UFC champion Carla Esparza: Zhang Weili fight will happen on ‘my timeline’
A championship victory, a new husband and a lovely honeymoon. Safe to say the last month of Carla Esparza’s life has been magical.
“That’s a perfect way to describe it,” the UFC strawweight champion told The Post over the phone Monday.
And now, Esparza has the name of the woman she’ll face in her upcoming title defense: Zhang Weili. The former champion from China decisively won a billed No. 1 contender bout Saturday in Singapore on the UFC 275 main card, knocking out Joanna Jedrzejczyk in the second round.
Esparza saw the highlight-reel KO — a spinning back fist that connected more with her forearm to Jedrzejczyk’s jaw, forcing the ex-champ from Poland to face-plant. Esparza hasn’t had the chance to watch the entire fight yet, though. Blame that on some relatable technical difficulties.
“I was on my way back from an event. It actually came on earlier than I expected. I didn’t catch it,” Esparza said. “And then when we did get in, it was really hard trying to load the fight. We kept trying to buy it, and it wasn’t working. I caught the highlight, and I definitely plan to watch it. Obviously, if I ended up fighting Weili, I can’t not watch her most recent fight.”
The UFC, Esparza said, has reached out about scheduling her next fight, which she would prefer to take place near the end of 2022. She cites “nagging injuries, nothing serious” as part of the reason for the delay, allowing time to heal up and be ready.
One lesson from her first championship reign, which lasted only three months in the winter of 2015, was to not rush back into the cage too quickly. It’s something she takes to heart now with her second title run.
“That was honestly a big regret of mine, letting the pressure push me into jumping back so quickly after having gone through so much fighting [on] ‘The Ultimate Fighter.’ ” Esparza said. “That was my fifth fight in eight months. It’s really draining. That was a big regret of mine, not letting myself recover a little bit and jumping straight back into it because feeling pressured and wanting to make the UFC happy. But in the end, if I’m losing my title, then what was it all worth anyway?”
This time, Esparza is taking a different approach to planning the Zhang bout.
“I definitely don’t feel like I’m in a position where I should rush just because Weili wants a certain date,” she said. “I’m not trying to go on her timeline. I’m the champion, and I feel she needs to go on my timeline.”
In the interim, the Pole reigned for 2 ½ years before a combination of Namajunas, Zhang and Jessica Andrade traded possession of the belt until Esparza became a two-time titleholder.
The win over Namajunas, her second after claiming the belt in the inaugural championship bout in December 2014, has been widely panned as one of the least entertaining in UFC title history, as neither woman pressed heavily to engage. She says she had the chance to watch the fight again, saying she wanted to “get a better understanding” of what had been a hot topic as Namajunas and her fiancé and cornerman Pat Barry professed that they deserved to win the judges’ decision.
“You’re in there, you can feel one way, and that’s not necessarily how it looks on the outside,” Esparza said. “I still felt very confident that I won the fight after watching it, but it was nice to have a better understanding of everything that happened.”
Esparza noted that, while she has not had any direct contact with Namajunas since leaving the octagon, Barry sent her a positive message.
“He sent me a message, and he was super positive and congratulatory and was basically like, ‘You guys both had a game plan. You guys are both super talented. Nobody broke the other’s will. And that’s just kind of how it goes.’ ” Esparza recalled. “He was really cool about it. And [I] have all the respect for them.”