UFC 185 features two title fights. Unaware that there’s more than one title fight that night? You’re not alone, and Carla Esparza isn’t happy about it.
That’s because the inaugural UFC women’s strawweight champion has spent more time talking about the lack of promotion surrounding herself and her UFC 185 title defense than she has spent discussing the fight itself. Just recently, Esparza spoke with MMAFighting.com about the buildup (or lack thereof) for her UFC 185 title bout against Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
“To be honest, I don’t think our specific fight is being promoted as much as it should be,” Esparza said. “It is what it is. I’m gonna just keep winning fights and then those things will come. I’m not really too focused on that.”
Except the problem is the only headlines Esparza has made pre-UFC 185 have been focused on anything but her upcoming fight. Taking shots at the UFC’s new flagship sponsor Reebok likely wasn’t the best move on her part, but UFC officials would later reassure her that they would be pushing Esparza as the champion she is. Apparently that hasn’t happened yet, as her recent criticism indicates the UFC strawweight champ isn’t happy with the pre-UFC 185 marketing plan.
Is Esparza right in her claims of the UFC under-promoting her and Reebok skipping over the division champion for a 20-year-old fighter with model looks but only a 4-1 professional record?
The answer is yes, she’s right on all accounts. The UFC 185 card as a whole has been criminally under-promoted in the wake of the Ronda Rousey show at UFC 184 and the recent drug-test failures of high-profile stars.
However, the amount of quality fights listed on the UFC 185 card is insane by today’s standards for UFC pay-per-view cards. It’s pretty telling that a welterweight fight between Johny Hendricks and Matt Brown could decide the next 170-pound title challenger but is currently only listed as a feature fight for UFC 185. Roy Nelson and Alistair Overeem are both established names that can end a fight at a moment’s notice. Henry Cejudo, a former Olympic athlete and uber-prospect, will be trying to make the 125-pound limit once more. Even the preliminary card is loaded with well-known names, such as Ross Pearson and Sam Stout, along with exciting fighters like Daron Cruickshank. Sergio Pettis, one of the most talked about prospects in recent times, is relegated to the Fight Pass prelims. Needless to say, UFC 185 is a stacked card that isn’t being treated as such.
Even if you were to argue that UFC 185 features a lot more known names than Esparza, it still doesn’t make up for the UFC not treating UFC 185 like the premier event that it is and promoting Esparza as a credible champion.
Esparza is also dead-on with her critique of Reebok. Whether you agree or disagree with her opinion on Reebok bypassing her for Paige VanZant, it’s still a snub of Esparza’s skills that the new UFC flagship sponsor would rather be associated with the No. 10 fighter than the current champion. It’s not as if Esparza isn’t afraid to use her assets to promote herself either.
However, given that Esparza is right with her critiques, it doesn’t mean that those are 100 percent of the problem. If Esparza wants to find a major contributing factor as to why she’s not feeling the love, she need not look any further than the closest mirror. No, it has nothing to do with her looks, but rather with the way she was portrayed while on The Ultimate Fighter 20.
Esparza entered the house as the undisputed top seed due to her status as the former Invicta FC strawweight champion. It was an honor that was rightly deserved and she validated it with a dominant showing throughout the TUF tournament. Yet, as dominant as Esparza was during her TUF stint, it left a sour taste in the mouths of many fans. She doesn’t have a “let me bang bro” type of style in the cage and fought very conservatively at points (see: her fight with Tecia Torres). Given that Esparza had to take three fights within the matter of a few weeks without her normal training partners, it’s hard to fault her for taking the easiest route possible to winning. But, a lot of fans either forget the time format of how TUF plays out or are unaware and simply see Esparza fighting safe (read: boring).
Depending on whether you saw Esparza’s performances as boring or not, odds are most fans fell into the same category when it came to how Esparza was portrayed outside the cage. Instead of keeping a humble tune with her No. 1 ranking, Esparza quickly became the focal point of negative backlash from viewers. A recent example of fans souring on a UFC star from their time on TUF is the aforementioned Rousey. Coaching against her bitter rival, Miesha Tate, Rousey didn’t come out of The Ultimate Fighter looking like the All-American girl the UFC had previously built her up as.
Esparza’s friendship with the polarizing Felice Herrig likely didn’t help her standing either. Whether it was the UFC editing crew’s influence or simply how Esparza really is, it wasn’t a great first impression to the UFC fan base. And everyone knows the value of a first impression.
A final factor to consider as to why Esparza’s star power hasn’t exploded following TUF is what I like to call the “Rashad Evans effect.” Earlier in his career, Evans built his reputation on fighting (and beating) a number of fan-favorite fighters like Forrest Griffin and Chuck Liddell along with challenging (then) fan-favorite Matt Hughes. It made Evans the bad guy by default, even if he hadn’t done anything to deserve it. (Well, there was that one time with Griffin.) The same can be said of Esparza. She competed in a tournament filled with fan-favorites heading in (Joanne Calderwood, Rose Namajunas) or ladies who became fan-favorites (Randa Markos). Despite Esparza being an early favorite to win the tournament, it’s not as if she had the fan enthusiasm that fighters like Calderwood, Namajunas or even Torres enjoyed. Outlasting all of those ladies, along with beating Namajunas in the finals, immediately put Esparza in a bad light with fans of those fighters.
Yes, Esparza is completely right on a lot of her complaints with how she and the division as a whole have been promoted since their initial TUF run. However, Esparza isn’t completely innocent in this equation. If the champ goes out there and puts on a show against a dangerous opponent, odds are her drawing power will continue to rise. It only makes the UFC’s job easier to promote her as a credible champion with every win. As the late Al Davis used to say, “Just win, baby!”