Carla Esparza Eyes Pandemonium Title, Return To BellatorOn Saturday night in Riverside, California, standout wrestler Carla Esparza will compete in the first five-round title fight of her two-year MMA career at MEZ Sports: “Pandemonium 6.” Esparza faces Angela Magana, a woman who helped to inspire her to pursue MMA just a few short years ago.

Esparza sees Magana as a solid test and respects her grappling skills, but also feels that she is ready for anything that Magana can bring to the table. Esparza remains under contract to Bellator Fighting Championships and hopes that a win on Saturday will set up a return to the promotion this year.

Growing up in the south Bay Area of California, Esparza (6-2-0 MMA) got a late start in sports. She dabbled in basketball during her high school years in Redondo Beach, but found that her five-foot-one frame did not lend itself well to a game that often favours height above all else. During her junior year of high school, however, Esparza discovered wrestling and fell in love with the competition that ultimately brought her to where she is today.

Competing on the boys’ wrestling team, Esparza became accustomed to facing opponents who were often bigger and stronger than she was. Despite this, she quickly became one of the top-ranked female wrestlers in her division. After winning regional tournaments in both her junior and senior years, Esparza took third place in the nationals. Upon graduating, she joined the Menlo college girls’ wrestling team. There, Esparza was finally able to compete against other women on a regular basis. Her confidence continued to grow as she scored dominant wins over many of her opponents.

It was during this time that Esparza first heard about mixed martial arts, a new sport that was gaining momentum in the United States and around the world. She began jiu-jitsu training and competed in tournaments during her sophomore year. One of Esparza’s opponents on the mat was the same woman she will face this Saturday, Angela Magana. The pair struck up a friendship as Magana detailed her experiences in MMA. Esparza enrolled in cardio kickboxing classes shortly thereafter, and later Muay Thai under current trainer Colin Oyama, and the wheels were set in motion.

Esparza continued to train in a variety of martial arts disciplines during her time in college. She knew that, as an amateur wrestler, she would be forced to leave the wrestling program if she competed as a professional mixed martial artist due to pro-am regulations and therefore opted not to take on any MMA fights until after graduation. When that time came, however, Esparza was ready. She jumped right into the pro MMA ranks and earned a pair of submission victories in her first two bouts in early 2010. Esparza was so dominant that potential opponents began to turn down fights with her.

That same year, Bellator Fighting Championships announced that it would be staging an eight-woman tournament at 115 pounds during its third season, which was set to begin in August. Esparza eagerly applied to take part, but was told that she would need to gain more experience. When a short-notice fight with Strikeforce veteran Lacey Schuckman presented itself, Esparza made the most of it and earned a second-round submission win. Still, it was not enough. She was told that the Bellator tournament was full, but everything changed during the second week of August.


Opportunity of a Lifetime

A planned Bellator quarterfinal bout between Magana and pound-for-pound queen Megumi Fujii, which had been set to take place on August 12th in Florida, was cancelled due to a Magana injury. On three days’ notice, Esparza received the call to fill in for Magana against the top female fighter in the world. After talking it over with her coach, Esparza agreed to take the fight. She was ultimately submitted by Fujii in the second round of their Bellator 24 meeting, but received considerable praise from onlookers for a very game performance; one that made it clear that she would be a future star in the sport.

“Things happen for a reason,” Esparza says of the experience. She wishes that she could have won the fight, but there is no hint of regret in her voice when she speaks of accepting the challenge to face the world’s best. She hopes to have a second shot at the Japanese dynamo in the future and believes that a rematch would play out differently.

Esparza returned to the regional scene following the bout with Fujii and added two more wins to her record. She stepped back into the Bellator cage this past June to face rising star Jessica Aguilar, who had advanced to the semi-finals of the promotion’s women’s tournament before dropping a contentious decision. Esparza and Aguilar battled back and forth through three competitive rounds. The fight went to the judges and Aguilar walked away with a razor-thin Split Decision victory.

“Coming out of [the loss], I was pretty upset. I played it a little too safe at the end,” Esparza says. “Woulda, coulda, shoulda, you know? I wish I would have gone for more takedowns and not played it so safe, but I felt that I had used a lot of weapons. I kicked a lot, punched a lot and I was moving. Judges all have their own opinions of who is winning, but she did a good job and she gave me a battle.”

