Despite holding the title, new UFC strawweight champ Carla Esparza still stands as an underdog against most of her challengers. This is a first for the division and thus makes for some exciting storytelling.
Carla Esparza’s UFC 274 co-main-event fight against Rose Namajunas was lackluster, and drew criticism from practically everyone, starting from fans to the commentary team. However, despite the rather slow affair, the division is now more exciting than ever before. For the first time since the weight class’s inception, back in 2014, it looks like there’s a weak contender holding the title.
Esparza, despite her great resume, has more than a few glaring losses on her record. Over the last five years, she has dropped fights to now released Randa Markos, retired former title challenger Claudia Gadelha, and inactive contender Tatiana Suarez. Even her impressive five-fight winning streak, which got her the title shot, featured close calls like her split decision over Marina Rodriguez. A record like this in a division which is home to some of the best female pound-for-pound fighters like Joanna Jędrzejczyk, Weili Zhang and Jessica Andrade, undermines Esparza’s claim to being the champion.
However, there is some silver lining to having a champion who doesn’t have an ironclad record. Contenders like Joanna Jędrzejczyk and Jessica Andrade who, despite their solid record, had become irrelevant are now back in the title picture. Plus, given the depth of the division, many decorated prospects like former Invicta FC champion Virna Jandiroba, Amanda Ribas, and BJJ world champion Mackenzie Dern had been lost in the dynamism of the division.
Esparza’s rise underscores that it’s possible for these fighters to slowly rise up to claim the belt, something that just hasn’t happened in the division so far. Almost every champion in the women’s strawweight division was a highly touted prospect well before they fought in the weight class. Joanna Jędrzejczyk was undefeated and had a long Muay Thai career, Rose Namajunas had become somewhat of a brand because of her wins on the Ultimate Fighter, Jessica Andrade was under the radar because of her victories at bantamweight and Weili Zhang had the backing of a huge Chinese market.
Amongst the several champions the division has seen, Esparza stands as the only one who had to grind her way to the top one fight after another. It isn’t as if she was the first to get a title shot by stringing up wins. Several like Karolina Kowalkiewicz, Jessica Penne and Valarie Létourneau had done so in past but they had failed to capture the gold. The last fighter who didn’t have a perfect record but had secured the belt by stringing up a series of wins was Jessica Andrade back in 2019 and even her streak entering the title fight was three. With Esparza on top, it’s bound to be motivating for many contenders to try and regain lost ground.
The most important reason, however, is the potential of a great story that Esparza can be. Here is a former champion who’s won the title in a fight most didn’t like, a fight that was barely watchable, and now has to prove herself as the best fighter despite having the belt. She has an opportunity to have a reign where she’ll be the underdog against almost every challenger in front of her.
If Esparza manages to overcome even one or two of the challengers in front of her before dropping the belt it’ll, push her into the conversation of being an all-time great. Someone who rose from the brink of absolute irrelevance (having gone 2-3 in her last five before rebounding) to recapture lost glory. Conversely, if she fails she’ll end up going down as someone who was just at the right place at right time, making both her reigns as specks meant to be ignored.
Carla Esparza has made an amazing comeback but her story is still very much being written.