UFC 281: Carla Esparza rings in second title reign vs. Weili Zhang

Six months ago when Carla Esparza walked down the aisle at her wedding, there might have been something borrowed, old or blue. But there was definitely something new.

One week removed from reclaiming her UFC strawweight championship, Esparza sported the title belt before exchanging vows with Dr. Matthew Lomeli in Dana Point. And best of all, Esparza had barely a mark on her face after her split-decision victory over Rose Namajunas at UFC 274.

“The wedding was amazing. I couldn’t have been happier. It was the best day of my life,” Esparza said in a phone interview Tuesday. “The honeymoon was fantastic. Like, I couldn’t have asked for a better honeymoon. You can’t get much more romantic than Bora Bora, and it was everything we wanted and more.”

Now the honeymoons are over, personally and professionally, as Esparza starts the defense of her second title reign when she fights Weili Zhang in the UFC 281 co-main event Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

This time, Esparza’s fight camp and preparation were markedly different. The Irvine resident and Redondo Union High graduate had been so laser focused for the Namajunas fight, all while planning a wedding and honeymoon, that she didn’t realize all the complexities until now.

“Just going through this camp, I’m like, ‘This is so much easier,’” Esparza, 35, said. “Every fight camp is difficult, and, you know, comes with a lot of training and a lot of long days, being tired, a busy schedule. But you know, this was definitely less stressful than the last one, that’s for sure.”

It doesn’t mean the fight will be easier. Zhang (22-3) became champion of the 115-pound division in August 2019 with a first-round TKO of Jessica Andrade in Shenzhen, China. After turning back former strawweight queen Joanna Jedrzejczyk via split decision in one of the greatest UFC fights of all time at UFC 248 in March 2020, she suffered her first UFC loss via a head-kick knockout against Namajunas at UFC 261 in April 2021. Zhang and Namajunas ran it back less than seven months later at UFC 268, with Namajunas getting her hand raised via split decision.

Zhang, 33, reentered the title picture in June with a stunning second-round spinning back fist knockout of Jedrzejczyk in a rematch at UFC 275.

Two-time strawweight champion Carla Esparza, left, squares off with Weili Zhang during the UFC 281 ceremonial weigh-in Friday, Nov. 11, 2022, at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

“I see obvious physicality in her. She’s obviously very strong and a great athlete. And I feel like she’s getting better and better over the years as well,” Esparza (20-6) said of Zhang, who fights out of Beijing and trained in Thailand for this fight.

“I mean, her grappling has definitely gotten a lot better. She’s always had great striking. So I think this is you know, of almost anyone I’ve faced at this top level. I mean, she’s just as good everywhere. She could be one of the strongest people that I’ve fought.”

Physical skills aside, their bout could come down to mental attrition. Based on her last fight, Esparza should pass that test.

Her win over Namajunas – a rematch of the Season 20 final of the UFC reality show “The Ultimate Fighter” on Dec. 12, 2014, when Esparza defeated Namajunas via third-round rear-naked choke to become the first 115-pound champion in UFC history – was hardly highlight-reel material.

As each fighter respected the other’s strengths over five rounds – Esparza leery of Namajunas’ striking and knockout artistry, Namajunas refusing to let loose out of fear of Esparza’s takedowns and grappling – the crowd in Phoenix, Arizona, showed its displeasure. The final tally had Namajunas landing 30 strikes to 23 for Esparza over 25 minutes, but Esparza scoring two takedowns to one in the final seconds for Namajunas. In the end, it was arguably Esparza being more of the aggressor that won her the fight in two judges’ eyes.

“I wasn’t happy with the way the fight went. I was proud of my fortitude and willing to stick with the plan and not get wild,” said Esparza, who trains at Team Oyama MMA & Fitness in Irvine. “And of course, I felt that I did come forward a good amount during the fight without getting reckless.”

Long gone are the days of struggling, which started when she lost her title in her first defense, suffering a torn labrum and losing by second-round TKO to Jedrzejczyk in March 2015.

In fact, after winning the belt the first time, Esparza went 3-4 over the course of 3½ years, including back-to- back losses in 2018 for the first time that spurred her to look in the mirror and challenge herself.

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“I think the big change for me was changing my mentality,” said Esparza, who went to the UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas and began to add muscle and size. “Just go back to the drawing board and becoming a beginner and a student again, and not just being stuck in my ways of. like, I know how to do this.

“I’ve been doing this for a lot of years. Really going back, relearning everything and listening to my coaches and being more open minded to that training.”

UFC 281

Main event: middleweight champion Israel Adesanya vs. Alex Pereira

Co-main event: strawweight champion Carla Esparza vs. Weili Zhang

When: Saturday

Where: Madison Square Garden, New York City

How to watch: 3 p.m. (early prelims, ESPN+); prelims (5 p.m., ESPNews/ESPN+); main card (7 p.m., PPV via ESPN+)

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