NEW YORK – At one point during her session with reporters Wednesday, UFC strawweight champion Carla Esparza trembled. No, it wasn’t for the reason you probably are thinking. It was just a little chilly inside the room hosting UFC 281 media day.
Esparza (19-6 MMA, 10-4 UFC) is well aware of the general feeling heading into her co-headliner with Zhang Weili (22-3 MMA, 6-2 UFC) on Saturday, that she’s afraid of the former champion and has little chance of defending her title. The oddsmakers reflect that, too, with Weili a nearly 4-to-1 favorite and Esparza a nearly 3-to-1 underdog.
Even Weili told reporters earlier Wednesday that she doesn’t think there’s anything special to Esparza’s skillset and that there’s nothing in particular for her to fear.
Esparza shrugs off that notion.
“I think probably a lot of people have felt that about my game, but it doesn’t really matter what she thinks or what she fears,” Esparza told reporters, including MMA Junkie. “I’m going in there with my best game, and this is probably one of the best camps I’ve had. I’m just ready to go in there the best me and prove the world wrong, I guess.”
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For Esparza, 35, things couldn’t have worked out any better after she beat Rose Namajunas in May to claim the 115-pound title eight years after her first UFC championship. Even though the rematch with Namajunas wasn’t the most exciting, Esparza still needed some time off to recover from modest injuries in training camp.
There was talk of her defending her fighting last month at UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi, but she knew she didn’t want that. Esparza, who got married a week later, said shortly after beating Namajunas that she wouldn’t be rushed into her first title defense – and she wasn’t.
“I couldn’t be happier with the way things worked out,” Esparza said. “I had a good amount of time to recover after the fight and kind of work on some skills. I feel great. I mean, I’m fighting at Madison Square Garden.”
It’s an opportunity Esparza relishes, one where she can prove doubters wrong on the biggest stage in combat sports. Just as Weili doesn’t see Esparza as anything special, the feeling is kind of mutual.
“I think overall she has a relatively – I wouldn’t say basic, but there’s nothing super unique,” Esparza said. “Just her style is she’s very powerful and very strong. … Overall I feel confident going into the fight that I’m not gonna see anything too crazy out of the box.”
For more on the card, visit MMA Junkie’s event hub for UFC 281.