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How anxiety, hypochondriasis drove UFC prospect Virna Jandiroba to jiu-jitsu

Virna Jandiroba looks for her first UFC win as she meets Mallory Martin at UFC on ESPN 7.
Dave Mandel, Invicta FC

Former Invicta FC strawweight champion Virna Jandiroba will experience fighting off a defeat for the first time on Saturday, but dealing with losses and overcoming adversity through competition is nothing new to her.

Jandiroba, who battles short-notice replacement Mallory Martin at Saturday night’s UFC on ESPN 7 in Washington, DC, had her first contact with martial arts at early age with kung fu and judo in Bahia, but only treated sports as a serious career path for the future after her older sister Laiane died of stomach cancer at age 21.

“I started training jiu-jitsu because I had an anxiety issue when I was a teenager, so I’ve been doing therapy ever since,” Jandiroba told MMA Fighting. “I had panic attacks after my sister died, and jiu-jitsu helped me overcome that. I was afraid to get out of home, and it was travelling to jiu-jitsu tournaments that I started feeling safer. But I’ve always dealt with anxiety.”

Jandiroba thought everyone around her was dying, too, and she became a hypochondriac around that time. Training jiu-jitsu became the way for a 15-year-old Jandiroba to forget about her sister’s death, at least for a few hours, and become a healthier person.

Turns out she was quite good at it, capturing gold medals in local competition — including wins over Claudia Gadelha and Amanda Nunes — until someone suggested she should make the transition to mixed martial arts.

The 115-pound prospect went 11-0 in the Brazilian circuit and won a trio of fights under the Invicta FC banner before jumping to the Octagon and losing a decision to former champion Carla Esparza in her promotional debut in April.

Working with a therapist for many years — and visiting her even more now that she has experienced defeat for the first time in MMA — has helped Jandiroba remain cool ahead of UFC Washington.

“We never know how we’ll react until we get there,” Jandiroba said. “I can’t deny the impact that a loss can bring to an athlete’s life, and that’s why I kept working with my therapist. You can deal with that in a negative way or use it in a positive way, being hungrier to win.”

The original plan for UFC Washington was to get Jandiroba in the cage against Courtney Casey, but Livinha Souza eventually stepped in as a replacement. However, when Souza also suffered an injury, fellow Invicta FC veteran Mallory Martin got the call on days’ notice.

“Mallory is also a grappler, so it hasn’t changed much for us,” Jandiroba said. “The plan remains the same. It’s a good match-up for me. Livinha was more experienced, but that doesn’t mean Mallory is an easier fight. We can’t underestimate nor overestimate our opponents. It’s a fight and I’ll give my best. We’re always taking risks.

“It’s no secret that I like to submit my opponents, but I’ve worked on my striking skills a lot since my fight with Carla. I spent a good time training with boxers now, so maybe I’ll bring in some surprises [laughs]. We’ll see what happens.”

Martin has impressed with dominant performances around the United States, but what really caught the attention of the MMA world was her screaming at the opponents while landing heavy shots on ground and pound.

“I saw that she’s very noisy when she’s on the ground and pound,” Jandiroba said with a laugh. “Everyone has their own way to sell a fight, but that’s not something I like or feel it’s respectful. MMA has become more entertainment now and people do anything to sell and get some attention. I come from a martial art background that is about respect.”