With a two week break underway and the first four fights of the season down, featuring the top four seeds, it is a good time to take a look at those four fights. Up first is the number one seed, Carla Esparza, and her fight with number sixteen seeded Angela Hill.
While Hill fought gamely, Esparza’s grappling turned her into a surfer caught in a waves rip current. The harder Hill fought to escape the grasp of Esparza the deeper she was dragged out into deep waters until the inevitable tap. Just like you cannot battle a rip current directly but instead must go diagonal against it, you cannot take on Esparza’s grappling in your second MMA fight.
Esparza’s wrestling is also like a wave, a constant, always there as a basis and capable of overwhelming her opponents with its intense pressure. As an opponent you have to account for her wrestling at some point. She gives you no choice by coming at you relentlessly until she gets the fight to the ground.
While her wrestling is the base for her attack, she is no longer just a wrestler as she continues her evolution as a fighter. We saw some crisp strikes and nice movement from her against Hill. Do not look for Esparza to start standing and banging with her opponents. Instead, she is using the striking to help set up her wrestling. As she becomes more well rounded it makes her even more dangerous and difficult to defeat. In the short time the fight was standing she also used several feints and fakes effectively. The improved standup allows her to apply pressure in more ways to her opponents.
Ring Rust and Expectations
The pressure can come from many areas and Esparza was feeling some of them going into this fight with Hill. In many ways it was a potentially dangerous matchup for Esparza who had not fought in over a year and a half. With that much time off you do not know how it will go until you get back in there.
Along with the possibility of ring rust there was also the expectations of being the favorite for the season. As the former Invicta FC strawweight champion, Esparza is used to having what others want – but this is a different pressure. While people expect her to win the title she still has to beat four of the top strawweights in the world. Her first opponent was the most inexperienced one she will face, but was still very dangerous.
At 1-0, Hill had a daunting task for her second MMA fight but it was not like she was weaponless. With a perfect amateur and professional Muay Thai record, Hill brought that strong striking background as her base into this season. She is powerful, explosive, works hard and has a bright future in the sport. With her one strike knockout ability Hill posed a threat to Esparza. Unfortunately for Hill this was probably the worst matchup for her on the show. If she had a full camp to prepare the fight still would have gone to the ground, but Hill would not have thrown that kick.
The Wave that is Esparza
Anyone who has spent time in the ocean at all knows that a wave is dangerous, explosive and powerful. It looks calm on the surface as it rolls towards you but that only hides the danger of it. A wave is a constant, quiet threat and you have to remain vigilante. You cannot let the calmness of the surface lull you into a sense of comfort. Once you do that is when the undertow can grab you.
That is exactly what happened to Hill. She got comfortable and threw one naked kick and that was all it took for Esparza to get the takedown. Once Esparza got ahold of her leg Hill could not escape. The kick highlighted the danger of throwing a lone wolf kick, one that is by itself and not contained within a pack of punches.
When you watch the best Muay Thai strikers they rarely throw naked kicks due in part to the danger of an opponent being able to catch it to either dump or sweep them. Instead, they will throw them in combinations with other strikes, usually a few punches, to distract the opponents eyes.
This kick came after about thirty seconds in the standup where Esparza had slightly out landed Hill who had stuffed the only takedown Esparza attempted up to that point. Esparza easily saw the kick and used it to step into range for the takedown. She grabbed the right leg and dumped Hill to the ground. Once the fight went to the ground, Esparza put on a display of beautiful grappling violence.
Hill Got Worked
Hill got Esparza into her guard quickly and tried to negate the ground and pound by holding on and not allowing space between them. While the move did stop the punches, it ultimately led to Esparza audibly slamming Hill down hard, twice. The second one broke Esparza free and she landed a couple of shots before Hill closed her guard and pulled Esparza into her. As Esparza moved Hill towards the center of the octagon Hill tried to escape. For a moment she was free but Esparza kept a grip on her and took Hill’s back.
There was 3:20 left in the round and right away Esparza got both hooks in and started working for the choke. How she worked for it could teach a lot fighters how to effectively score points, and do some damage to your opponent while at the same time working hard for the choke. Esparza did this by using her punches to create an opening under the neck.
Hill fought back and was able to roll out of the choke attempt but Esparza just rode it out by maintaining her balance and position on top of Hill. From the mount Esparza started rapidly dropping punches and Hill fought back until they ended up with Esparza trying to sink in another rear naked choke. This time Hill fought it off for almost a minute before being able to briefly end up on top until Esparza kicked her off.
Again, Esparza drove forward for the takedown and Hill tried to reverse it by rolling her over. The savvy veteran released her right arm and rolled over using her back as her base. They ended up in another scramble and Esparza pulled her down halfway on her back. From there Hill landed several short elbows. Another scramble and by briefly using the fence Hill got up to her feet with Esparza spider monkeyed on her back. This time she was able to get the hooks in. Then she pulled Hill over and down to the ground locking in the choke and getting the tap.
Still the favorite
This fight was almost perfect for Esparza. She got it done quickly with 1:18 left in the round and took very little damage. Both are very helpful in winning TUF. Having to win three fights in six weeks, it is a big help to get through the fights quickly and cleanly. Esparza took enough damage to remind her what it was like to get hit, but not hurt her.
Another big advantage for her is the fact she does not cut much weight. The big fighters often struggle in the second and third fights in part because the weight cuts take too much out of them. With Esparza cutting almost no weight at all she can stay fresher for the later two rounds. Even as one of the smaller strawweights she is still one of the strongest ones.
There are three more fights for Esparza to win to claim the title. She showed that ring rust and the pressure of being the favorite did not affect her performance. It was exactly what she should do in that spot. The next three fights will be much tougher challenges for the number one seed Esparza. She looked ready to take on all challengers with her dominating win over the tough and game Hill.
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