It feels exceptionally rare when the opportunity for a title fight comes along with the kind of extended, meaningful history like the shared narrative between Rose Namajunas and Carla Esarpza. The two women first met in 2014, at The Ultimate Fighter: Season 20 Finale.
Even then, Esparza was already considered one of the more seasoned vets in the tournament set on crowning the UFC’s first strawweight championship. For her part, Namajunas entered the TUF season with just three pro bouts to her name. When they first fought for UFC gold, Esparza was 10-2, and Namajunas 2-1.
Esparza won the belt that first time around, only to lose it a few months later to surging star Joanna Jedrzejczyk. In the years since that loss, however, she’s gone 8-3 – most recently with five straight victories – to put herself in position as the division’s top contender once again. Namajunas put together a 9-2 record following that first fight with Esparza, winning strawweight gold twice, and defending the belt against Weili Zhang this last Saturday at UFC 268.
After the fight, Namajunas sat down with Ariel Helwani on the MMA Hour to talk about the contender field. And to her mind, there’s no title challenger better situated than Carla Esparza (transcript via MMA Fighting).
“I don’t see anything else [that] makes sense,” Namajunas said when asked about a fight with Esparza.
“I think she’s going to give it all she’s got,” Namajunas added. “Before I said Weili is for sure the most dangerous threat right now, just because of the tools that she possessed. Now, after that, Carla’s for sure going to be the most dangerous opponent right this second because of where she’s at, her last performance and all this stuff, and she’s going to be very motivated to try – she’s fought for a long time.
“I would imagine that she’s going to be pretty motivated for this huge opportunity. So that is something that really excites me and interests me more now than it was before.”
If all that feels like the kind of thing that should make for a natural booking for the UFC, however, president Dana White sounds a lot less gung-ho on the idea.
“We have an option,” White told reporters when asked about Esparza vs. Namajunas 2. “You don’t sit around and wait for fights, it’s a really bad idea.”
What that other option might be, however, is a lot less clear. The ‘Cookie Monster’ is currently ranked #2 in the division, behind Weili Zhang (who is now 0-2 against ‘Thug’ Rose), and ahead of Marina Rodriguez and Yan Xiaonan, both of whom she recently beat to gain that top contender status. Mackenzie Dern was the other notable star on the rise at 115 lbs, but she’s now coming off a loss.
Is the UFC really going to pass over Esparza for Rodriguez out of spite? It’s hard to see what other option they might have in mind. It doesn’t seem like a move designed to create a fight with more hype or interest (hell, even Rodriguez thinks Esparza deserves the shot). But, if the UFC is trying to set an example, Esparza may just be on the wrong end of it.