Ahead of UFC 185, Carla Esparza really could have done with the Rousey treatment


If the perpetually tiresome pound-for-pound debate has yielded one positive result, it’s the futility of comparing fighters who, under no circumstance, will ever be matched. Sure, it be can enjoyable to partake in some imaginary matchmaking but, at the end of the day, it’s all just hypothetical.

However, on the eve of UFC 185, there is an interesting juxtaposition to be made between Carla Esparza and Ronda Rousey, though not by any conventional means. Like Rousey did against Liz Carmouche at UFC 157, Esparza will make the first defence of her newly-minted strawweight belt against Joanna Jedrzejczyk in the co-main event in Dallas tomorrow night.

Yet the disparity in promotion and priority provided by the UFC to these two momentous fights for women’s MMA is startling. Firstly, Rousey and Carmouche were allocated main event status at UFC 157 and, even with stars such Lyoto Machida, Dan Henderson and Urijah Faber on the billing, there was never any doubt what the star attraction was.

Granted, the UFC must have been cognisant of the gamble they were making by giving a relatively untested commodity such a prominent position on a pay-per-view card, so they did everything possible to ensure its success.

They undoubtedly took the risk based on the magnetism of Rousey’s star-quality and built the event around her accordingly, with Carmouche being relegated to the role of a barely relevant co-star. The Countdown show, press events and TV spots were a homage to all things Ronda then, thankfully for Zuffa, she repaid their faith by defeating Carmouche via her patented armbar. The rest, as they say, is history.

Which brings us to Carla Esparza and, in no short thanks to the paucity in her visibility since she submitted Rose Namajunas to win the strawweight title last December, just how little any of us know or, for that matter, really care about her.

As the champion of the promotion’s newest division it’s striking that there has been next no attempt made by the UFC to further acquaint Esparza or her contemporaries with a fan base that has tended to be indifferent to the lighter weight classes.

An argument can be made that by giving Esparza and Jedrzejczyk such pride of place on a card as stacked as this one provides tangible proof of the UFC’s intentions for the 115lbs category. However, it’s not one that can stand up to much scrutiny.

There is a distinct feeling that the UFC shunted this match-up into such a mouth-watering card out of some misplaced sense of obligation.

As is expected and appropriate, the lightweight title bout between Anthony Pettis and Rafael Dos Anjos has received the lion’s share of the spotlight. But, would anyone blink an eye if Esparza and Jedrzejczyk were unexpectedly pulled from the event, and Johny Hendricks and Matt Brown were bumped up a notch?

Esparza’s inaugural defence should have been granted the main event on another card. In light of dwindling pay-per-view numbers, the UFC could have placed it atop a Fight Night or Fox event and, in turn, somewhat alleviate the chance of taking a financial hit.

Though this is about more than product placement. When Rousey crossed over to the UFC from Strikeforce, her arrival, as noted, was accompanied by lavish pageantry. We were regaled with her compelling back story, both in and out of competition, and left in absolutely no doubt about just how special she is.

Conversely, Esparza’s achievements in collegiate wrestling and her being the first Invicta FC strawweight champion has been given sparse circulation. Outside of her bout with Namajunas, the UFC have added none of her fights from Invicta to their YouTube channel, while between both the Countdown and Embedded series, we’ve watched Esparza hit mitts, buy a bikini and eat low-carb meals with her mother.

Remember, as well, Esparza had to beat four of her peers to get the belt, doing so on three occasions inside the TUF house, a place countless fighters have attested to being soul-destroying. Furthermore, she vacated her Invicta title to take part in the reality show, while Rousey was anointed as the bantamweight queen, in a belated development of the UFC’s absorption of Strikeforce.

Indeed, Esparza’s MMA record may not be as awe-inspiring as Rousey prior to their respective inaugurations, but it’s certainly more extensive. Rousey was 6-0 coming to the UFC, while Esparza was 9-2 and has year’s more professional experience.

Having also been snubbed by Reebok for the more aesthetically pleasing Paige VanZant, one could hardly blame Esparza for feeling marginalised over the last four months. And not just her, but the whole strawweight division, whose athletes have been matched sporadically across various preliminary cards.

Even with Rousey arguably now the face of the UFC, women’s MMA has yet to garner the type of traction that would warrant this level of half-baked promotion. Had Rose Namajunas-who slightly resembles a replica Rousey-bettered Esparza, would the status quo be different?

It’s not acknowledged, nor will it ever be, but the UFC often find themselves conflicted when the champion they have is not the one they want. More than ever, they are now acutely conscious of the image, persona and cross-over-ability of those in their employ.

As the sport continues to wade into unchartered territory, such imperatives are probably a necessary evil. The thing is, Carla Esparza may have all those qualities in abundance, but nobody has bothered to check.