"Being on the all-women's wrestling team, every day I was surrounded by all these strong, empowered women, and it just changed everything," said Carla "Cookie Monster" Esparza to about 75 girls and women during a MMA seminar last weekend at Team Oyama MMA and Fitness in Irvine. "I notice that being around all this strong energy, it's just amazing and it will change your life."
Esparza was the perfect person to deliver this woman-power message. She was the first-ever Invicta FC strawweight champion, winning the title in 2013. She remains one of the most-respected female fighters in the sport, currently ranked #2 in her division. Her following is such that people came all the way from Arizona and Sacramento for the chance to sit in for her first-ever, women's-only class.
"For me, I wanted to put this event together just to empower women, to get them started in something," said Esparza a couple of days before the event. "It doesn't have to be necessarily jiu-jitsu or this or that, but get involved in some kind of martial art that's gonna protect you and give you not only skills, but self-confidence."
Joined with MMA fighter and friend Ashlee Evans-Smith, Esparza first had the attendees warm up with drills such as bear crawls, cartwheels, push-ups, sit-ups and laps around the Oyama gym. They then had everyone split up in pairs to face off in a game of gable grips; whichever lady executed fewer of the wrestling move had to do push-ups and squat jumps. Eventually, Esparza and Evans-Smith split up the group into beginner's and advance squads, and proceeded to guide the students through wrestling and jiu-jitsu techniques.
There were many smiles and laughs after each round, and and the energy bounced off Team Oyama's walls. "I'm excited to see such a great turnout," Esparza said. "This is something I dreamed about doing since I began the sport."
Esparza first gained prominence in the MMA world by winning The Ultimate Fighter 20 in 2013. The 28-year-old has made Team Oyama her home base for years, currently training at least five hours a day, five days a week, and has won 13 of her 16 fights.
"Before a couple years ago, women weren't on that [UFC] platform, and now we are," Esparza said. "I think the most important thing is, you have more influence because you have all these eyes on you. Your words mean more, your actions mean more, it comes with more responsibility."
The Redondo Beach native started wrestling on the varsity boys' team in high school 12 years ago and fell in love with the sport. Later, she added jiu-jitsu and boxing to her skill set and realized that a career in combat sports appealed to her: not only did she enjoy competing, but these sports gave her more confidence and a sense of empowerment. That inspiration is what Esparza was hoping to share with the ladies in her seminar.
After the warm-ups and games, the first workshop was in wrestling. Esparza trained the beginners; Evans-Smith worked with the advanced group. The two pros walked through each move, effectively explaining the techniques so that everyone not only grasped, but practiced the steps. Esparza demonstrated each move on former Menlo College teammate Monique Cabrera before going around to the individual pairs to give direct instruction.
When it was time to show some jiu-jitsu and more take-downs, Esparza and Evans-Smith switched groups. Ground and pound is what Esparza likes and is well-known for. "My go to move in my fights has been the rear naked choke—just get behind and choke them," she told the class. "I finished I think maybe like four fights with that."
Family members of the attendees sat along the outside of the mat feeling as empowered as the fighters, as well as gratitude toward Esparza for hosting the training.
"It's the first time she's ever worked with Carla—she's super-excited and I love it," said Maritza Gomez, whose 14-year-old daughter participated. "She's my little fighter. I love it—little, powerful girls, jiu-jitsu, wrestling—love it. It empowers them, they are equal and they never feel lower."
At the end of the training, Esparza and Evan-Smith taught everyone how to play their favorite game: wrestling freeze tag. All the women started running from the people that were "it" to not get frozen. At the same time, they had to shoot through the legs of those that were, to unfreeze them. The trainees were laughing, sweating and trying to catch their breath when Esparza called time on the game.
Esparza, Evans-Smith and Cabrera answered questions, shared their stories and expressed how MMA training makes them feel. "I feel like I can take on the world now," Evans-Smith said.
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When nine-year-old Marisa Alvarez asked how old the ladies were when they started training, the fighters all said that Alvarez had the advantage of starting so young. Alvarez said that getting to meet the fighters in "real life" is one of her favorite parts of training. "I get to just, like, let my body loose and start punching and kicking," she said.
Esparza also took a question about dealing with a loss, "You have to have the right mentality," she responded. "You're not always gonna win. Just tell yourself you wanna be the best you."
At the end of the session, Esparza had the same hopes for those in attendance as in the beginning. "If one woman can walk out of this seminar and step out of a situation now or in the future or be in a bad situation and protect themselves," she said, "Then I will call this seminar a success."
Now it was time for photos, autographs, and, of course, cookies.