuries and just working to constantly evolve.
“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 doesn’t take for granted the improbability that she became champion again after such a long time but that’s just further proof that she remains a rarity in a sport known for chewing up and spitting out fighters at an alarming 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.
“Even to be able to fight for the title, I was already so proud of myself. 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 like wow that is so cool.
“But I don’t try and sit and dwell on accomplishments or anything because I still have things to accomplish. It’s definitely a great feeling. I hope I can continue that. Unlike football, basketball and all these other sports, [fighting] is not a team sport. 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. It’s just you in that 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.
In fact when asked what advice she would offer the next generation of athletes looking to follow in her footsteps, Esparza says it really boils down to two major factors and both will probably seem basic yet somehow forgotten by many fighters.
“On the physical aspect, taking that time to really focus on your health,” Esparza explained. “Foam rolling, stretching, body care. When you’re injured, rest. Take the time. As much as it’s not about the injuries, the training part is easy. That’s the fun part. The hard part I feel like is knowing when to pull back and resting and not getting burned out on this sport because it is very taxing and demands a lot of you.
“It’s really taking care of yourself. 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. Just being smart about your body.”
In the gym, Esparza notes that she’s always treated her training like going to school to seek an education where there’s no chance for graduation.
“On the learning side of things, I would just say go where it’s hard,” Esparza said. “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.”
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. Now I feel like I’m in a completely different place.
“Mentally, I feel like I’ve had that time to refresh my mind and get ready for this and prepare. Physically, I feel great. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. 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. Because you gave it everything you had. That’s how I’m going to feel walking out of this fight. I’m going out there to win, make no mistake about it, but no matter what I know that I’ve given this camp everything I had.”