Carla Esparza is already one of MMA’s top female fighters. In January, the standout wrestler could become the first Invicta FC champion at 115 pounds in what will be her biggest and most important fight. Esparza is expected to face unbeaten Jewels titleholder Ayaka Hamasaki at Invicta FC 4.
For Esparza, the opportunity to compete for the title is both an honour and the culmination of many years of hard work. The two-time All-American has won three straight fights and hopes that a title victory in January could lead to a rematch with former Bellator rival Jessica Aguilar sometime in 2013.
While she is currently at the highest point in her career, Esparza’s (8-2-0) 2012 campaign got off to a disappointing start. When we last spoke, Esparza was getting ready for what was supposed to be her first MMA title bout. Esparza had been set to face veteran contender Angela Magana for the vacant Pandemonium 115-pound women’s championship in March. However, the bout was cancelled on the day of the event after Magana sustained injuries in a car accident and was unable to compete.
With no opponent for the title fight, Esparza was forced to watch the event from the sidelines. However, as one door closed, another soon opened. Members of the upstart Invicta Fighting Championships promotion had taken note of Esparza’s impressive victory over Felice Herrig in December. Esparza was invited to compete on the second all-female Invicta FC card in July and made an instant impact in her promotional debut. After fighting through a strong first round from opponent Sarah Schneider, Esparza overwhelmed Schneider with punches on the ground for a TKO victory late in round two.
Esparza’s win over Schneider earned her a call back to compete again at Invicta FC 3 earlier this month. She was matched up against another Bellator veteran, Lynn Alvarez; a well-rounded fighter who was returning from a lengthy hiatus as she finished her schooling. Esparza was even more dominant in her second Invicta FC appearance. She took Alvarez down seconds into the fight and proceeded to punish her with strikes from the top until the bout was waved off just shy of the three-minute mark. Esparza had vanquished another tough challenger and earned her sixth win inside the distance.
“I knew that Lynn had a good ground game, but I’ve been working on my ground and pound and movement so hard that I don’t feel that there’s anyone in the division that I can’t deal with when I’m on the ground,” Esparza says. “After I had my fight with Nina Ansaroff [in December 2010] where she really used her flexibility and had a great guard that I couldn’t pass, it made me realise that I needed to start having an offence if I can’t get past someone’s guard. I really started working on [ground and pound] after the fight with Jessica Aguilar and I think it’s been showing.”
Finishing fights is important to Esparza. While she admits that there is more of a thrill to stopping an opponent with strikes, she is content as long as a fight does not go to the judges. One of her two defeats, a June 2011 loss to Aguilar, came via a razor-thin Split Decision. It was a fight that Esparza felt that she had won and she is not eager to go to the scorecards again anytime soon.
“I’ve been campaigning for a rematch with Jessica Aguilar since the day after the [first] fight,” Esparza says. “I’ve been pretty vocal about it. I want that rematch in a neutral territory. I think that I’m a much better fighter than the first time that I fought her and I think that I will have a better game plan the next time. We actually tried to get her for this past fight, but her camp declined for whatever reason. Whenever there is an opportunity for it, we’re going to jump at it.”
Before she can entertain thoughts of a rematch with Aguilar, Esparza first has another tough opponent standing in her way. While not yet officially confirmed, Esparza is expected to face Ayaka Hamasaki for the inaugural Invicta FC Strawweight Championship in what will likely serve as the main event of Invicta FC 4 in January. Hamasaki earned a third-round submission victory in her promotional debut at Invicta FC 2 and has defeated all contenders at home in Japan. She is also the top student of one of Esparza’s past opponents, Megumi Fujii.
“It’s a milestone for me to be able to compete for the Invicta belt,” Esparza says. “This is going to be the first 115-pound title fight that [Invicta FC has] promoted and it’s an honour to have the opportunity. [Hamasaki] is one of the top girls in the world. She’s a southpaw and she has excellent judo. I have to study up on what she does and just go from there. [Winning] would just be a culmination of everything that I’ve been working for. I’ve yet to earn a belt, and to do it in a promotion like Invicta that has been so groundbreaking for women, it will mean the world to me.”
In 2010, Esparza stepped in on extremely short notice to take part in the inaugural Bellator 115-pound women’s tournament to crown a new champion in the division. The title was ultimately won by Zoila Gurgel, but the weight cut was too severe for Gurgel and she was forced to vacate the weight class without ever defending the belt. As a result, Esparza believes that her fight with Hamasaki – who holds the Jewels 114-pound title in Japan – will determine the world’s undisputed strawweight champion.
“With the Bellator belt, I think it’s kind of a tricky situation,” she says. “Zoila had it, but not only did she get injured while holding the belt, she’s also vacating the 115-pound weight class. I feel that the Invicta 115-pound belt [will be] the world championship belt.”
Like most others who are competing under the Invicta FC banner, Esparza has only positive things to say about the promotion and its management.
“My experience with Invicta has been amazing,” Esparza says. “They’re just a class act through and through. They’re very professional and they treat their fighters well in every aspect. I don’t think there’s much more that you could ask for.”
Beyond capturing the Invicta FC title, Esparza’s focus is on improving her skills so that she can stay at the top of the 115-pound division for years to come. She believes that there will be no shortage of quality opponents for her to face and feels that 115 is one of MMA’s most talent-rich female weight classes.
“I see a lot of up-and-comers coming into the game; people that I’ve never even heard of and people from other countries like Joanne Calderwood, who just beat Ashley Cummins,” Esparza says. “There are a lot of good amateurs coming up the ranks and I believe that 115 is one of the toughest, if not the toughest, weight classes in the world. I have had a pretty fast rise [up the ranks] and I might still be new to MMA, but I’m not new to martial arts and combative sports. I’ve been wrestling for so long and I’ve been doing jiu-jitsu and boxing on and off for years.
“Because I didn’t have an amateur career, I feel like I’ve been working hard to get to this position. It didn’t just fall in my lap. There are a lot of tough girls out there who have been doing amateur for years. My record isn’t perfect, and maybe if I’d taken more time before fighting the best in the world I would have a better record, but with the experience I definitely feel that you can’t match it. Fighting the top girls, once you’ve fought them you know what to aspire to and you know what the best of the best is.
“I know that I can beat everyone that I’ve fought. I know that in my heart.”
Esparza has a strong group of people around her to help her through her career in MMA. She joined a growing stable of fighters under the SuckerPunch Entertainment management group earlier this year. Long-time sponsor Brawl and Maul has been joined by other companies such as Battleware, Alienware and Fear The Fighter, who allow Esparza to continue her training at one of the sport’s top camps.
“I want to thank my coach, Colin Oyama,” she says. “I think that he is one of the best coaches in the world. I feel so lucky to have all of these great training partners that push me and are always making me improve by never taking it easy on me.”
For the next two weeks, Esparza will expand upon her training by branching out to a new gym. She is currently in Chicago, Illinois to train alongside opponent-turned-friend Felice Herrig, who is preparing for a rematch with Michele Gutierrez at Bellator 84 in December. The cross-training in Illinois will also help to prepare Esparza for her biggest fight to date as she looks to become the first Invicta FC Strawweight Champion in three months’ time.