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MMA: UFC Fight Night-Gadelha vs Andrade

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Farmed and Dangerous: Jessica Andrade’s unlikely quest for UFC gold

Jessica Andrade will challenge Rose Namajunas for the UFC belt in Brazil.
| Susumu Nagao-USA TODAY Sports

NITEROI, Brazil — Jessica Andrade is one win away from becoming the UFC strawweight queen, and for the small-town girl who once drove tractors to help support her family farm, it’s been a long, hard road toward MMA eternity.

Andrade, better known by her countrymen as “Bate Estaca” — the Portuguese version of “Pile Driver” — had a different childhood than many big-city children in Brazil. Born to parents Julio and Neusa in the small town of Umuarama, which is located 345 miles away from the state capital Curitiba, Andrade had to help in the family business early on — and by early, she means really, really early.

What were you doing at four or five years old?

For Andrade, it was always about being on the plantation field alongside mom, dad, and older brother Fernando.

”I did it all, man,” Andrade says. “My father worked with planting, leasing the land and planting corn and beans, things like that. My brother and I helped to harvest. At the time of planting, we would go along too. I think that made me become the woman I am today, strong and focused. When we go through rough situations in life and reach the top, we thank God we had to go through all that.

”No kid really wants to do that. No one wants to actually work. But I was always very happy because I loved being with [my family]. That also gave me the opportunity to meet other kids, too, so I kind of got used to that. I wanted to be useful to my parents with something, so I was always helping around with anything I could.”

Jessica Andrade worked as a tractor driver in Umuarama.
Photo via Jessica Andrade

Andrade kept that same routine for years and years, only stopping when the farm where her father worked became municipalized and had to let go of all its underage laborers. Andrade was no longer be allowed to do things like drive tractors, so it was inevitable: She got fired.

But the 14-year-old girl still wanted to bring money home to help her family, so she got a job at a local fish & pay pond. It wasn’t a complicated job, especially compared to driving tractors that were 100 times heavier than an average teenager, but after five years spent cleaning fish, it was easy to get tired of the grind — and its terrible smell.

“I came to a point where I couldn’t even look at fish anymore,” Andrade says with a laugh. “So I got a job doing delivery for a drug store. When I was delivering medicine or making money collection for the drug store, I’d grab a list of names and addresses and spend hours knocking on doors. I met a lot of people doing that.”

It’s been almost a decade since she left that job for a different career, but Andrade is still remembered by locals who grew accustomed to seeing her smiling face through the peephole.

”Every time I go back to my hometown, people look at me and say, ‘I remember you delivering medicine to me. Congratulations, girl. You grew in life.’ It’s really funny,” she says. “Every time I go there, someone recognizes me from the drugstore or the fish & pay pond.”

Soccer, homemade judo, and MMA

Today, Andrade is one of the most feared female fighters in the world. She may be the hardest-hitting 115-pound woman on the planet.

But to understand her transition from little girl plowing the fields to that, you need to rewind back a few years.

Though she had to work as a child, Andrade never missed school in Umuarama. Back then, she had no idea fighting even existed. Mixed martial arts wasn’t nearly as popular in Brazil as it became two decades later, and Andrade didn’t even know what martial arts was.

Instead, she was all about soccer. That was one of the main reasons she always enjoyed going to school, so she could play with other kids. She wanted to be like Marta, one of the greatest women to ever play soccer. Named “Player of the Year” by FIFA a record six times and currently playing for the Orlando Pride, Marta — who attended Andrade’s fight against Tecia Torres in Orlando in 2018 — was who she looked up to.

Jessica Andrade grew up in a farm in Umuarama, Parana, before falling in love with martial arts and competing in both jiu-jitsu and MMA.
Photo via Jessica Andrade

”All I wanted to do was play soccer,” Andrade says. “I used to tell my mom that I wanted to be like Marta, that I would be the best in the world and make her really proud, that she would see me on TV.”

She found success early in her attempt to turn futsal (a variation of indoor soccer, how many professional soccer stars begin playing in Brazil) into an actual career. But after competing in a few state tournaments representing local team Cianorte, Andrade lost her opportunity through sheer bad luck.

”I got close to achieving great things in soccer, but I was so young my mother wouldn’t let me do it,” Andrade says. “I had an opportunity to play for Sao Paulo at the time, but there was this thing going on TV about people kidnapping women to work as sex slaves overseas and my mom got scared.”

With hysteria surrounding the country, once a man offered Andrade an opportunity to play on a big club like Sao Paulo, all Neusa could think about for her daughter were the scary situations she was seeing on television.

”I don’t know this man, he never came here to talk to me,” Neusa told her daughter at the time. “You’re not going!”

”I missed that opportunity to play in Sao Paulo,” Andrade says. “If she hadn’t done that maybe I wouldn’t start fighting.

”Or maybe something bad would really happen to me.”

Her dream of becoming the next Marta eventually faded away, but sports stayed a constant for Andrade. With no knowledge in martial arts, she watched a judo class one day at her school and decided to give it a try. As it turns out, Andrade was so naturally good at it that her teacher thought she had previous experience.

