UFC 281: Carla Esparza took lessons from her first reign as champion to make her better in her second stint

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 09: (L-R) Opponents Carla Esparza and Zhang Weili of China pose on stage during the UFC 281 press conference at Madison Square Garden on November 09, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Strawweight champion Carla Esparza (L) defends her belt on Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 281 in New York against former champion Zhang Weili. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC) (Chris Unger via Getty Images)

Carla Esparza can recall just about everything from her first reign as UFC strawweight champion. It's not because it was so memorable but because it was so short.

Esparza won the inaugural strawweight belt by defeating Rose Namajunas on Dec. 12, 2014, in "The Ultimate Fighter Finale" of Season 20. Three months later, she was a former champion, having gotten stopped by Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 185 on March 14, 2015.

Esparza regained the title on May 7, 2022, in Phoenix by again defeating Namajunas. This time around, though, she's planning to hold onto it a little longer. The biggest mistake she made the first time wasn't giving herself the time she needed to prepare.

She had barely finished celebrating the holidays when it was time to get back to camp to prepare for Jedrzejczyk. This time, it's six months since she regained the belt by stretching her winning streak to six by besting Namajunas in an ugly, slow-paced match.

The win over Namajunas, however ugly it was, marked the pinnacle of her career. And it came because of an adjustment she came to realize she needed.

"The biggest takeaway is that I needed more time between fights to recover mentally and physically and build my way back up," said Esparza, who has defeated Namajunas, Yan Xiaonan, Marina Rodriguez, Michelle Waterson, Alexa Grasso and Virna Jandiroba during her current six-fight win streak.

"I was able to do that this camp and I feel like I'm in a really great place both mentally and physically. It's been one of the best camps I've had. I feel like I'm going into this fight as the best Carla Esparza that I can be."

On Saturday in New York City, she could fight her best and still not have it be enough. Esparza's opponent in the co-main event of UFC 281, Zhang Weili, is arguably the best athlete among UFC strawweights and has incredible physical skills. She was showing heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou some moves when she threw a light jab, leaned in and lifted Ngannou off the ground. Ngannou posted a video of the exchange on Twitter, where he said he weighed 293 pounds.

Lifting Ngannou — all 293 pounds of him — isn't going to win her a round, let alone the fight. But it's an indication of her varied skills. And if Esparza, whose wrestling is her forte and sets up her other attacks, chooses to try to wrestle, Zhang insists she's ready.

"If she wants to wrestle me, I could probably wrestle better than her anyway," Zhang told Yahoo Sports. "I don't care what she tries."

Zhang said there is nothing to fear in Esparza's game, which clearly caught the champion's attention. She didn't get irate, but she's been underestimated for much of her career and is champion now nearly eight years since her UFC debut.

She's got the confidence of winning over time and beating the best the division has to offer. And now that she's married — she walked down the aisle with her belt around her waist — everything is going the way she wants.

"I think probably a lot of people have felt that about my game, but it doesn’t really matter what she thinks or what she fears,” Esparza said Wednesday at media day. “I’m going in there with my best game, and this is probably one of the best camps I’ve had. I’m just ready to go in there the best me and prove the world wrong, I guess."

She noted that a fight is neither a weight-lifting competition nor a bodybuilding contest. Zhang is powerful and it's shown in some of her fights where she's run through opposition.

But she makes her share of mistakes, too, and Esparza feels like she'll be able to capitalize.

She didn't, though, ever get the idea to find a UFC heavyweight and try to lift him to outdo Zhang.

"I saw that clip and I laughed," she said. "But when I was watching it, I said 'Wow, Francis is such a big guy.' I wouldn't want to try that because I'd be afraid of hurting my back. It's kind of funny to do that sort of thing on social media, but would it have been so funny if she did something to her back and had to pull out? I wouldn't have done it, but maybe that's just me."

Esparza 2.0, though, has shown to have a lot more staying power than the original version. She'll have to be at her best to defend against Zhang, but she's used all the lessons of her lengthy career to give herself the opportunity to do just that.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 09: Carla Esparza is seen on stage during the UFC 281 press conference at Madison Square Garden on November 09, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
UFC strawweight champion Carla Esparza is a +300 underdog at BetMGM for her co-main event matchup with Zhang Weili, who is -400. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC) (Chris Unger via Getty Images)