For UFC’s Carla Esparza, first comes a title bout, then comes marriage
With her wedding approaching, Carla Esparza mailed out invitations for the big day.
Planned well in advance, the May 14 date always carried a bit of an unofficial asterisk; Esparza messaged close friends to let them know to save the date — tentatively.
Coming off of five straight victories, the mixed martial artist anticipated a rematch eight years in the making with Rose Namajunas, UFC’s reigning Women’s Strawweight Champion.
In March, Esparza got the call she anxiously awaited the day after mailing out the invitations. A title fight co-headlining UFC 274 in Phoenix would be scheduled May 7, a week before her wedding.
“When I found out about the actual date, I knew I was going to take the fight no matter what,” Esparza said. “If the wedding was the week before or the day of, obviously I would have had to postpone it.”
The moment brought much excitement, but the cage fighter also felt conflicted about her calendar.
Technically, it was in the clear; she mulled over postponing the wedding anyway before talking to Matthew Lomeli, her fiancé, about it.
Esparza said she didn’t want to walk down the aisle beat up and bruised from battle. His response gave her the reassurance she needed: “I knew what I was getting myself into when I asked a fighter to marry me. Bumps and bruises come as part of the package.”
When the Irvine couple met by way of a dating app in 2020, Lomeli, a local practicing physician, didn’t know what he was getting into; Esparza’s profile only mentioned that she was a professional athlete but not one that once reigned as strawweight champion in both Invicta and UFC, two major mixed martial arts promotions.
It didn’t end up mattering. The two got to know each other more, began dating and struck it off. In June 2021, Lomeli asked Esparza to be his wife.
The couple planned their wedding — from finding the right venue to a florist and everything in between — while awaiting word on her next bout.
When time came for a bachelorette party, Esparza had already started training, but the bride-to-be enjoyed a trip to Las Vegas that was cut a little short before buckling down into full-fledged fight camp mode.
“I had to be cognizant of getting my sleep in and calling it an early night,” she said. “I was able to stay on track with my diet — and no drinking. At the end of the day, I had a really great time with my friends.”
Six weeks out from the wedding, Esparza completely unplugged from any last-minute wedding planning so as to not be distracted. She told vendors to contact her fiancé with any questions.
Esparza trained at Team Oyama MMA and Fitness in Irvine and studied tape of her previous match with Namajunas.
“I’m treating it as if it’s a completely different fighter, but at the same time, we all have our tendencies,” she said of her opponent. “We both do some things that we did back then, although we both have evolved so much over these last eight years.”
Esparza, 34, stringed together her recent win streak after first coming to prominence during “The Ultimate Fighter 20,” a reality television competition, almost a decade ago. Bringing wrestling, jiu-jitsu and boxing skills into the cage, she made Namajunas submit with a rear-naked choke during the show’s December 2014 finale, which earned her UFC’s inaugural strawweight title.
She dropped the belt months later; shoulder surgery sidelined her for a year.
The injury impacted Esparza financially, but those days are behind her now.
“I’ve had a lot of adversity in my career,” she said. “I’ve won some, I’ve lost some. I had to reinvent myself to get to a point where I could come back and contend for this title again.”
After stepping into the octagon, Esparza will follow the fight by exchanging vows in the backdrop of a floral decorated hexagon arch her future husband built for the occasion.
Her manager will officiate the ceremony.
And the bride might just come back from her Phoenix fight with a belt her friends have encouraged her to walk down the aisle with.
“Something borrowed, something blue, something old and something new … like a belt!” Esparza said. “Talk about an awesome accessory piece. I’ve got to bring that belt back to O.C.!”
That would just be the icing on the wedding cake.
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