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How Jessica Andrade went from table tennis champion to aspiring soccer player to UFC title contender

UFC 211 Open Workout Photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Jessica Andrade has the chance to become the best strawweight fighter in the world Saturday night in Dallas, as she takes on UFC champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk in the co-main event of UFC 211, but that wasn’t her first sports goal growing up.

Born in Umuarama, a tiny small in the northeast area of Parana — actually closer to Paraguay than the capital of the state, Curitiba — Andrade was addicted to sports. Andrade would play everything she could whenever she had the chance, and would do well in pretty much everything.

Andrade had won a state championship in table tennis, but her ultimate dream was to become a soccer player. The young Brazilian had talent, playing in both traditional soccer and indoor soccer (futsal).

Being a girl and wanting to pursue a career in soccer in Brazil is a hard task, though, and it didn’t take long until she realized that.

"It’s hard to have a good career in soccer, especially women’s soccer,” Andrade said during a recent media lunch in Niteroi, Brazil. "I didn’t make any money in soccer, only spent money. I had offers to play in Sao Paulo, but my mother didn't let me go."

Andrade’s mother wasn’t against sports in general, but wanted her daughter under her wing. At age 19, Andrade took a class that would change her life.

"I worked at a high and pay lake and only had Friday’s off, so I played anything I could,” Andrade said. "I had the opportunity to take a judo class once, and I’ve never done that before — except fighting and beating up my brother at home. I decided to stay for the class and I defeated every boy there, so the teacher asked me if I wanted to stay and train more.”

She didn’t hesitate.

Andrade said yes to the judo teacher, and that quickly led to jiu-jitsu classes. Her mother, who was against her moving away from Parana to invest in a career in soccer, wasn’t against watching her daughter compete in a gi.

"When I started fighting, (my mother) let me go to jiu-jitsu tournaments,” Andrade said. "If I had to pay anything, she’d help me, my father would help me as well. She saw how happy I was winning medals and trophies."

It didn’t take long for Andrade to make her transition to mixed martial arts. In September 2011, Andrade entered a local MMA event and scored her first TKO victory. She was back in action two months later to add another stoppage win to her record.

"When I started fighting MMA, I saw I could make some money with it,” she said. "I said ‘OK, it’s time to (leave soccer) and invest in it.’"

A year later — and a 4-1 record in the sport — Andrade signed up for the MMA bout that would take her career to another level. Fighting in Rio de Janeiro for the first time in 2012, Andrade was set to take on Duda Yankovich at Bitetti Combat 12.

"I think the exact date that I decided (to really invest in MMA) was when I fought a boxing world champion, Duda Yankovich,” Andrade said. "I got a lot of attention, was making more money. I thought ‘Well, that’s really it, let’s leave soccer and fight.’"

Used to getting paid around 100 dollars or so per fight, Andrade was now a 5-1 prospect in Brazil. Also known as “Bate-Escata” (piledriver, in English) in the MMA world, she had four more wins in the next five fights on her way to the Octagon, but only reached championship level when she finally decided not to give her opponents any more size advantage and leave the bantamweight division to compete at 115 pounds.

Unbeaten as a strawweight with a trio of impressive victories over Jessica Penne, Joanne Calderwood and Angela Hill, Andrade vows to shock the world and take the UFC title away from Jedrzejczyk, but her soccer days aren’t completely over.

"People still invite me to play soccer,” Andrade said. "There's an indoor court right next to the gym, and there are girls playing there all the time. One day, when I didn’t have a fight booked, I played with them there and they said ‘wow, you’re great, join our team so we can compete in a tournament,’ but the UFC booked a fight right after that and I couldn’t play.”

But what if she doesn’t have a fight booked?

“Then I’d definitely go, for sure,” Andrade laughed.

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