Carla Esparza offers advice to fighters looking to replicate her long-term success in the UFC
Carla Esparza will celebrate 13 years as a professional fighter in early 2023 while spending most of that time as one of the sport’s top strawweights.
He was the first 115-pound champion in both the UFC and Invicta FC and spent most of the past decade near the top of the rankings. At UFC 274 in May, Esparza completed a seemingly impossible comeback when she reclaimed the strawweight championship with a second win over Rose Namajunas, which came eight years after they first met on The Ultimate Fighter season 20 finale.
The title win 2,612 days after his last reign marks the longest time a fighter has gone between championships in the UFC. It’s a record Esparza is happy to boast on his resume.
“This is really one of the accomplishments that I’m proud of,” Esparza said. The fight with the writer. “That number is very long and this sport is brutal and there are always new hungry fighters coming to replace us. It definitely took a lot of hard work to maintain that level. It’s just a lot of intentions and making sure that my body is taken care of and avoiding injury and working to continue to evolve.
“Because it’s so easy to get stuck in a certain way of training or fighting and stop growing. I really had to be very intentional throughout my career, but especially in the last eight years, to rebuild my way to the title.
Esparza isn’t dismissing the possibility of her becoming champion again after so long, but it’s further proof that she remains a rarity in a sport known for chewing up and spitting out fighters at an alarming rate.
Considering how difficult it is to stay in the UFC this long, let alone remain a contender in the same division all these years, Esparza can’t help but be impressed with the work she’s done throughout her career.
“Even if I was able to fight for the title, I was already so proud of myself. Because it’s such a big step and for me and Rose to start the split and still be on top after eight years, that’s pretty amazing to me,” Esparza said. “I’m like wow this is so cool .
“But I’m not trying to sit and dwell on the accomplishments or anything because I still have things to do. It feels really good. I hope I can continue like this. It’s not like football, basketball and all the other sports, [fighting] is not a team sport. Winning a championship, it’s not like we have a great team – and it’s not like these other athletes aren’t top notch and amazing – but you’re the only one in that cage. You’re the only one in this octagon. So when you win or lose, it’s just you.
As for what has kept her a contender all these years, Esparza doesn’t have a secret sauce she’s been brewing for eight years that keeps her competitive.
In fact, when asked what advice he would give to the next generation of athletes who want to follow in his footsteps, Esparza said that it really comes down to two main factors and both of them may seem basic but somehow ignored by many fighters.
“On the physical side, take this time to really focus on your health,” Esparza explains. “Foam rolls, stretches, body treatments. When you’re hurt, rest. Take it easy. Even if it’s not about injuries, the training part is easy. This is the fun part. The hardest part for me is knowing when to retire and rest and not burn out in this sport because it’s very taxing and demands a lot of you.
“It’s really about taking care of yourself. Not that you should take six months off and go vacation, just make sure you can do it for a long time, just by taking care of your body, choose your training partners wisely. Just be smart with your body.
In the gym, Esparza says she always treats her training like going to school to seek an education where there is no chance of graduating.
On the learning side, I would say just go where it’s hard,” Esparza said. “If you’re really good at wrestling, you should focus on something else, really try to balance yourself and keep improving. Don’t afraid to become a student and relearn the basics.
“Even though I’ve been doing this for a long time, there are still basics that I need to review. Put your hands up, that’s how you poke. You can’t stop learning and being that student and barely start.
As she prepares to make her first title defense against Zhang Weili at UFC 281, Esparza feels better now than she ever did in the same situation in 2015.
After a difficult season filming the reality show and then claiming the UFC’s inaugural 115-pound title, Esparza then made a quick turnaround to defend her belt against Joanna Jedrzejcyzk three months later.
Esparza argues that this was her biggest mistake since she started wrestling because she wasn’t ready to compete again anytime soon, but she refused to make that mistake a second time.
A lesson from her past that Esparza took as her own advice for the future.
“It’s a big regret for me that I couldn’t put my foot down and wait a little bit longer to fight and give myself a little bit of time that I know I need,” Esparza said. “But I was able to do that for that fight and the last fight, that last title defense, physically I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there mentally. I was very small walking around, probably around 115 pounds. Now I feel like I’m in a different place.
“Mentally, I seem to have had time to clear my mind, prepare and prepare. Physically, I feel good. I am stronger than ever. So for me, regardless of the outcome, I’ll be content to approach this fight as best I can. Win or lose, if you know you’re going to do your best, you can be happy with the outcome. Because you gave him everything you had. That’s how I’ll feel when I come out of this fight. I’m going there to win, don’t get me wrong, but whatever I know, I’ve given this camp everything I’ve got.