In January, Carla Esparza became the first Invicta Fighting Championships Straw-weight Champion in Women's Mixed Martial Arts. The gorgeous 25-year-old, ranked No. 1 in her weight class in the world, says her victory against Bec Hyatt via unanimous decision was like a dream. "There's a goal you aim toward, and the accumulation of training and hard work all come together when you have your hand raised! Even if you come out bloodied and broken — it's all for that one moment. It's almost unreal."
Carla "The Cookie Monster" Esparza was drawn to wrestling at Redondo Union High School in Redondo Beach when football players in the weight room expressed surprise at how strong she was for her size (at 5-foot-1, she's 4 inches shorter than the current Atomweight female champ). She went on to Menlo College, where she also studied jiujitsu at world-renowned Gracie Academy. By junior year she was training at Team Oyama, a fitness and MMA fighting studio in Irvine, where she started cardio kickboxing.
"When I first starting coming to Team Oyama, my (current) coach, Colin Oyama, didn't even talk to me for a while. But after he saw that I had dedication and kept coming back, he took notice," she recalls.
As WMMA starts to attract major promoters like UFC (which sponsored its first female fight on Feb. 23), some critics are unsettled by the brutality of the matches. Esparza has sustained injuries including sprains, bruises, torn ligaments, a snapped elbow, a broken ankle and a concussion. "People aren't used to it, seeing women fighting against women and getting hurt," she says. "It is raw and intense, and it awakens that basic instinct that people have to attack or defend. But between the fighters, the more intense it gets, the more we love each other."
She believes that "day after day, we are changing people's minds" about women in MMA.
Esparza trains four to five hours a day, five days a week. While she officially competes only against women, most of her training partners are male. "You train how you fight," she explains. "Men are naturally stronger than women. But women have different styles and are more flexible. When you fight a woman, there are no excuses" for losing, she says.
When she fought Bec Hyatt, "I left everything in that cage. I just showed my biggest effort and my whole heart, as well as showing my skills ... but we get messed up! We get big old cauliflowers and black eyes, jammed fingers and broken noses. My singlet from the championship still has blood on it! "
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Yet Esparza is a polite, down-to-earth woman with a sense of humility and fun. She has traveled the world and favors a chic style when she's out on the town with other female fighters. Asked if she's ever used her fighting skills for real, she pauses thoughtfully before her eyes show a slight mischievous glint. "I have been in a self-defense situation," she says. "I am small and feminine, and people sometimes pick on me."
People usually don't recognize her, but she says, laughing, "You get to dress up and go out with a black eye, and that's kinda hot!"
Most of all, she says, "I feel grateful to be doing what I love."