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Carla Esparza: ‘It makes me smile and laugh’ that people still doubt me ahead of Zhang Weili fight

A defending champion being viewed as the underdog before a title bout is still rather uncommon, but Carla Esparza is in that position once more.

The 35-year-old veteran takes on Zhang Weili in the UFC 281 co-main event and faces overwhelming odds in her first fight since winning the strawweight title in May. Zhang is ranked as a 4-to-1 underdog in sportsbooks, and many people think it's nearly a given that she will win the 115-pound championship again after having previously held it from 2019 to 2021.

Esparza frequently appears to be fighting against the idea that she is merely keeping the throne warm for better competitors coming for her crown, despite holding two distinct UFC titles and continuously standing around the top of the strawweight rankings for the better part of a decade.

“It is funny,” Esparza told MMA Fighting. “Before, I would say early in my career it would kind of bum me out like ‘hey, I’m a good fighter!’ But now it just makes me smile and laugh. Like I know that I have a little secret but people [say] this is going to happen or that is going to happen and I’m just like OK but deep down I have my secret like you’ll see.

“But I don’t need to talk about it. That’s been the style of my coach and my team since I’ve been there. Do your talking in the cage. I don’t need to tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to show you.”

Without a doubt, Zhang has excelled in the UFC save her two defeats to Rose Namajunas, which remain the only setbacks on her record since entering the organization. Zhang defeated Jessica Andrade by knockout to win the UFC championship, and she has two victories against Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who defeated Esparza in 2014 after she first won the belt.

With true one-punch knockout power and the kind of toughness that allowed her to battle Jedrzejczyk for five rounds in their first meeting back in 2020, Zhang may be the strongest fighter in the entire division.

Esparza in no way minimizes Zhang's accomplishments, much less what the former champion is capable of doing inside the ring. She won't, however, simply give up and pretend she never was because nobody was counting on her to triumph.

Esparza's persistent wrestling skills give her the capacity to bring the fight to the ground or at least pose a takedown threat, which is a huge counterbalance against Zhang's enormous strength. Before the battle on Saturday, Esparza is not going to reveal her strategy, but she is aware that she always has a weapon in her back pocket for any situation.

“I don’t think in my career there’s been anybody that I can recall or hardly anybody I haven’t been able to take down,” Esparza said. “Even in my losses, I’ve had some takedowns. I feel confident in my wrestling.

Esparza doesn't quite care how she prevails at UFC 281 as long as the belt remains on her waist when she leaves Madison Square Garden, whether it be by knockout, submission, or decision. Esparza agrees that success is always the most important factor, although proving her doubters wrong will be a nice side effect.

“I’m a betting underdog usually and my friends and family have thanked me because I’ve won them a lot of money in the past. It is what it is. I definitely don’t mind being the underdog.”


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