Twenty-five-year-old Carla “Cookie Monster” Esparza has only been fighting professionally for less than three years, but her career has been completely veteran in nature.  Her merits and experience have not gone unnoticed as the young California native will be fighting for the promotion’s inaugural strawweight strap at Invicta FC 4 this Saturday night.

Esparza has a background in wrestling, having won multiple local and national high school wrestling tournaments before going on to wrestle at Menlo College, where she became an All-American.  While in college, she began training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at the Gracie Academy, before eventually joining Team Oyama for MMA training.

Esparza is 8-2 as a pro with three wins by submission, three by TKO, and two by decision, so, despite her wrestling-heavy background, she has proven to be a very well-rounded fighter.  Esparza has already fought twice in Bellator and is undefeated in her two Invicta appearances.  She has many notable opponents, having faced Felice Herrig, Lynn Alvarez, Jessica Aguilar, Megumi Fujii, Sarah Schneider and Lacey Schuckman.

The Team Oyama prospect suffered her second loss four fights ago to Aguilar.  It was a tough split decision in June 2011, but she definitely gained some valuable experience in the process.

Esparza (top) rains strikes from the mount (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

“I just learned that I need to have no fear,” said Esparza in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner.  “I need to be confident in my skills and not hold back.”

She showcased that knowledge in her next three outings, putting together a three-fight winning streak beginning with a unanimous nod over Herrig, followed by major TKO wins over Schneider and Alvarez.

As with most fighters that have graced the cage in Invicta competition, she has nothing but respect for the organization.

“I think they’re run very professionally,” said Esparza.  “I think they’ve been very smart about their approach towards growing an organization.  I think they treat their fighters well.  They’re a Class-A organization.”

Amazingly, a lot of the fighters hardly had any doubts regarding Invicta’s success, because of the capabilities of the two ladies running the show.  Carla Esparza was no different.

“It was kind of questionable, because it was new,” explained Esparza.  “I had confidence in Shannon Knapp and Janet Martin.  They’re both very intelligent women.  I took the risk and it paid off.”

“Cookie Monster” showed up to her first two Invicta performances ready to rumble and it really did pay off for her as she strung together two TKO wins.

“It felt amazing,” Esparza admitted.  “It’s awesome to be able to show my ground-and-pound skills, but it’s not just wrestling where I go to the ground and just lay-and-pray.  It’s awesome to show that I do have an offense on the ground.”

Although her wrestling and ground game are not in doubt, what about her stand-up?

“I definitely feel like I have knockout power,” said Esparza.  “I’m really strong, and I haven’t had the chance to really unload on somebody.  I was actually looking forward to standing up with Sarah Schneider, but she chose to take the fight to the ground, and I have to take it where it goes.”

For her championship fight, “where the fight goes” has been all over the place, and it hasn’t even happened yet.

Esparza was originally set to face undefeated Jewels champ Ayaka Hamasaki, but the Japanese fighter was forced to pull out to defend her Jewels crown, which she did successfully.  Hamasaki was replaced less than a month later by undefeated Brazilian up-and-comer Claudia Gadelha.  On Dec. 28, the date of this interview and only eight days before her fight, Esparza was told that Gadelha had suffered a severely broken nose and was being replaced by Australian phenom Bec Hyatt.

“I knew it was a possibility this morning,” said Esparza.  “I woke to my phone with a text message from one of my best friends like, ‘hey, what happened to your fight?’  And, my manager was like, ‘call me ASAP.’  So, I’m like ‘what the heck is going on,’ you know?  This morning, they’re telling me that there are a couple different possibilities.  Originally, we were told it might be Joanne Calderwood, and then she couldn’t take it, which I totally understand, because it’s last minute.  Bec stepped up to the plate, and I got confirmation a couple hours ago.”

Bec “Rowdy” Hyatt stands 5-foot-6, is 4-1 as a pro, is on a four-fight winning streak and has proven to be a well-rounded fighter.  However, she has not had nearly the battle testing that Esparza has.  While the American does not underestimate her opponent, she is completely confident in her own capabilities.

“I feel good,” admitted Esparza.  “There’s a lot of hype around her.  She’s supposed to be the biggest thing coming out of Australia, so I’m going to see how they do it Down Under, and we’re going to get down.

