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Opinion: Making a case for Carla Esparza

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Dayne Fox makes a balanced case for Carla Esparza to receive the next title opportunity against Rose Namajunas over Weili Zhang.

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Carla Esparza reacts to her victory over Yan Xiaonan.
Carla Esparza after her victory over Yan Xiaonan.
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

After five consecutive wins over more than respectable competition, Carla Esparza called for the rematch she has been dying for on Saturday night. Not because she has to get one back against Rose Namajunas, but because Namajunas has something Esparza wants back: the UFC strawweight title. Given there is no one else with a comparable winning streak against the level of competition she has faced, it would only seem natural Esparza will get what she asked for… right?

Esparza is riding a five-fight win streak, each of those wins against a currently ranked opponent with the level of competition steadily climbing. As opposed to being on win streaks, both fighters ranked ahead of her in the official UFC rankings are coming off losses. The only other fighter in the division in the rankings with a similar winning streak, Mackenzie Dern, is riding a four-fight win streak against an overall lower level of competition. It should be a no-brainer. And yet, it isn’t.

The fact that we’re having to debate this is proof the UFC is more of a business than it is a sport. The UFC brass is looking at the bottom line as opposed to the most deserving contest. The other option they’re looking at as opposed to Esparza is the woman Namajunas just dethroned, Weili Zhang. Did Namajunas edge out Zhang in back-and-forth thriller? Nope, it was a first round KO, over in just 78 seconds with little drama outside of the finishing sequence. Was Zhang a dominant champion with a massive championship resume? Nope, she owned just a single successful title defense. That defense was a fight for the ages against Joanna Jedrzejczyk, but no matter how epic that fight was, it was just a single defense. So, it must be that Zhang is extremely popular amongst the core UFC fanbase, right? That would be another no. Zhang isn’t disliked, but the language barrier has made it difficult for her to connect with North American fans. It boils down to Zhang’s Chinese heritage and the UFC’s desire to further open the Chinese market.

From a business standpoint, it makes sense. China is a country of well over a billion people and it isn’t like there is a plethora of other options if the Chinese market wants to get behind a fellow countryman. In fact, Esparza beat their other top option in Yan Xiaonan in brutal fashion to kick off the conversation of who deserves the opportunity against Namajunas. Plus, Esparza, despite her impressive run of success, isn’t the most marketable fighter based on either her fighting style or her personality.

A wrestler who tends to grind out her opponents – many would say it’s more of a style of lay-and-prey – Esparza isn’t going to deliver the slobberknocker, fan-friendly style Uncle Dana prefers. In fact, it has resulted in several squeakers. Prior to her shellacking of Xiaonan, Esparza’s last two wins saw at least half of the media scores on MMA Decisions go in favor of her opponent. Plus, while she finished Xiaonan, it was her first finish since 2014. She may have looked dominant against Xiaonan, but there’s far more proof saying that performance was the exception as opposed to the rule.

As for her personality, Esparza is hindered by two things. First, her stint on TUF portrayed her a mean girl that fans have no desire to get behind. In the six-plus years since that time, Esparza has somewhat killed that reputation by largely laying low, having a minimal presence on social media. That has created the second problem: Esparza’s low-key personality is a difficult sell. As a person, that’s not a bad thing. Conor McGregor is clearly the easiest personality to sell in the sport and he’s had enough legal problems to leave one wondering what type of shape his personal life is in. Regardless, her understated approach is hurting Esparza’s marketability. After all these years of Esparza competing in the UFC, I get the feeling we still don’t know who Carla Esparza is. It’s hard to sell something when you’re not sure what you’ve got.

What Esparza does have in her favor is storyline. When Esparza became the initial UFC strawweight champion, it was Namajunas who she defeated to claim the title. That makes for an easy storyline for the UFC to promote. Esparza dominated Namajunas in 2014 to take the belt. Now that Namajunas is on top of the world, she wants to eliminate that blot on her record. It isn’t just the next contender up, though it certainly is that. It’s also a personal matter for the champion. If the UFC promotional team can’t make something sellable out of the situation, they would deserve to be fired.

