Carla Esparza seems destined to see Zhang Weili as her next opponent, but the champion believes her past opponent, Marina Rodriguez, has earned her shot.
Currently ranked No. 3 in the official Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) rankings, Rodriguez’s last defeat came against the now-champion, Esparza, via a super-competitive split decision in July 2020. Esparza is the only blemish on Rodriguez’s otherwise perfect record (16-1-2) and she’s since won four fights in a row against Top 10-ranked opponents.
“I don’t think [Zhang] is [more deserving],” Esparza told MMA Fighting. “I think that Marina has won five straight, I think she’s beaten top-level competition. She’s been staying active, and for me, she’s proven herself. She deserves a title shot. But for whatever reason, I’m sure there’s a lot that goes into it and Weili is getting the shot.
“For me, I fight whoever’s put in front of me, but doesn’t necessarily mean I think it’s fair or was the right call as far as the athlete goes,” she added.
Unfortunately for one of Brazil’s finest, Rodriguez is likely looking at taking a backseat to former champion, Zhang Weili, after a stellar performance at UFC 275 two weeks ago (June 11, 2022).
Before the bout, UFC President, Dana White, declared the winner of Zhang’s rematch with Joanna Jedrzejczyk was next in line for the crack at the recently minted two-time champion, Esparza. Both Zhang and Jedrzejczyk entered the bout off losses — Jedrzejczyk’s last time out being a two-year-old defeat to Zhang in their first encounter.
Stealing the spotlight with style points, Zhang finished Jedrzejczyk in round two with a spinning back fist technical knockout (watch highlights) — her first win since the epic instant classic with Jedrzejczyk at UFC 248 (watch highlights).
While Esparza recently said she’s yet to watch the full fight herself, she did admit to catching the highlight of the finish. As for Rodriguez, the “Cookie Monster” admits to being continually impressed with her evolution since they fought.
“Every time I watch Marina, I see her getting better and better and beating top girls,” Esparza said. “Even having to knock somebody out twice in one fight in Amanda Ribas. She’s impressive. I definitely think she earned the title fight, and this is just the way it goes with the UFC sometimes. Whether it’s marketing or whatever else the reasoning, that’s just kind of how it goes, and you have to just roll with the punches.”
Esparza recaptured the UFC Strawweight strap at UFC 274 this past May in a rematch with Rose Namajunas. Scoring the win via an all-time lackluster split decision (watch highlights), Esparza noted that she dislocated her thumb a week or two before fight night and will undergo two Magnetic Resonance Imagings (MRI) next week. The champion targets the first title defense of her second reign in November or December.
Who is more deserving of the next UFC strawweight title shot?