‘I’m not making the same mistake twice’

UFC strawweight champion Carla Esparza is dealing with injuries and will not be agreeing to a fight with Zhang Weili at UFC 281 in Abu Dhabi.

Weili (22-3 MMA, 6-2 UFC) scored an incredible spinning backfist knockout that sent Joanna Jedrzejczyk into retirement earlier this month at UFC 275, solidifying her position as the next challenger to Esparza (19-6 MMA, 10-4 UFC ). After the win, Weili called for the fight to happen at the Oct. 22 event, labeling it “fair” neutral territory between the American titleholder and Chinese contender.

Esparza appreciates Weili’s forward-thinking attitude with a firm pitch for their showdown, but the reigning champ is still dealing with nagging injuries in the fallout of her heavily scrutinized title win over Rose Namajunas at UFC 274 in April, and the timeline simply does not fit.

“I understand why she would say it,” Esparza told MMA Junkie. “It did not seem like she took any injuries, she probably wants a fight closer to home. She shot her shot. Unfortunately that’s not a day that works for me, so I’m not stressing or rushing to get back on a day that works for her. I have some injuries that I have to deal with. A couple MRIs that I should be getting tomorrow. So, we’ll see after the dust settles what date makes sense for us.

“I do not think it’s anything too serious. I’ve already had an appointment with the doctor. He says nothing looks surgical. For me, I just wanted that peace of mind to get those MRIs because I’m not 100 percent yet, and it’s been a good amount of time (since my last fight). So, before I can start pushing hard and start going into a camp, I really want to make sure I’m not going to injure something that’s going to turn into a surgical situation. I want to fully rehab and go into this camp 100 percent, because I do have respect for Weili as an opponent. She’s a very tough opponent and I want to go into a camp giving it that respect. ”

Esparza’s diligent approach to getting back in the octagon for a clash with Weili is a product of experience. When Esparza defeated Namajunas, she made history as the fighter with the longest timespan between UFC title reigns, reclaiming gold 2,618 days after her first run began in December 2014.

Her original stint on top was short-lived, though. Esparza made just a three-month turnaround after becoming the inaugural 115-pound champion at The Ultimate Fighter 20 Finale. It did not go well, because Joanna Jedrzejczyk seamlessly took the strap with a lopsided second-round TKO at UFC 185 in March 2015.

It took Esparza more than seven years to get another championship fight inside the octagon, and now that she’s back atop the mountain, the 34-year-old is not going to be pressured into accepting a fight when her health status is not ideal.

“That was definitely a big regret of my career is going into that fight and being rushed by the UFC into that initial fight with Joanna and not being 100 percent,” Esparza said. “Not being ready and not having fully recovered physically. She won the fight fair and square. I decided to take the fight. But the only thing I’m taking away from that, is I’m learning from that. “I’m not making the same mistake twice.”

Unless her MRI scans produce negative news that surpass any current expectations, Esparza does not anticipate her rehabilitation timeline to extend an unreasonable length. She has every intention of fighting in 2022, and after being sidelined for just shy of one year between fights while waiting for a title shot, a six-or-seven-month stretch to schedule a defense is hardly beyond the scope.

“Ideally I would love to fight in November or December,” Esparza said. “I would definitely want to fight before the year is out. I think the typical number of fights a titleholder is going to have is one or two fights a year, and I definitely plan to fall in that range. I want to stay active. I want to fight. This isn’t something that I’m trying to back away from. I love to fight. So as soon as I can get back in there and start a healthy camp, I’m going to do it. ”

Although she’s not physically prepared to begin a training camp, Esparza’s mental preparation for Weili is already underway. She knows the danger the former champion presents, and she showed the same respect that Weili gave her after knocking out Jedrzejczyk in acknowledging that it will be a difficult fight.

“She’s very powerful,” Weili said. She finished (Jessica) Andrade, she finished Joanna and these are some heavy hitters. So I definitely know she has power. Apparently her grappling has picked up a lot. … She just seems to be getting better and better and I’m definitely impressed with her improvement over the years. So, same as her: I need to go into this fight well-rounded and with a good game plan. ”

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