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Women's MMA in spotlight on 'The Ultimate Fighter' series

Carla Esparza, left, won a unanimous decision over

Carla Esparza, left, won a unanimous decision over Bec Hyatt to win the inaugural Invicta FC strawweight title (115 pounds) at Invicta FC 4 at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kan. (Jan 5, 2013) Credit: Invicta FC/Esther Lin

LOS ANGELES - When Carla Esparza and Jessica Penne agreed to spend several weeks of the summer sequestered in a house with 14 fellow mixed martial artists, they didn't do it because it sounded like fun.

They joined the cast of the upcoming season of "The Ultimate Fighter" because their sport is growing in ways they never imagined just a few months earlier.

After years of training, sacrificing and getting punched for little more than personal satisfaction, they embraced the chance to showcase women's MMA to a new audience, even if it meant living in what Esparza called "a combination of a prison and a sorority."

"We're getting an amazing opportunity I never thought I would see," added Penne, who was fired from her job as a boxing instructor during her stint on the show this summer.

"In this sport, you go through people not taking you seriously, not being able to pay your bills because you're chasing a dream," Penne said. "It gets really difficult. It's a crazy, up-and-down life, but I feel lucky to be able to do something I love every single day. Not many people get the opportunity to do that. I'll suffer while I can to chase my dream."

When the UFC added an entire 115-pound women's division this year, the promotion decided to use its long-running reality television show to pick a champion for the first time. The UFC signed most of the world's top strawweights out of the Invicta FC women's promotion and filmed them living and training together in Las Vegas.

The results air on Fox Sports 1 starting Wednesday night, culminating in the title fight Dec. 12.

"It was a good experience," said Esparza, a wrestler from Redondo Beach. "I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world, but I don't know if I would do it again."

The visibility of women's MMA has skyrocketed in the last two years with the ascent of Ronda Rousey, the UFC's undefeated bantamweight champion and a budding movie star. Rousey's charisma and MMA skills were the main reasons UFC President Dana White reversed his long-standing reluctance to promote female fighters, and Rousey has become arguably the UFC's biggest star.

With Rousey topping a thriving bantamweight division, White decided to double down on women's MMA. Suddenly, 115-pound fighters who had barely made any money after years in their sport had the chance to become reality-TV stars and eventual fighters in MMA's biggest showcases.

"I had no clue that this was even going to be possible," Esparza said. "I started off fighting for pennies. I thought I was going to fight for a couple of years. It wasn't something I could survive on. I was just fighting because I love it."

"Through all my years of training and competing, I never thought of it as my profession," Penne added. "It was just something that I loved to do. I enjoyed and just never really thought of it in that way. I think Ronda did a great service to women's MMA and gave us that catapult to be taken seriously."

The UFC appointed lightweight champion Anthony Pettis and top contender Gilbert Melendez as the coaches. Melendez has been a supporter of women's MMA since he taught his first all-women jiu jitsu class in 2004, and his wife, Keri Anne, competes in muay thai.

"I was never like, 'Oh, they're girls,'" Melendez said. "They're all gamers. A lot of guys fight for so many reasons besides trying to be a true champion. Some of them fight for what it brings to them. These ladies fight straight because they like it."

The strawweights needed the UFC, but the world's dominant MMA promotion also needs them.

Even White acknowledged "The Ultimate Fighter" had grown stagnant and repetitive after 19 seasons of the same formula. Most seasons showcase up-and-coming fighters from regional promotions trying to break into the big time -- and usually failing. The 20th season showcases most of the world's best fighters in the 115-pound weight class, and a title awaits at the end.

"The Ultimate Fighter" hasn't featured this much top-end talent since men's flyweights and bantamweights joined the promotion three years ago in a season that featured current bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw, John Dodson and West Islip's Dennis Bermudez.

"I think there will be a couple of stars coming out of this season that can help the company," Melendez said. "And they can use it."

New York Sports