”Judo was basically what I did to my brother when we fought at home,” Andrade says with a laugh. “I would grab him and throw him down, hold him there until he quit. Typical sibling fights, you know? When I joined the judo class, I already knew what to do [laughs], but I really had no idea that sport really existed.”

As soon as Andrade finished high school, that same judo teacher invited her to train at a free school he ran for children who couldn’t afford to pay to train. Being allowed to throw people left and right with no repercussions, she fell in love with martial arts immediately. Shortly afterward, in early 2011, Andrade joined a jiu-jitsu team. And after a few months on the mats — and some experience in local tournaments — Andrade was asked a question that forever changed her life.

“There’s a MMA event going on in a few days. You want in?” her coach asked Andrade.

Sagaz Combat 1 was scheduled for Sept. 6, 2011 in Umuarama. Andrade had never even sparred before, let alone been in an MMA fight. But she decided to give it a try.

Andrade thought she would be facing a rookie like herself, but that wasn’t the case.

”When I got there, the announcer introduced [my opponent as] a kung fu champion, Muay Thai champion, and jiu-jitsu champion,” she says with a laugh. “I just thought, ‘And it’s her debut? She’s gonna beat me up in here. What am I doing here?’

”I went there after one week of training, I had learned some new tricks, and that’s what I used to win the fight. I thought, ‘Hey, I guess I have a way with fighting. I guess I’ll continue.’”

The night before Brazilian Independence Day, Andrade defeated Weidy Borges by second-round TKO. She loved everything about it.

Yet, her decision wasn’t a popular one back home.

”My mom loved when I started training judo and jiu-jitsu because that wasn’t hurting me,” Andrade says. “But when I took her for my first MMA fight, she was like, ‘Baby, you’re not really going to do this, right? To get punched in the face, please stop with that. Do jiu-jitsu, it’s good, it won’t get you hurt.’”

Neusa tried to convince her daughter to step away from mixed martial arts and continue competing in grappling. That way, she would avoid stitches and whatnot, Neusa thought. However, jiu-jitsu did not work as a career like MMA could.

”If jiu-jitsu was more profitable at the time and I had more opportunities there, maybe I would’ve stayed. MMA is fun, though,” Andrade says. “To go there and exchange strikes with someone, it’s cool, but, at the same time, you think like you’re going to a war. There’s a lot at stake. You have several methods to win a jiu-jitsu match as long as you don’t give up, while in MMA you really have to bleed to win.

”To do my job and, in the end, be able to say, ‘I did it, it was all worth it,’ that’s when I fell in love.”

Money wasn’t good at the time, though. For her first few bouts, Andrade made less than 100 dollars to step into a cage and fight.

”My purse wouldn’t even be enough to buy things for my diet, but we did it because we loved it,” Andrade says. “I fell in love when I started doing jiu-jitsu, but I felt a different adrenaline when I started MMA. Fighting someone in there, that got me right away. ‘Wow, this feels so good, I don’t want to ever leave this.’”

Quick rise to the UFC

Andrade, who started her career training at Gracie Humaita in Umuarama, met MMA coach Gilliard Parana after she made her debut. Parana was Borges’ coach, and was so impressed by Andrade’s performance that he reached out to Andrade’s coach to offer some type of partnership, which didn’t come to fruition at first.

A year later, after Andrade strung together a 4-1 record as a professional fighter, vale tudo veteran Amaury Bitetti — the promoter for Bitetti Combat — needed someone to face former boxing champion Duda Yankovich, who was making her transition to MMA. Yankovich trained at Team Nogueira at the time and had some hype around her because of her boxing accomplishments, so it was important to everyone involved to have her win her MMA debut.

The problem is, she was matched against Andrade.

”I went there and finished the fight and no one believed what just happened,” says Andrade, who submitted Yankovich with a guillotine choke in the opening round. “When I went back to Umuarama, the gym owner came with a ridiculous contract for me to sign. He said I had to pay a bunch of fees — I found out later that he was charging me more than I would actually have to pay if I signed it — and that I owed him a fortune if I left the deal.”

Jessica Andrade proudly represents PRVT in the UFC.
Guilherme Cruz, MMA Fighting

Andrade never signed the deal. Instead, she moved to Parana’s team, Parana Vale Tudo (PRVT) in Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro. At the time, PRVT was mostly known for being a stable of fighters that would agree to accept any fight on any notice just to make some cash, often resulting in perfect opportunities for fighters or coaches who wanted to pad records.

”I was afraid when I moved to Niteroi because I had no idea what it would be like,” Andrade says. “I knew that my career would be over if it didn’t work. I was afraid because people warned me that Parana would steal my money or whatever. I was afraid, but I had to try. When I got here, I realized no one had any idea of who he truly is. He barely makes money with most of his fighters, but still teaches and take care of them to help them get a better life.

”Parana always took care of me like a daughter. I was too shy to ask for anything. Sometimes I wouldn’t eat all day because I had no money, but was too embarrassed to say anything. He became a second father to me.”

With her new team, Andrade’s career took off. She won four of five contests over the next seven months, finishing all four of her wins. The last of those performances also doubled as her international debut, a second-round submission over Russian prospect Milana Dudieva that catapulted her into the UFC.

