It was a long road but one that resulted in a dream-come-true moment for Carla Esparza.
After battling her way through the tournament on the 20th season of The Ultimate Fighter then steamrolling scrappy upstart Rose Namajunas in the finale, the Cookie Monster made UFC history by becoming the promotion's inaugural women's strawweight champion.
Furthermore, the 27-year-old Californian earned the title on the strength of a spirited performance in which she dominated Thug Rose en route to a third-round finish via rear-naked choke—leaving zero doubt she was the best female 115-pound fighter under the UFC banner.
For Esparza, her showing at the TUF 20 Finale made the ideal statement, and she did so when the spotlight was at its brightest. The next step she takes in her UFC career will be as the strawweight title holder, and while being a champion puts a huge target on her back, the Team Oyama representative wouldn't have it any other way. But until her next challenge materializes, Esparza is taking time to enjoy her success and live in the moment of a dream realized.
Something small like seeing her banner alongside the rest of the UFC champions this past weekend at the MGM Grand for UFC 182 is a reminder that she's accomplished her ultimate goal, and all the work and sacrifice she put in to get there was worth it.
"It was such a great thing to see my picture up there with all of these amazing champions," Esparza told Bleacher Report. "My picture is alongside all of these champions who have done so many amazing things in the sport, and it's hard for me to even realize I'm on the same level as they are. It's a great feeling.
"I definitely think I have made my mark on the division and it was a great way to enter the UFC with such a great win. I just have to keep it going and take it fight by fight. I would love to be one of those dominant champions like Ronda Rousey, Anderson Silva and GSP. I want to hold the belt for a very long time, but I have to keep my focus on one fight at a time.
"I'm enjoying this and soaking it all in," she added. "It has been a long year, but I'm here to fight. Whatever they tell me is next then I'm in for it."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.