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Esparza: Marina Rodriguez has ‘proven herself,’ deserves title shot more than Zhang Weili

The newly crowned UFC strawweight champion says a former opponent is deserving of a title shot. 

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Carla Esparza knows Zhang Weili was declared the No. 1 contender in their division after her win over Joanna Jędrzejczyk at UFC 275 earlier this month. But the newly crowned UFC strawweight champion sees someone else as more deserving of that declaration: Marina Rodriguez.

Rodriguez is on a four-fight win streak with a finish of Amanda Ribas and decisions against Michelle Waterson and Mackenzie Dern among her highlights. The Brazilian added another win to her resume with a split decision over Yan Xiaonan at UFC 272 this past March and went on to campaign for a championship opportunity. UFC president Dana White said she was close to contention but not there yet.

Esparza has a different opinion, though. She told Damon Martin of MMA Fighting recently that Rodriguez has done enough to vie for gold instead of Weili.

“I don’t think [Zhang] is [more deserving],” said Esparza. “I think that Marina has won five fights straight, I think she’s beaten top-level competition. She’s been staying active and for me, she’s proven herself. She deserves a title shot. But for whatever reason, I’m sure there’s a lot that goes into it and Weili is getting the shot.

“For me, I fight whoever’s put in front of me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I think it’s fair or it was the right call as far as the athlete goes,” continued Esparza.

Esparza and Rodriguez have shared the Octagon already, with the ‘Cookie Monster’ besting her former opponent via split decision at UFC Fight Island 3 almost two years ago. The former Ultimate Fighter winner kept an eye on Rodriguez and has noticed how she improved her game since their first fight, which is why she would entertain a rematch for her upcoming defense.

“Every time I watch Marina, I see her getting better and better and beating top girls,” said Esparza. “Even having to knock somebody out twice in one fight in Amanda Ribas. She’s impressive. I definitely think she earned the title fight, and this is just the way it goes with the UFC sometimes. Whether it’s marketing or whatever else is their reasoning, that’s just kind of how it goes, and you have to just roll with the punches.”

Should the UFC stand firm on its plan to schedule Esparza vs. Weili next, the reigning champion said that it would likely happen by the end of the year as she is still recovering from injuries suffered ahead of her fight against Rose Namajunas at UFC 274 in May. The challenger previously proposed a meeting in October, but Esparza has clarified that they will meet on her timeline.

Once recovered and cleared by her doctor, Esparza will begin her preparation for whoever she expects to fight in her return.

“Ideally November-December seems fine for me,” said Esparza. “Even if I have to do a little bit of rehab over the next month and not kick up training mode, fight camp style quite yet, at least it will give me time to recover. You talk about my longevity in the sport, and my longevity I would have to say I attribute a lot of that to my willingness to give my injuries recovery time. My rehab, just taking care of my body. You don’t stay in this sport for almost 12, 13 years at the top of it, not caring about maintaining your body and keeping it at optimal performance.”