Nobody blames Carla Esparza for feeling a little left out right now.
If that is indeed how she feels.
So far, it’s kind of hard to tell. As the UFC’s first strawweight champion prepares to make the first defense of her title against Joanna Jedrzejczyk on Saturday at UFC 185, you get the impression Esparza is parsing her words carefully.
When she told MMAFighting.com's Marc Raimondi this week that she doesn't think her fight is "being promoted as much as it should be," she also added: "It is what it is. I'm gonna just keep winning fights and then those things will come. I'm not really too focused on that."
When she talked about her frustrations that a relative newb like Paige VanZant scored an individual sponsorship deal with Reebok—the UFC’s new exclusive apparel partner—Esparza said: “I'm never gonna hate on someone. I'm not gonna hate on Paige for taking an opportunity that was given to her."
But look, if there are some raw nerves floating around her camp right now, we all understand.
As Raimondi succinctly puts it:
In all, Esparza (10-2), the former Invicta FC women's strawweight champion, has won five straight and has not lost in four years. She made her way unscathed through the gauntlet of The Ultimate Fighter 20. Yet it seems like there's always someone else the UFC would rather push, like rising strawweight prospect Paige VanZant, who has done countless photo and video shoots.
So, if—and we say again, if—Esparza is bothered by the notion that she’s playing second banana in her own division, this weekend’s bout against Jedrzejczyk represents an opportunity to begin forcibly restructuring things.
As she notes in her own words, there is one language everyone in the fight game speaks, and that’s dominance.
Even if Esparza doesn’t seem like her employer’s first choice for superstardom in the newly minted 115-pound division, nobody will argue with it if she continues to knock off challengers with extreme prejudice.
It might be the only way, in fact, for her to prove to the doubters she’s the right strawweight for the job of establishing this weight class in the UFC landscape.
After all, VanZant isn’t the only one of Esparza’s peers who has gotten more pub than the champion during her UFC run. During filming of The Ultimate Fighter 20, reports began to filter out that the fight company believed it had “another Ronda Rousey” in the reality show’s ubiquitous fighter house, per Sherdog. It soon became clear that the fighter in question wasn’t Esparza, but 22-year-old Rose Namajunas.
Namajunas advanced through the TUF tournament with three stoppage victories, and more than a few analysts picked her over Esparza at the live finale in December 2014. But Esparza proved to be the more experienced and better-rounded competitor. She used her wrestling skills to battle back from some rough early moments and captured the inaugural strawweight title via third-round submission.
And thus, even though the tournament bracket succeeded in producing the most deserving winner, perhaps the UFC ended up with a 115-pound champion it didn’t necessarily anticipate.
VanZant had signed with the UFC about the same time as the rest but was deemed too young to compete on TUF. Instead, the UFC gave her a free pass directly into the Octagon. She’s only fought once since then—defeating Kailin Curran last November—but has garnered a great deal of publicity, not to mention the one lucrative endorsement deal.
Meanwhile, the champion, the woman who actually has the title, feels like a bit of an afterthought.
Mind you, it doesn’t seem as though Esparza is being ignored on purpose. Much of what’s at play here is incidental, even unconscious. In the grand scheme of trying to figure out which fighters have “it” and which fighters don’t, there aren’t a lot of hard and fast rules.
But then you see things like UFC President Dana White going nuts on Twitter for strawweights who aren’t even signed by the organization yet, and you have to wonder.
Amid all this, where’s Esparza? What’s so wrong with her?
Nothing, obviously, though in the wake of VanZant’s Reebok signing, the situation was noticeable enough that UFC PR officials reportedly had to reassure Esparza she’ll be getting more attention from the organization in the future.
“It shook things up a little bit; it made them realize something they didn’t realize, that I was kind of overlooked a little bit,” she told MMA Junkie’s Steven Marrocco while attending this month’s UFC 184. "They only gave me positive feedback. They were like, ‘We’re going to start promoting you more and make you feel like the champion.'"
Some of this might be the natural growing pains of a new division. Chances are, fledgling titlists like flyweight Demetrious Johnson or bantamweight TJ Dillashaw have felt overlooked a time or two in the larger scheme of the UFC, especially now that the fight company has nearly 500 fighters on its roster and does nearly 50 shows per year.
But as its newest women’s champion, Esparza also inherited the legacy of the UFC’s previous forays into women’s MMA. As evidenced by the initial advertising campaign for TUF 20 as well as much of its marketing of athletes like Rousey, the company only has a couple of arrows in its quiver of promotional tactics.
It likes its female athletes to be pretty and sharp-tongued, and that’s about it. Esparza thus far has preferred to focus more on her fighting skills. She hasn’t talked a lot of trash, leaving the overall impression she’s the sort of competitor who wants her performance in the cage to be the ultimate statement about her worth to the company.
By comparison, VanZant is far more willing to pose for revealing photos or to post goofy dance videos on Instagram. She seems to revel in her status as the good-looking newcomer on the scene. As for why VanZant has been granted opportunities that outpace her standing as a UFC rookie, Esparza has her own idea about that, too.
"The only two (women’s) fighters to sign (with Reebok) have been blonde,” she told Raimondi, “so I'm thinking about throwing a blonde wig on.”
So we’re left with one comprehensive fix here. If Esparza wants her fighting skills to be at the forefront, she has to perform well in the cage. She has to keep winning. She has to leave no doubt.
She’s not going to dominate people as quickly and completely as Rousey has, but she nevertheless has to smother her challengers one by one. She has to suck the life out of them and then get on the mic to tell the world where it can go if it doesn’t like it.
That starts this weekend with Jedrzejczyk.
And if we were Esparza, we’d make it clear we wanted VanZant to be next.
Maybe if she beats both of them, the fight company will finally “make her feel like a champion.”