It’s still somewhat rare that a defending champion will be considered an underdog ahead of a title fight but that’s exactly where Carla Esparza finds herself yet again.
In her first fight since claiming the strawweight title in May, the 35-year-old veteran faces daunting odds going up against Zhang Weili in the UFC 281 co-main event. Sportsbooks have her listed as somewhere around a 4-to-1 underdog with many believing it’s almost a foregone conclusion that Zhang will reclaim the 115-pound championship after she previously held the title between 2019 and 2021.
Despite two separate UFC title reigns and consistently sitting near the top of the strawweight rankings for the better part of the decade, Esparza always seems to be battling against the notion that she’s just keeping the throne warm for better fighters coming for her crown.
“It is funny,” Esparza told MMA Fighting. “Before, I would say early in my career it would kind of bum me out like ‘hey, I’m a good fighter!’ But now it just makes me smile and laugh. Like I know that I have a little secret but people [say] this is going to happen or that is going to happen and I’m just like OK but deep down I have my secret like you’ll see.
“But I don’t need to talk about it. That’s been the style of my coach and my team since I’ve been there. Do your talking in the cage. I don’t need to tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to show you.”
There’s no doubt that Zhang has been a force of nature in the UFC outside of two past losses to Rose Namajunas, which are still the only defeats on her resume since joining the promotion. Zhang knocked out Jessica Andrade to claim her UFC title and she holds two wins over Joanna Jedrzejczyk — the fighter who finished Esparza after she first became champion in 2014.
When it comes to skills, Zhang might be strongest fighter in the entire division with legitimate one-punch knockout power and the kind of durability that allowed her to engage in a five-round war with Jedrzejczyk in their first encounter back in 2020.
By no means does Esparza discount anything that Zhang has already accomplished much less what the former champion is capable of doing inside the cage. But she’s also not going to just roll over and play dead because nobody expects her to win.
“I have done my studying and I have seen holes and things I can take advantage of,” Esparza said about Zhang. “But at the end of the day, at this level and being a former champ, everyone’s going to be really good. I think it’s because she’s so dangerous and she comes out really strong that she has had these explosive first-round finishes. I’m definitely not looking past how dangerous she is and her knockout power and how strong she is because I think that’s obvious to see.
“But I’m pretty strong myself or else I wouldn’t be here at this point. I go into every fight that the possibility [is there], it’s a dangerous sport. It’s the hurt business. I go in there and prepare the best I can and let the cards fall where they may.”
If Esparza has one great equalizer to counter Zhang’s incredible power, it’s her ability to take the fight to the ground or at least threaten with the takedown thanks to her tenacious wrestling ability.
She’s certainly not going to give away her game plan ahead of Saturday’s fight but Esparza knows that she’s always that weapon in her back pocket whenever needed.
“I don’t think in my career there’s been anybody that I can recall or hardly anybody I haven’t been able to take down,” Esparza said. “Even in my losses, I’ve had some takedowns. I feel confident in my wrestling.
“I don’t think Weili has ever fought anyone like me. She’s never had this type of fight and I think she’s even said that in interviews. We’ll see how she reacts because I’ve never seen her go against someone like me so I don’t know how good she is there. It’s not easy fighting someone completely different than you have seen before.”
Whether it’s a knockout, submission or a decision victory, Esparza doesn’t really care how she gets the job done at UFC 281 so long as she leaves Madison Square Garden with the title still around her waist.
Esparza acknowledges that winning is always what matters most, although sticking it to the people who continuously say she’s got no shot will be an added bonus.
“It’s always great to win but to silence all the doubters, there’s a little bit of extra satisfaction to that,” Esparza said. “Unfortunately or fortunately, it’s something I’ve gotten to do a lot in my career.
“I’m a betting underdog usually and my friends and family have thanked me because I’ve won them a lot of money in the past. It is what it is. I definitely don’t mind being the underdog.”