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Claudia Gadelha not sold yet on UFC champ Weili Zhang’s dominance: ‘We have to see a bit more’

Claudia Gadelha, who once challenged for the UFC strawweight title, meets Angela Hill in Florida.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

A series of unfortunate events kept Claudia Gadelha away from the octagon for longer than she hoped for. Glad to finally have an opponent in front of her, “Claudinha” plans on getting back in the UFC title picture with a win over Angela Hill at Saturday night’s UFC on ESPN 8 in Jacksonville, Fla.

Gadelha was originally scheduled to face Cynthia Calvillo in December, but was forced out of the card with an ankle injury. The strawweight managed to bounce right back in the game for a fight with Alexa Grasso in January, but the bout fell through after her opponent missed weight for UFC 246.

Frustrated with another fight cancellation, “Claudinha” was paired up with undefeated prospect Marina Rodriguez on May 2. This time, plans changed when the coronavirus pandemic forced the company to cancel all events. Gadelha also accepted fights with Jessica Andrade and Amanda Ribas for early May, but neither came to fruition.

Hill is a former Invicta FC 115-pound titleholder who isn’t currently ranked among the 15 best in the UFC’s official rankings. For Gadelha, though, a win Saturday means an important step towards the gold.

“I dream with a chance for the belt,” Gadelha told MMA Fighting. “There’s a path to get to the title and I have to stay busy, I have to keep fighting. Things happened recently that kept me away from fighting, but it’s already great to at least have an opponent for me to get in there and fight.”

Chinese powerhouse Weili Zhang sits at the top of the strawweight mountain after a brutal knockout over Jessica Andrade and an epic title defense opposite Joanna Jedrzejczyk, boosting her winning streak to 21. However, Gadelha isn’t completely sold on her dominance just yet.

“It’s very complicated to talk because her first performances in the UFC were good, but not as impressive as the last ones,” Gadelha said when asked if she can rule the division like Jedrzejczyk once did. “Weili Zhang has a great team behind her that gives her attention, and I believe that’s her differential. I hear she’s huge for the division and has a hard time making weight, so I don’t know if she’ll move up one day. To define her as a fighter, we have to see a bit more.

“Even though she did that incredible fight with Joanna, I believe Joanna is not mentally the same from when she was the champion, so I need more time to talk about [Zhang].”

Asked if her jiu-jitsu background and overall game are the perfect mix to dethrone “Magnum,” Gadelha didn’t think twice.

“Yes,” she said. “I’ve been watching her a lot, trying to understand how she fights. Like I said, she has a great team behind her that tries to fill all the holes a fighter might have. We can’t talk much about her grappling yet because we haven’t seen her on the ground yet. I think she took Joanna down two or three times, I took Joanna down seven times, so we can’t say what will happen and how she is because we haven’t seen much yet.”

Gadelha must get past Hill before dreaming with another shot at the UFC belt, though, and she was forced to adapt during the health crisis. The Brazilian strawweight trained exclusively with Sijara Eubanks for two weeks at the gym she built at her house in New Jersey before coach Mark Henry could finally join them for a “greta” camp.

She had no octagon to train at this time, but that isn’t new to her. Nova Uniao, MMA and jiu-jitsu team in Rio de Janeiro where Gadelha built her career before moving overseas, took more than a decade to finally have its own cage too.

Gadelha admits she was “afraid” of the COVID-19 pandemic and refused to get out of her house for weeks, but felt safer as time went by.

“I’m very excited to be fighting, actually,” Gadelha said. “So many things happened with me recently, so I’m very excited with the opportunity to be the first sport to return in the world. We’re going through this global pandemic, but things have to come back, people will need to get out of their houses and whatnot, so I’m excited to fight.”

Hill is on a three-fight winning streak in the octagon after stopping Ariane Carnelossi and Hannah Cifers and earning a decision against Loma Lookboonmee. Marina Rodriguez, Gadelha’s original opponent, was undefeated with two wins and two draws in the UFC.

“I don’t think it changes much between Hill and Marina, they have a pretty similar game,” Gadelha said. “Angela Hill is trying to fight a different style, very Dominick Cruz-esque, moving her head side to side, walking like Dominick walks, fighting with angles, while Marina walks straight forward. I think that’s the difference between them, but they are both strikers who try to stay on the feet the whole time.”

“I consider myself more complete than Angela as a fighter,” she continued. “I know she has a lot of fights, but I’m more experienced. I’m in this journey for a long time. In MMA, as a whole, I’m more complete than her. She has sharp kickboxing and muay thai, but this is not a muay thai fight, this is MMA, so I consider myself better than her. We’ll do a bit everything in this fight.”

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