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Can Carla Esparza hold UFC gold past title defense at UFC 281?

Still searching for her first victory with a championship belt in hand, the strawweight champ is hungry to solidify her place atop the division.
carla-esparza

Carla Esparza is two-for-two in title bouts against Rose Namajunas.

Esparza regained the women's strawweight title this May at UFC 274 when she beat Namajunas by split decision. The fight was nearly eight years after Esparza defeated Namajunas in December of 2014 to become the division's first-ever champ, winning in spectacular fashion with a rear-naked choke. However, there was remarkably less intensity – and excitement – in the rematch.

"I didn't expect that at all," Esparza says. "Even during the fight, I was thinking, 'What is going on here?' It was very surreal. I think she came out with a certain game plan, and she had respect for my wrestling and my grappling, and that's how it went. It was good to get my hand raised."

Namajunas (11-5 MMA, 9-4 UFC) refused to engage at 274, producing practically no offense over five rounds. It proved to be a costly strategy. She lost the title by split decision, even though Esparza (19-6 MMA, 10-4 UFC) did little beyond minimally pushing the grappling. The decision was reminiscent of four years ago when Henry Cejudo defeated Demetrious Johnson for the flyweight title, another 25-minute contest that appeared to have no clear winner – until judges awarded the title to Cejudo by split decision. This was similar, with Esparza defeating Namajunas in the same manner.

"It was nerve-wracking," Esparza says. "You never know how the judges will respond. It wasn't as satisfying as when I finished her last time to win the title. But at the end of the day, walking away with the title made it big. I wish it went a different way, but I can't really complain."

The length of time between title victories was especially impressive. Esparza helped build the strawweight division in its infancy. Nearly a decade later, she remains part of its core.

"Everyone is deadly in the UFC, and everyone is so good, so I'm proud to still be here after starting the division eight years ago," Esparza says. "It makes me feel like I'm solidifying my legacy."

Esparza's next fight is set for UFC 281 in November. It takes place at New York's Madison Square Garden, marking her first fight in the historic venue. She will be challenged by former champ Zhang Weili (22-3 MMA, 6-2 UFC), who lost back-to-back bouts against Namajunas before retiring Joanna Jedrzejczyk with a vicious spinning back fist in June. Jedrzejczyk is a noteworthy figure from Esparza's past, as she was the one to take the title from Esparza in her first and only title defense in 2015.

"I know the UFC wanted me to step in a little bit sooner, but learning from my last title defense, I wanted to be in the right mental space and ready to get to work," Esparza says. "Winning the title is one thing, defending it is another. Winning my title defense, getting that ruby stone, that is something I'm really hungry to do.

"I haven't been able to do it with any of my titles. I had to relinquish the Invicta title after I signed with UFC, and I lost in my first fight after winning the UFC title. Defending this title, that is the top of my list."

The UFC 281 card is loaded, and it also includes Israel Adesanya defending his middleweight title against Alex Pereira. The Esparza-Weili bout has the potential to be spectacular, and a win will further solidify Esparza as one of the premier mixed martial artists in the world.

"It's an iconic fighting arena, where the biggest fights in the world are held, so it's a huge honor to have a title fight here," Esparza says. "Weili is coming off a devastating knockout win, against someone who I lost my title to. It's my first time fighting in New York, so it's time to go big or go home, and a win over her will be really satisfying in my first title defense."

This story first published at SI.com/MMA.