“She doesn’t have an area of expertise in any one thing.  I think she just started training MMA overall, so I think her game is pretty well-rounded.  I know that she’s fearless, and she’s going in there to rip my head off, because she took this fight.  I don’t think she would have taken it if she was the kind of fighter that is scared.  I’m definitely not going to take her lightly, and I plan to have her not take me lightly either.”

Even though the Australian has a five-inch height advantage over the 5-foot-1 Esparza, Esparza isn’t too concerned, because this is familiar territory.  Esparza may have been training for shorter fighters, but she is always ready for someone taller than her.

“It’s actually not a huge deal for me,” explained the Team Oyama fighter.  “I got the opportunity to start this camp off training with one of my best friends, Felice Herrig, and she’s about the same height as Bec, so it’s not something new to me.  And, with all my training partners, I’m always the shortest one, so that’s never going to bother me.”

Esparza’s camp is world-class, to say the least.  With fighters like Ian McCall and Shane del Rosario surrounding her, it’s top-level all the way.

“Training has been going really well,” Esparza elaborated.  “This camp has been amazing.  I’ve had a lot of help from my jiu-jitsu instructor, Giva Santana.  He’s been working with me all the time, getting my jiu-jitsu real sharp.  I feel that my whole arsenal is coming into this fight.

“My head coach is Colin Oyama.  I always sing his praises.  He’s an amazing coach.  One of my best training partners for this camp has been Ian McCall, ‘Uncle Creepy.’  He’s been working with me all the time for this, getting me ready.  Obviously, his skills are amazing, and he’s always been able to give me a good amount of pressure, so I can work too.  But he’s always pushing me, so it’s great to have him to work with.”

After a great camp, even on short notice, Esparza knows where her strength lies.

Esparza (top) works for the finish (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

“My strength is my wrestling,” admitted the American.  “My aggressiveness.  I don’t think she’s ever had anyone put pressure on her like I’m going to, so we’ll see how she deals with it.”

“My prediction: TKO, round two,” said Esparza without a hint of hesitation.

Well, there’s no doubt that both fighters will bring their all, as Hyatt had already been preparing for Calderwood, so she has also had a full camp.  That being said, Esparza is a much more experienced fighter that should be able to finish Hyatt handily.

What about the injury bug that struck once again?  It has been a pest this entire year and actually struck twice going into this fight.  This has been one of the major MMA news topics of the year, but how do the fighters feel about it?

“I think it’s just showing that the competition is getting so hard,” Esparza ventured.  “People are like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got to train super hard for this opponent, and I’ve go to put my body through hell.’  And, when you do that, you’re going to sustain injuries.  So, I think it’s just a part of the sport.  It’s a part of any sport.  We don’t have our second string lineup waiting for us.  It’s just us.  When someone gets injured, it gets noticed more than in other sports.

“A lot of it, I think, is just accidents, freak accidents.  I’ve had my little injuries throughout this camp and it’s tough.  Most of the time, they happen when you’re training with people who are inexperienced, who are bigger than you, and who don’t know how to work with you.  To me, I’m not going to do that anymore, because every time I do that, I get hurt.  I think it’s about making sure your partners are careful, smart and experienced.”

For a young fighter who has a lot of good years ahead of her and a championship on the line, these are truly words of wisdom.

Outside of MMA, with four fights in about thirteen months, she’s been in training most of the time, but has had some time to get out and about.

“I mean, for me, when it’s fight camp, my whole life pretty much shuts down, you know?  I’ve been traveling a lot this year.  I had the opportunity to go to a couple different countries in Europe.  I went to Miami twice this year.  I’ve been to Chicago for two weeks.  I went to Hawaii for a week.  So, it’s been an active year, and I had a lot of fun, but it’s been a lot of hard work too.  This will be my third fight in less than a year.”

Esparza has personified what fighting is all about.  She’s young, healthy and dedicated to her craft.

This Friday at Invicta FC 4, taking place at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kan., the Californian will fight for the strawweight belt in the first-ever all-women MMA pay-per-view event. She is ready to put on a show for MMA fans around the world and become the newest member of the up-and-coming Invicta royalty.

Carla Esparza would like to thank Team Oyama, Sucker Punch Entertainment, OC Fight Doc, Brawl and Maul Performance Fight Gear, Fear The Fighter, Alienware, Battleware and Innovative Results. Follow her on Twitter: @CarlaEsparza1

Top Photo: Carla Esparza (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)