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Editorial: UFC sends mixed messages to Max Holloway and Carla Esparza

Why can Max Holloway wait for a UFC title shot, but Carla Esparza can’t?

Rose Namajunas retained her UFC strawweight title at UFC 268 with a split-decision win over Weili Zhang. After the fight, the defending champ said former champion Carla Esparza, who defeated Namajunas to become the inaugural strawweight champ in 2014, seemed like a reasonable choice for her next defense.

“That seems sort of like the logical step, but I’ve got to see what the UFC is thinking I guess. but yeah, I would love to fight Carla,” Namajunas said at the post-fight press conference.

Esparza, who is riding a five-fight winning streak, is the No. 2 ranked fighter in the UFC’s official strawweight rankings. Zhang, who has lost back-to-back fights to Namajunas, is the only woman ranked higher than her in the division.

Despite her ranking and the fact that Namajunas is interested in facing her, UFC president Dana White isn’t sold on the idea of a Namajunas vs. Esparza rematch.

“We have an option,” White said at the UFC 268 post-fight presser when asked if Esparza should wait for a title shot. “You don’t sit around and wait for fights, it’s a really bad idea.”

Esparza hasn’t fought since she defeated Yan Xiaonan via TKO. In October the ex-champ said the UFC had offered her a bout against Mackenzie Dern, but that she wanted to see how UFC 268 played out before deciding on her future.

“I definitely plan to wait for the winner of that fight and kind of see what shakes up at that point,” Esparza said. “If it came to a point where Weili won and they were like “OK, we’re going to do a rematch’ and then maybe it’s time for me to stay busy. But I’ve been waiting.

White tried to dissuade Esparza at that time. “Stuff never falls the way that it’s supposed to and you end up sitting out for too long and people start to forget about you. It’s never a wise decision to just sit out. If you get offered a fight, you should take it,” said White.

It seems as if White might use Esparza’s reluctance to take the Dern fight to send a message to her and other fighters who don’t take the bookings the UFC offers them.

If that is the case, that message does not pertain to all fighters on the UFC roster.

According to former featherweight champion Max Holloway, the UFC told him he could sit and wait until early 2022 and then face current champion Alexander Volkanovski.

Holloway, who appeared on the most recent edition of The MMA Hour, was asked by that show’s host, Ariel Helwani, “Why aren’t you fighting Alex Volkanovski next?”

“I didn’t want to wait until new year,” Holloway said. “I wanted to keep on fighting. Everywhere, everyone, every time. Let’s get it.

“UFC told us we didn’t have to (take the fight.) They told us we could wait it out, but I was like, ‘I ain’t about that. We ain’t about that.’ I talked to my team, I let my team know and they were all on board. And we’re here today.”

Holloway, who is the No. 1 ranked featherweight, lost back-to-back fights to Volkanovski in December 2019 and July 2020. He picked up a one-sided decision win over Calvin Kattar in January. The ex-champ faces Yair Rodriguez in the main event of Saturday’s UFC Vegas 42 fight card.

All of this brings us to the question of mixed messages. Why did the UFC tell Esparza she shouldn’t wait, while informing Holloway he could wait?

My guess is the UFC wants to make decisions based on several elements. The Esparza and Holloway situation goes a long way toward exposing the factors the UFC considers when deciding who gets favorable treatment.

Fighting style and popularity are the two items the UFC likely considered when it delivered two different messages to Esparza and Holloway.

Holloway is one of the most popular fighters in the UFC. He has an entertaining, fun, outgoing personality to go along with a high-volume striking style that appeals to a majority of MMA fans. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a highly promotable fighter who, when healthy, likes to stay active.

Esparza, on the other hand, is more reserved in her personality and fighting style. The former champion hasn’t headlined an event since 2014 and her most recent appearance on the pay-per-view portion of a UFC card was back in 2017.

In short, Holloway moves the needle and Esparza does not, at least not as much as Holloway.

It won’t be a surprise to see the UFC overlook Esparza for a title shot in order to send a message to some — not all — of the UFC roster and that message is the promotion calls the shots and not the fighters.

Knowing Holloway was told he could wait for a title shot, we can all see that message won’t always hold true, but when you’re a fighter, like Esparza — or Leon Edwards, who is on a 10-fight unbeaten streak and still waiting for a title shot — who the UFC is unafraid to sacrifice to keep other fighters in line, the promotion is not afraid to use you as an example.