UFC 249: Carla Esparza Emerges as a Dark Horse

UFC 219 UFC 225 Carla Esparza Claudia Gadelha
Credit: Mike Sloan/Sherdog.com

By securing a win against Michelle Waterson at UFC 249, Carla Esparza is now on a three-fight win streak. But where does she go from here and what is her place in the division?

At UFC 249, Carla Esparza walked out with a split decision win over fan-favorite Michelle Waterson. The win was her third since going on a losing streak back in 2018. It also marked the first time she has strung together a winning streak of greater than two since losing her strawweight title to Joanna Jedrzejczyk back in 2015. Now might be a very good time to see where exactly ‘Cookie Monster’ belongs in the division.

An active pro fighter since 2010, Esparza has had an interesting run in the UFC. She was the Invicta FC strawweight champion before entering the Ultimate Fighter tournament. She defeated future champion, Rose Namajunas, to win the title but did not hold it for long. In fact, it was her first title defense that put a dent in her reputation. The way Jedrzejczyk dominated her in the fight made all her past credentials look invalid.

It didn’t help that in 2016 she turned down a fight against then-top contender Claudia Gadelha. She did make it clear that she just wanted a tune-up fight but commentators and fans alike pointed it out that she had already bounced back from her loss with a win over Juliana Lima. Nonetheless, she got a fight against TUF rival Randa Markos. That is when things actually started going south.

Esparza not only lost the fight, but Markos also took the post-fight interview opportunity to call out her behavior on TUF.

She said, “The stuff I went through, it was clear bullying. I have a niece at home, and she’s being bullied right now in school and it really breaks my heart. I know what it feels like. I’ve been bullied in school and then I’m an adult now, and I was on ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ and I was being bullied as an adult. It really needs to stop.”

The fight dragged Esparza’s reputation in the pits. She did manage to bounce back with a pair of wins in 2017 but that glory barely lasted as she suffered yet another setback in 2018. First, at UFC 225, she lost a very close fight to long-time rival Claudia Gadelha. This was followed by a one-sided loss to rising contender Tatiana Suarez. Resulting in the first-ever losing streak in ‘the Cookie Monster’s career.

The former strawweight champion was then scheduled to fight promotional newcomer, Virna Jandiroba. The booking was significant because it showed that Esparza was now being treated as a stepping stone for younger contenders, a place that’s really difficult to emerge from. She did manage to win, but her next fight was against a similar prospect in Alexa Grasso. She did win that fight but the decision wasn’t unanimous.

Therefore, despite entering her fight against Waterson on an on-paper impressive win streak, not many expected her to win. This brings us to the point of where she belongs in the division. The fact that she’s lost to both Claudia and Suarez makes it very clear that, as of now, she’s not in the line for title contention. However, she’s managed to secure three very impressive wins that have greatly upgraded her resume. Which, at the very least, makes her eligible for fights against serious contenders. A position that places her as the dark horse of the division.