A rematch with Aguilar is the fight that Esparza and her coach are most looking forward to this year.


Back With a Vengeance

Striking remains a key component of Esparza’s training under renowned coach Colin Oyama, who is regarded as one of the premier Muay Thai trainers in the world. This was perhaps never more evident than in Esparza’s most recent fight.

On December 2nd, she debuted for the Florida-based Xtreme Fighting Championships promotion in a bout with talented kickboxer Felice Herrig. Esparza took her opponent down at will throughout the fight. Perhaps more impressively, she more than held her own in the striking exchanges as she grew more and more confident in her skills on the feet. Esparza earned a lopsided Unanimous Decision victory in the fight and sent a message to the rest of the 115-pound division. She was here to stay.

Esparza is now in the final stages of preparation for her first five-round title fight this Saturday. She looks to carry momentum from her win over Herrig into her battle with Magana. While Esparza respects her opponent, she feels that she the tools to beat her and should hold an advantage no matter where the fight goes. Esparza has trained 5-6 days per week for the fight and is prepared to go all five rounds if necessary, but is confident that she can finish Magana inside the distance. Judges won’t be needed here and Magana will eventually fold, she says.

Remaining focused has been crucial for Esparza. When it looked like her fight with Magana may be cancelled in mid-February, it was nothing new. Half a dozen other planned bouts had fallen apart in the past, Esparza recalls.

She would not be robbed of a chance to compete this time, however, as Magana remained on the card and Esparza now aims for what would arguably be the biggest victory of her young career.


Setting an Example

“I think it’s really important to stay positive and professional,” Esparza says. “Obviously, the sport’s going to have different types of characters, but for me, being a female athlete wrestling, I know that people are going to look at that and [your actions will] reflect upon what you do. People are always forming opinions and putting you into a stereotype. I just want to do positive things for women’s MMA. I want to keep on this path and stay positive to try to represent the sport as best as I can.”

One instance of unprofessionalism that Esparza has taken issue with in recent months has been an influx of fighters missing weight for scheduled fights. It is a problem that has especially impacted female fighters this year, with some women giving up over 10 pounds to opponents on the day of weigh-ins.

With her background in wrestling, Esparza has the art of weight cutting down to what she describes as a science. She prefers to stick to a healthy diet rather than resorting to drastic weight cuts that could harm her body and drops fewer than ten pounds to compete at 115. While she has not yet faced an opponent who has come in overweight, Esparza sympathises with those that have.

“Not making weight is just not cool and not professional,” she says. “If it happens one time, I guess everyone makes a mistake, but after that you hope they just move up [a weight class].

“It puts the other fighter in a bad position,” she adds. “If they don’t take the fight, they look like the bad guy, but also they’re not getting paid. They’re not getting money to support their families and for paying their bills. They’re just in a bad position because they came there ready and professional.”

Esparza has a solution that she hopes is implemented if the trend of missing weight continues. She proposes that fighters be placed on suspension for six months in the same way that a fighter would be disciplined for breaking a different rule that provides them with an unfair advantage.


Looking Ahead

Esparza fought five times in her first year as a mixed martial artist, but feels that three fights in 2012 would be ideal. She hopes to be able to continue to compete on televised cards in prominent fights against tough opponents and welcomes all challenges. Esparza has kept the door open to a move up to 125 pounds in the event that Bellator stages its next women’s tournament at that weight, but feels that she is best suited to 115. With a walking weight of 124 pounds, Esparza knows that she would be at a size disadvantage if she faced opponents who cut down from as high as 140.

If opportunities in Bellator do not present themselves to Esparza this year, she speaks highly of the newly-formed Invicta Fighting Championships and its debut all-female event in April. Esparza believes that the promotion’s push to bring female fighters to the forefront will do positive things for the sport and she welcomes the chance to compete under the Invicta FC banner someday.

In the interim, Esparza has her sights set squarely on Magana and the title fight on Saturday. She knows that a loss to Magana would be a significant setback that could hinder her efforts to get back into Bellator. Esparza cites recent assistance from primary sponsor Brawl and Maul as instrumental in preparing her for the title tilt and she hopes to leave a lasting impression with the viewing audience this weekend by capturing the Pandemonium 115-pound women’s championship in dominant fashion.

The title fight will stream live and free of charge on


  1. Very exciting style.
    Future star.