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Carla Esparza Eyeing Title Bout Against Rose Namajunas

Welcome to The Weekly Takedown, Sports Illustrated’s newest look at MMA. Every week, this column will offer insight and information on the most noteworthy stories in the fight world.

Fight fans have a special treat to behold before the end of 2021.

Broadcasting live from Philadelphia, the fighting spirit will be on full display during tonight’s Fury 3 card. Airing on UFC Fight Pass, the grappling card is headlined by top strawweight contender Carla Esparza against Brazilian jiu-jitsu artist Danielle Kelly.

Originally scheduled to be Rose Namajunas against Kelly, the reigning UFC women’s strawweight champ needed to be replaced due to COVID-19 protocols. But it is only fitting that Esparza, the next challenger for Namajunas’ title, takes the fight.

“I was told I had to leave in three days and I was like, ‘Why not?’” Esparza (18-6) said. “I hope Rose feels better, but I couldn’t turn this down. It’s what I love to do, it’s so exciting, and it’s a great opportunity, especially to be in the main event.”

A straight grappling match differs from an MMA bout, but Esparza is up for the challenge, heightened against a decorated Brazilian jiu-jitsu artist like Kelly.

“I did some research on her and she’s a beast,” Esparza said. “This reminds me a lot of earlier in my career when I’d take fights on short notice. I’ve been training for a while in anticipation of hopefully getting a title fight, so I feel like I’m definitely ready. I would have liked to train more jiu-jitsu specific against such a high-level jiu-jitsu opponent, but sometimes you just have to go with it and take the opportunity in front of you.”

Carla Esparza.

Carla Esparza.

The main event is a 10-minute round, with three judges scoring on positional dominance and closest to finishing, another change from MMA. The advantage in this bout undoubtedly favors Kelly, a full-time submission grappler, and she enters as a heavy favorite. But that does not intimidate Esparza, who has every reason to be confident in her skillset on the mat.

“I’m used to being the underdog and I love rising to the occasion,” said Esparza, who has won her past five fights in the Octagon. “I’ve been grappling for close to 14 years. There are so many different disciplines in MMA, like wrestling, kickboxing, boxing, lifting, so you’re not really centered on one thing, but I have been grappling for a long time.

“I am excited to showcase what I can do. I’m going in there to win, and I’m going in to get my hand raised.”

Esparza last fought in May when she pummeled Yan Xiaonan with a second-round TKO. No matter the result of her fight against Kelly, it puts her in a better position to be at her absolute peak in a rematch against Namajunas. Esparza won their first fight in 2014, which crowned the very first UFC women’s strawweight champion.

“You can’t get much of a better storyline than the one we have,” said Esparza, who won that bout against Namajunas by submission with a rear-naked choke. “She’s grown so much over the past seven years, and I know I won’t be facing the same Rose. But I’ve changed, too. It’s going to be a completely different fight with completely different fighters.”

Rose Namajunas, UFC's strawweight champion.

Rose Namajunas, UFC's strawweight champion.

After defeating Namajunas and earning her place atop the division, Esparza dropped the title in her first defense, a UFC 185 fight in 2015 against Joanna Jędrzejczyk. Esparza has spent the past six years in pursuit of regaining that championship, and she is even willing to postpone her wedding if the date interferes with a title bout.

“My fiancé mentioned that to me,” Esparza said. “He was like, ‘I heard you’re willing to push our wedding date,’ and we laughed. Of course, he knows. He understands me and he knows my dream. And it won’t change anything except for a new date.

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“This belt is everything I’ve been working toward. Ever since I lost it six years ago, I haven’t stopped working to get it back.”

Two days ago, Esparza made the trek from California to Pennsylvania for the Fury 3 bout. And the MMA star known as “Cookie Monster” plans to take advantage of her time in Philly.

“We’re going to explore a little when we can,” Esparza said. “Like run up the Rocky steps and eat Philly cheesesteaks.”

Initially, Esparza bristled at the idea of a “Cookie Monster” nickname. Over time, though, she has warmed up to it.

“My problem was that it never sounded tough,” Esparza said. “Call me ‘Carla The Killer’ or something like that. But I have a really long history with cookies. I didn’t have to cut much weight in college and I’d always grab all the cookies. Then one day at the gym, someone brought cookies and I put like six in my shirt to walk away and eat them. My coach yelled out, ‘Carla, you’re such a freaking cookie monster! You’re always eating cookies!’

“From then on, as hard as I fought the name, it stuck. I’ve really grown to love it, which is funny because I fought it for so long. I’ve really grown to enjoy and embrace it.”

En route to a date with destiny for the strawweight title, Esparza seeks to add a sparkling victory to her fighting portfolio against Kelly at Fury 3. In the “City of Brotherly Love,” a terrain known for its revolutionary tendencies, she plans to create her own Thomas Paine-inspired moment. Facing an elite opponent, Esparza fully understands that the harder the conflict, the more glorious of a triumph.

“This will be a very high-level grappling match,” Esparza said. “Danielle Kelly is an opponent that likes to come for the kill and attack and attack and attack. I’m going to attack, too, and find my submission, and this is going to be an explosive match.”


Donald Cerrone looking to reset and regain elite form

Donald Cerrone

Donald Cerrone

Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone is mired in the worst stretch of his professional career. And he is doing everything possible to change that.

The MMA legend lost five of his last six fights, with a draw standing out as the only fight in the past half-dozen that was not a defeat. In preparation for a more successful return to the Octagon, he will fight on tonight’s Fury 3 card against Joe Solecki.

This bout is an opportunity for Cerrone (36-16, 2 NC) to refine his approach. The 38-year-old most recently appeared in the cage this past May when he suffered a first-round TKO loss to Alex Morono. Hungry for victory, and looking at a potential fight against a rising star in Paddy Pimblett, a win tonight will help Cerrone remind the fight world that he is still a threat to his opponents.

A showdown against Pimblett would bring back memories of Cerrone’s victory two years ago against Alexander Hernandez. Entering the bout, Hernandez had reeled off eight in a row. But he was humbled by Cerrone, who delivered the performance of the night in his return to lightweight. Sharing the cage with Cerrone would be a magnificent moment for the 26-year-old Pimblett, who could further elevate his career with a victory. And for Cerrone, a win in that bout would show that the Cowboy is far from finished in MMA.

It all needs to start tonight at Fury 3 with an impressive showing.


The Pick ‘Em Section

The card for tonight’s Cage Fury Fighting Championships has some intriguing matchups, and here are my three picks for the card:

Carla Esparza vs. Danielle Kelly

Pick: Esparza

Sean Brady vs. Craig Jones

Pick: Jones

Donald Cerrone vs. Joe Solecki

Pick: Cerrone

Neil Magny vs. Joaquim Silva

Pick: Magny

Current record: 58-40

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.