After years of hard work on the wrestling mat and inside the MMA cage, Carla “Cookie Monster” Esparza’s dream of becoming a world champion came to fruition on Saturday at Invicta Fighting Championships 4 when she defeated Bec “Rowdy” Hyatt for the Invicta FC Strawweight Championship.
Esparza’s title victory was not an easy one and she admits to potentially underestimating the threat that was posed by Hyatt, who entered the main event bout on short notice. With the Invicta FC belt now around her waist, Esparza looks forward to making her first title defence later this year.
Esparza (9-2-0) entered Saturday’s title bout as a heavy favourite against Australia’s Hyatt (4-2-0), who took the fight on eight days’ notice after Esparza’s original opponent, BJJ black belt Claudia “Claudinha” Gadelha, withdrew due to a broken nose. The opening round of the five-round fight played out as many had expected, with Esparza dominating the action with takedowns, submission attempts and ground and pound. However, time expired at the end of round one and Hyatt was still in the fight.
As the bout progressed, Esparza remained in control of the positional battles on the ground, but she was beginning to slow down while Hyatt appeared to be gaining momentum. On the feet, it was Hyatt who kept Esparza on the defensive with flurries of punches. Getting Hyatt out of the fight proved to be much more difficult than many had anticipated.
At the end of round five, Esparza stumbled while circling away from Hyatt’s punches. Hyatt dove in with big shots and nearly secured a last-second come-from-behind TKO victory, but time ran out.
“I really thought that the first round was going to be it, or at most the second,” Esparza said after the fight. “At the end of the first round, I was really getting tired and my muscles were feeling it. She was trying to grind me back and she just wasn’t giving up. Each round, I just felt like, ‘Man, is this round it? Is this round it?’ but it went the full five and I wasn’t expecting it. She’s a tough girl and it was a good fight, so hopefully the fans enjoyed it.
“I heard her corner call out ’30 seconds left!’ and we were just kind of throwing bombs for the last few seconds,” Esparza recalls. “When she brought me down, I knew that it was towards the real end of the round so I wasn’t too worried about it. Maybe I should shoot my [time] estimates past the finish line instead of relaxing because that can really get you in trouble sometimes. I didn’t this time and that’s a lesson learned for next time.”
In the later rounds of Saturday’s title fight, it was Hyatt who seemed to be pushing the pace. Likely knowing that she was down on the scorecards, Hyatt pressed forward with big punches at every opportunity. For Esparza, the key to victory was to push back and stick to her strengths. She credits her Team Oyama allies for keeping her mind focused on the task at hand.
“I train with a lot of men and some women who kick my butt in practice, so if you get pushed back or if you get dominated, you always have to come back and just impose your own will,” she says. “If not, you’re going to lose, and that’s what I was thinking when I fought [Hyatt]. Sometimes, she’d get the best of me with a combination and I knew that I just had to keep coming and fight my fight. That’s what my corner was yelling to me the whole time. I just listened to them and it all worked out for the best.”
Hyatt entered the bout against Esparza with a tremendous amount of fan support behind her, but she remained untested due to a lack of top-level competitors available for her to face in her home country of Australia. Esparza admits that she took her opponent lightly and that it wasn’t until the middle rounds that she began to realise that she was in for a much tougher battle than she had planned for.
“Honestly, for me, the toughest part about fighting this opponent was trying not to underestimate her,” Esparza says. “In my mind, I was thinking that the only people that she had fought were ones making their pro debuts, she had half of my experience, and I didn’t know if Australia really had any tough competition for her. So it was like, ‘oh, no big deal,’ and it was tough to get past that mentality, but she forced me to get past it in the second, third, fourth and fifth rounds.”
With newfound wisdom from lessons learned on Saturday, Esparza will be a smarter fighter when she makes the first defence of her Invicta FC Strawweight Championship. Her next fight may come in July, but an opponent has not yet been confirmed. Esparza mentions that she has heard that Invicta FC may stage a number one contender’s bout for the title between Gadelha and unbeaten Jewels Lightweight Queen Champion Ayaka Hamasaki.
She believes that such a fight would only lend more credibility to her title and the division as a whole.
“I fought my way to the belt,” Esparza says. “I know that it wasn’t my original opponent, but I was game to fight anybody who was there to step in front of me. When you have the title, I definitely think [others] should have to fight their way to it. I think that a contender’s bout for the belt makes it more legit.
“It’s good to introduce [contenders] to the Invicta audience because it makes the public take a liking to them and be more familiar with them,” she adds. “I think that’s really smart of Invicta when they use their fighters over and over again. It’s a smart strategy and then people get to relate to the fighters.”
Besides Gadelha and Hamasaki, both of whom Esparza was originally booked to face on Saturday, a rising star from Scotland has made a strong case for title contention. Esparza has taken notice. She also has her eyes on a past foe from her time in Bellator Fighting Championships.
“A potential opponent that I was going to have for this title fight is Joanne Calderwood. I think she’s amazing and her standup is just phenomenal,” Esparza says. “I would love to have her as an opponent, or anyone in the 115 category. Obviously, it should be someone that is worthy of fighting for the belt and has a little bit of experience. I’m open for anybody. Ayaka is ranked above me, but even somebody from outside of the promotion like Jessica Aguilar would be a good matchup for me.”
Esparza’s title-winning effort on Saturday was the culmination of many years of hard work, both on the wrestling mat and now in the mixed martial arts cage. It also marked the first time that Esparza had ever received a chance to compete for a world championship. In March, her first planned title fight was scrapped on the day of the event when opponent Angela Magana was injured in a car accident. Finally, inside the Invicta FC cage this past weekend, Esparza’s dream of winning a world title became a reality.
“Personally, I’ve never won a belt [before],” Esparza notes. “I never had an amateur career and never had an opportunity to win a national title. I’ve been in the top national placements, but to be the number one and to receive a belt is my biggest dream and it’s really emotional and exciting for me. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
One of Esparza’s close friends and training partners, former opponent Felice “Lil’ Bulldog” Herrig, recently spoke out in favour of competing on cards with just one women’s bout. Herrig feels that female fights receive more attention when placed on cards that are otherwise comprised of bouts involving men.
Esparza sees things a bit differently and hopes to stay with Invicta FC for the long-term. She believes that the all-female promotion is the best place for women to be and also feels that Invicta FC’s success was a contributing factor in the UFC’s recent decision to add female fighters to its roster.
“I’ve been on cards that were male-dominated. Pretty much every card before these [Invicta] ones was. As far as Invicta goes, I wouldn’t mind staying with them for the rest of my career. They are amazing and I think that they are the leading promotion for women right now. I think the UFC has its eyes on Invicta and is watching what they’re doing. The UFC is about profit, and if this Invicta FC all-women’s promotion is making a profit and being successful, then it’s something that [the UFC] is interested in.”
Female fighters have more opportunities today than in years passed, but finding and retaining realiable sponsors remains a challenge that women in the sport still deal with on a constant basis. Esparza benefits from the support of a core group that includes Brawl and Maul, Alienware, Battleware, and Fear The Fighter. Now that she is a champion, Esparza would like to add more names to the growing list of companies that support her as her career continues to flourish.
At just 25 years of age, Esparza holds one of the most prestigious women’s titles in mixed martial arts. She now has a target on her back, but welcomes the challenges that lie ahead of her as she enters the next chapter in her fighting career.