I’ve made no secret of what I would prefer. Esparza has done more than enough to warrant her title shot. While how she wins is certainly a fair barometer of how much fans want to see her, it should have very little weight on whether she has done enough to earn an opportunity at the champion. Plus, the history of UFC champions receiving immediate rematches after losing the belt hasn’t been very good. Depending on your definition of an immediate rematch, the record of the ex-champions is either 2-9 or 1-9, Randy Couture taking down Vitor Belfort after the freak ending to their first title fight warranted an immediate rematch as only definitive immediate rematch. The other possible exception is Stipe Miocic, who didn’t have a fight in between his contests with Daniel Cormier, though Cormier did defend against Derrick Lewis in between their contest. Thus, the question in what a definition of an immediate rematch is.

Regardless, the record for immediate rematches is beyond poor, but it’s an option the UFC has been ramping up as opposed to throttling back. I could go further into the UFC’s inconsistent history with awarding immediate rematches – what happened to champions earning their way back into the title picture? – but the point is immediate rematches don’t tend to go well for the former champions. As for former champions who did have to take a step back before fighting against their usurpers, their success is far more definitive, clocking in at 3-4. Not a fantastic record, nor is it an extensive track record due, in part due to the former champions not being able to make their way back. Nonetheless, it’s proving to be a better way to sort the wheat from the chaff than just immediately granting the former champion an immediate rematch.

Besides, the UFC should recognize they’d get the best bang for their buck if they do a slow burn to get Zhang back to the title. I recognize there’s risk involved in that strategy, but there’s risk in throwing her right back a Namajunas too. What if Zhang falls twice? It feels impossible to justify the possibility of a third fight somewhere down the road when they’ve dropped two in a row. Was anyone actually interested in Frankie Edgar and BJ Penn doing the damn thing again? I sure wasn’t. Anyone feel like Uncle Dana wanted to make that fight? Hell no, it was a favor to Penn. It’ll be a hard sell to drag Zhang back into the title picture for as long as Namajunas is champion. Given Namajunas’ youth – she’s still just 28 – that could be a while. Better to let Zhang step away for spell and prove her worth. It usually pays dividends. For example, Urijah Faber received 6 WEC/UFC title and interim title opportunities after losing the WEC featherweight title. He may not have won any of those, but he did earn his way back to fighting for the title every single time, not suffering consecutive defeats until after his final crack at a title.

So here’s my proposal: Prior to Namajunas and Zhang colliding, Jedrzejczyk called for the winner. Given Jedrzejczyk hasn’t won a fight since losing to Zhang, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. It makes even less sense now that we know the result given Jedrzejczyk has lost to Namajunas twice. There’s no interest in seeing that fight a third time for the time being. However, there is all sorts of interest in seeing Jedrzejczyk rematch Zhang. So how about a pair of rematches on the same card? Namajunas and Esparza for the title and Zhang and Jedrzejczyk in a potential title eliminator. Should injury or illness befall Esparza, Zhang can step in, the circumstances for her receiving an immediate rematch becoming completely understandable. Given Esparza and Namajunas hardly took any damage in their fight, Zhang’s medical suspension was only 60 days, and Jedrzejczyk hasn’t fought in over a year, it shouldn’t be a stretch to get all four competitors on the same card. Plus, you think the Chinese market would ignore their golden child in a rematch of what many believe was the FOTY for 2020? Plenty of eyes would be on that fight. I have a hard time believing any less attention would be paid than if Zhang was fighting for the title. In the process, should Zhang win a rematch over Jedrzejczyk, the country of China has their eyes fixated on the winner of Namajunas and Esparza with great interest, boosting the profile of that contest too.

I understand the UFC is a business that focuses on the bottom dollar. That’s what all businesses do, at least the successful ones. What they need to remember as a business that calls itself a sport is there is a time to focus on the sporting end of things for the good of the business. Give the possibility of a Namajunas-Zhang rematch some time to simmer. Just like it’s a useful strategy in cooking, simmering can be a highly effective tool in promotion. Let the public ruminate on the rematch rather than give it to them right away. I get that it might not happen if it’s put on the backburner for now, but MMA fans know better than others that some things just aren’t meant to be. How many times did we see Khabib-Ferguson made and cancelled? Besides, who is excited to see an immediate rematch that lasted 78 seconds? I know I’m not. Put some distance between our memories of Namajunas knocking Zhang unconscious.