IRVINE, Calif. – The Invicta FC strawweight championship belt was kept in a glass case at Team Oyama, where its owner, Carla Esparza, trains on a regular basis. She pulled the belt out of the casing, reflecting on her past as the champion in an all-woman organization and eagerly looking forward to her exciting future.
Just a week prior, Esparza got a missed call from a number she didn’t recognize. Most people don’t call back a number they don’t know, but she returned the call that Tuesday evening.
“Hello?” Esparza cautiously said, when the person on the other line picked up.
“Carla, this is Dana White,” she recalled the voice on the other line saying.
A series of repeated “Oh my God” phrases and exuberant jumping around ensued thereafter. Never mind that her teammates looked at her, confused as to why she suddenly became so jubilant.
Esparza was one of 11 contracts assigned to Zuffa from Invicta FC to open up the first UFC women’s strawweight division. The group of women, Esparza was told, will be part of the first all-woman cast on the 20th season of The Ultimate Fighter.
The problem, Esparza said, was that she had to keep it a secret for a couple days. No telling her friends. No telling her teammates. Not even telling her manager. White told her he would announce it in a couple days, but ended up dropping the news a day earlier than expected.
“Good ol’ Dana, always changing things up,” she said.
Once the news broke, Esparza finally got to chat about her big surprise and called her manager to go over the details. He’s had fighters on TUF before, she said, so it was business as usual for him.
Apart from waiting to get to the TUF house, the only thing Esparza had to wait for now was to know who will coach the upcoming strawweight season. Growing up a wrestler, she said she gives preference to anyone with a similar background, but it’s the in-cage wreckage left behind by “El Niño” that Esparza said intrigues her the most.
“I like Gilbert Melendez,” she said, when asked who she would like to be coached by on the upcoming reality show. “I think he would be a good coach. I love watching him fight and I like his style.”
Whether or not Melendez will be selected to coach, however, is currently up in the air, and shooting for the show doesn’t start until May 10, 2014. The next six months leaves a lot of time for Esparza to train, study her potential opponents, and get some much needed rest and relaxation.
Despite the extended length of time away from competition, money won’t be a concern, Esparza said. She’ll have $40,000 in Zuffa paychecks heading her way before even stepping in the TUF house.
As Invicta’s strawweight champion, Esparza drew the biggest payday advance out of all her colleagues. Having the belt netted her at least $8,000 more over the next six months than all the other 115-pounders coming with her to the UFC.
It’s something Esparza said she can truly appreciate coming from her new boss.
“I’m going to take care of you girls,” she recalled White saying. “I’m going to make sure you’re okay for the next few months and we’re not leaving you hanging.”
Coming into the organization already having earned gold gives the indication that Esparza is a favorite to win the show, making her the frontrunner to be the first women’s 115-pound UFC champion. Being the first or second pick when teams are chosen on the show, Esparza said, won’t be a surprise, but that also comes with walking around with a target on your back. While she’s likely in everyone’s crosshairs, Esparza isn’t bothered, explaining that she wants to live up the image of being the top prospect.
Once it’s all over, and the reality show cameras are turned off, “The Cookie Monster” sees herself putting a brand new belt in Team Oyama’s glass case. Having a strap with “UFC” written across the front of it will make a nice decoration in the Southern California gym.
“Everyone’s going in there to get the belt,” Esparza said, “but I’m one of them and I believe that I’m going to have that belt around my waist.”
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