Carla Kristen Esparza (born October 10, 1987) is an American professional mixed martial artist who competes in the Strawweight division of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
Largely known for her grappling abilities, Esparza was the first UFC Strawweight Champion, the first Invicta FC Strawweight Champion, and was generally considered the best strawweight fighter in the world while holding each title.
Carla Esparza’s foray into mixed martial arts (MMA) began when she started wrestling for the varsity team during her junior year at Redondo Union High School in Redondo Beach, California.
After winning multiple local and national high-school wrestling tournaments, Esparza was awarded a scholarship to Menlo College to wrestle under coach and former two-time Olympian Lee Allen
In August 2010, only six months after her pro debut and with just three professional MMA fights, Esparza was called in by Bellator MMA as a last-minute replacement for Angela Magaña, who was forced to withdraw from her upcoming fight due to a foot injury.
Esparza was inserted in the bracket of the Bellator Season 3 115 lb women’s tournament at Bellator 24. On just three days’ notice, Esparza’s opponent in the quarterfinal round was the undefeated and then #1 pound-for-pound female MMA fighter in the world, Megumi Fujii Esparza lost the fight to the heavily favored Fujii via second-round armbar submission.
XFC and MEZ Sports
On December 2, 2011, Esparza made her XFC debut against Felice Herrig at XFC 15: Tribute in Tampa, Florida. She defeated Herrig via unanimous decision.
Three months later, Esparza was scheduled to face Angela Magana at Pandemonium VI for the MEZ Sports women’s flyweight title.
Unfortunately, Magana was involved in a car accident on the day of the fight while in transit to the Riverside Convention Center, where the event was being staged. Magana re-broke her back in the collision and was unable to compete in the fight.
In May 2012, it was announced that Esparza had signed with the upstart all-female Invicta Fighting Championships promotion.
On July 28, 2012, Esparza made her Invicta debut at the promotion’s second event, entitled Invicta FC 2: Baszler vs. McMann, and faced Sarah Schneider on the preliminary card. Esparza won the fight via TKO (punches) at 4:28 of round two.
Esparza was expected to face Ayaka Hamasaki for the Invicta FC Strawweight Championship at Invicta FC 4: Esparza vs. Hyatt on January 5, 2013.
However, Hamasaki withdrew from the fight in order to defend her Jewels Lightweight title in Japan. Esparza was then set to face Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt Cláudia Gadelha in the Invicta FC 4 main event, but Gadelha broke her nose in training and was forced to withdraw.
The Ultimate Fighter
On December 11, 2013, it was announced that Esparza was signed by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) along with 10 other strawweight fighters to compete on season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter, which would crown the first ever UFC Strawweight Champion.
After dominating much of the fight with her grappling and ground strikes, Esparza defeated Namajunas via rear-naked choke in the third round to become the inaugural UFC Strawweight Champion.
The result also earned Esparza a Performance of the Night bonus.