Strawweight Cyborg

Andrade was the first Brazilian woman to sign a contract with the UFC. There weren’t many females in the promotion at the time, so for her debut she was matched against Liz Carmouche, who five months earlier challenged MMA superstar Ronda Rousey for the UFC belt. In the end, Carmouche proved to be too much for that version of Andrade.

The PRVT talent was visibly short for the bantamweight division, but there weren’t other options available back then. Because she admittedly had unprofessional weight-cutting methods at the time, she also struggled to make 135 pounds in the UFC, so cutting an extra 20 pounds to compete at strawweight once the division opened was something she couldn’t even fathom. Before her fourth UFC bout, a clash with Larissa Pacheco at UFC Brasilia in Sept. 2014, Andrade said it would be “impossible” to compete at strawweight. Her actual words were, “I’d have to cut one leg off.”

UFC 203 Weigh-In Photos
It took years before Jessica Andrade finally dropped to strawweight.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

”I had no idea it was possible,” Andrade admits. “I had tried to make 121 pounds to fight Kimberly Novaes once but I had no structure, really had no idea how to do a proper diet and take care of my body, so I couldn’t make it. I almost died trying to make 121. I almost fainted in the streets many times. I said, ‘Well, I’ll never make 115 then.’ I could eat anything I wanted at 135, I was happy, and the strawweight [division] had just been opened, so I wanted no part of that.”

For a time, Andrade was an young and exciting talent in the bantamweight division. She alternated impressive wins over the likes of Rosi Sexton and Sarah Moras with disappointing submission losses to Marion Reneau and Raquel Pennington. But after three up-and-down years, the defeat in a rematch with Pennington was the final straw that convinced her it was time to make a change.

“When I lost the rematch to Raquel, I finally said that bantamweight was getting too difficult for me,” Andrade says. “I was too small, girls were way stronger than me.”

Andrade took some time off to work on her diet. Months after her loss at UFC 191, Andrade competed in a jiu-jitsu match as a flyweight. The test cut went perfect, so when it was time to get rid of 10 more pounds to compete in the Octagon, she was ready for it.

The process wasn’t easy. She had to get rid of pizza, McDonald’s, pasta, coffee, barbecue, you name it. But it was all worth it.

”When the bell rang and I saw how strong I was, I felt like The Flash, Superman,” Andrade says of her strawweight debut against Jessica Penne, a second-round TKO win. “I told people it would be impossible, but nothing is impossible if you really work hard and try. I don’t even want to leave 115 anymore.”

Once a small fighter among bantamweights, Andrade’s entire career changed at 115. She only needed three wins to earn a shot at the belt against Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and Andrade gave the Polish star a tough test despite injuring her collarbone two weeks before UFC 211.

”That was my shot and I would try no matter what, even with the injury,” says Andrade. “Despite the loss, I felt like a winner for the way I fought because I gave my all and made her tired, something no one ever did before.”

Andrade kept her head high in defeat. With a huge smile on her face moments after Bruce Buffer said “and still,” she grabbed the microphone and proposed to her girlfriend Fernanda Gomes, who quickly said yes.

It didn’t take long for Andrade to climb the strawweight ranking the second time around. Over a 12-month span, “Bate Estaca” dominated dangerous 115-pounders Claudia Gadelha, Tecia Torres, and Karolina Kowalkiewicz to earn a shot at the woman who eliminated Jedrzejczyk from the top.

Rose Namajunas did what Andrade couldn’t. And she did it twice, no less.

But styles makes fights.

At UFC 237, scheduled for May 11 in Rio de Janeiro, the farmgirl who grew from a Marta-wannabe to a feared MMA fighter will have the chance to become the 14th Brazilian to win a UFC championship belt.

”Against Rose now, I know I’m a better Jessica,” Andrade says. “I got stronger, both mentally and physically. I know I’ll do great wherever the fight goes. I’m more aggressive than any other girl and I’ll scare them even if I’m getting hit.

”It’s a good matchup for me. She’ll stand and trade with me and that’s what I love. It’s going to be a finish before the fifth round. Her striking has evolved a lot over the last few fights — we could really see that against Joanna — but I’m very, very confident.”

Namajunas has never been knocked out before, and she has faced ridiculously tough competition since her early days in the sport. Yet, as Andrade points out, the same could’ve been said about Kowalkiewicz before UFC 228.

“When we put those small gloves on, it’s a whole other story,” Andrade says. “If I can knock people out in the gym with boxing gloves, when I put MMA gloves on, if my hand lands on the right spot, she’ll go down immediately.

”The same can happen to me. She’s doing great on the feet, she was able to knock Joanna out. I can’t let her do her thing. I have to go there and frustrate her. I know I can become the first to KO Namajunas. I respect her a lot, I like her, but it’s a fight.

”It’s either going to be me or her — and I prefer me.”

Jessica Andrade lives in Pendotiba, a two-hour drive away from UFC 237's Jeunesse Arena in Rio de Janeiro.
Guilherme Cruz, MMA Fighting
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