Jéssica From the Drugstore

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Jéssica (Bate Estaca) Andrade
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Para ler em Português, clique aqui.

I couldn’t have imagined how one fight would destroy me completely.

I took many blows, but the physical damage was nothing compared to what the defeat did to my mind.

Before stepping foot into the octagon for the first time, nobody has a clue what it means to fight in the UFC. I remember the scene so well: Back in 2013, my coach pulled me aside to give me the news that the UFC wanted me. He was so exasperated that it seemed like someone had died.

Then he asked me if I would like to face Liz Carmouche, and my first reaction was, “Oh my God! I’m in the UFC!!! How did they even manage to find someone who came all the way from the countryside — from the backwoods of Paraná?”

It’s crazy how the best news of your life can turn so quickly into the biggest disappointment. The truth is that I was not mentally prepared to lose that fight right out of the gate.

It just crushed me.

I just thought … You’ve trained so much … for this, Jessica?

That’s how I blamed myself, how I insisted on punishing myself for the failure. I was done, because I felt like I was back to square one — back to just being “Jessica from the drugstore.”

You see, where I’m from, fighting is simply not a “girl’s thing.”

In Umuarama, I grew up playing football, which to my family was also not a girl’s thing, to be honest. Playing football was my biggest passion. I wanted to be on TV, to be just like Marta. I even had a knack for it. I was offered to play for São Paulo, one of the biggest clubs in Brazil. But my mother wouldn’t let me go. She was afraid that someone would kidnap me, or that something else would happen. I’ve always respected her, so I ended up not taking the offer. I needed to find another path. But what path?

It was then that fighting showed up in my life.

Ever since I was a child, I liked to play-fight with my brother. One day at school, he was being threatened by a drug dealer — the most dangerous guy in the neighborhood, actually. I joined their fight in order to protect my brother, and I just hit the drug dealer with kick after kick, and landed a punch so hard to his face that he started bleeding.

“Well, now I’m done for,” I thought.

But somehow, it all worked out. He became known around the neighborhood for having been beaten up by a girl, and he never started any more trouble with us. Around that time, I joined a social program that offered judo training. The teacher, who saw me taking down all the boys, asked me to train jiujitsu. That’s how I started my career as a fighter.

Courtesy of Jéssica (Bate Estaca) Andrade
Courtesy of Jéssica (Bate Estaca) Andrade

Well, actually, it started rather awkwardly….

In one of my first fights, I was winning pretty effortlessly. Then my opponent put me in an armlock, and since I had no real experience, I fought back with a pile driver.

A small detail: Pile drivers are forbidden in jiujitsu. Nobody had told me that!

Hahaha!!

Of course, I got disqualified and I lost a fight that I had in the bag. And that’s when “Bate Estaca” (Pile Driver) caught on.

In the beginning, I didn’t like the nickname. But what bothered me even more was when I would arrive at a tournament and someone would tell me that there were no other girls in my weight class. I mean, come on! Winning a medal without fighting is humiliating! But you have to understand a bit about the culture in Brazil. I was the only woman doing jiujitsu at my gym. There were a few other girls in my town who were interested in fighting, but they all eventually gave up training because any woman who enrolled in martial arts was called horrible names. You know them in whatever language you speak. Homophobic names.

But things changed for me when I met Coach Paraná. A man who did not see girls as damsels in distress, but as true fighters. I was part of the first female class at his gym, PRVT. Up to that point, I had been training with the boys. (And man, we used to beat each other up, for real!) But training with the girls was rather different. There was a greater balance of strength, weight and height, which helped us develop our technique.

After my pile-driver blunder, I got my first invitation to MMA.

And I actually said, “MMA? What is that, Coach?”

He said, “Oh, well, MMA is a combination of every martial art. You can punch, kick, take them down, hit them on the mat.”

I said, “Hmm, interesting. So we’re doing it, right?”

My eyes gleamed!

There was just one problem: I had to lose 10 kilos in a month to meet the weight requirement. At the time, I was working as a delivery girl at a drugstore. I weighed around 70 kilos and ate a lot. But in my mind, I would reach the weight and nothing could convince me otherwise. At lunch time, I used to bring a huge bowl of lettuce, two chicken fillets, and three small sweet potatoes. My coworkers at the drugstore yelled at me in front of the clients, telling me that this was all crazy and I was going to die.

“Oh, my God, will I?”

Finally, the day of the fight arrived. I was the first one to step into the ring.

Then, they announced my opponent: “From the city of Maringá, two-time jiujitsu champion of Paraná, Muay Thai world- champion, champion of god-knows-what-else….”

And I said to myself, Darn, I’m about to take a beating. What am I doing here?

But I breathed in deep and pulled myself together. I may lose, but she sure as heck is leaving this fight with two black eyes!

I gave her a knee strike that I had just learned that same week and she hit the fence. I started punching the girl up. One fist followed the other, and then … thud. She hit the mat and ended the first round completely dizzy, and I ended it with my hair looking like Conan the Barbarian’s.

As soon as the second round started, the referee could see that she was struggling and called the fight. The whole crowd at the gym was shouting, “Jessica! Jessica! Jessica!”

I looked in the bleachers and saw my family cheering. At that moment, I realized: This is the life I want, man!!!!

The more I fought, the more I evolved. Everybody said that one day I would go to the U.S. and fight in the UFC.

“Are you crazy? There isn’t even a women’s division!”

I didn’t believe it would ever happen, but the more I trained, the better I got.

My coworkers at the drugstore yelled at me in front of the clients, telling me that this was all crazy and I was going to die.Jéssica (Bate Estaca) Andrade

I went to Russia to fight Milana Dudieva. That one was gnarly. She had won eight fights in a row. According to my calculations, I only had a 1% chance of winning. I believe she thought the same, too. She was going so easy on me that I was waiting for her to give me a hug. And there I was, with my tattered old clothes, thinking, Just you wait….

I finished Dudieva in the second round. And I am sure that, on that day, the UFC became aware of my existence.

By that time, the UFC had already created a women’s division. When Coach told me about the offer to face Liz Carmouche, I accepted on the spot. But I only fully grasped the magnitude of the UFC when I arrived in the United States. In New York City, there was a massive poster of our fight outside the Empire State Building. Walking down the streets of Seattle, I saw my picture on buses. That’s when I realized.

MAN, I’M IN THE MAIN CARD OF THE UFC!!!

I was used to fighting at events with less than 500 people in the bleachers. Suddenly, I was in an arena with thousands of spectators. I get goose bumps just remembering the crowd shouting my name.

Whoa, how do all these people know me?

I didn’t know whether to laugh, to cry or to scream. It was a rush of adrenaline unlike anything I had ever felt. In moments, I would become the first Brazilian woman to step into the octagon, in the first ever match between two openly gay women. Lots of things involved, you know?

Somehow, this whirlwind threw me off balance.

In the first round, I almost finish her. I come close to feeling the taste of victory. Then, out of nowhere, the tables turn. I'm just ... blank! It seems like I’ve been taken to another dimension.

In this empty and dark place, there’s only Liz and I.

Complete silence.

No crowd, no referee, no cornermen … nothing. I can only see the blows coming my way.

I turn around and take an elbow to the ear. I turn back and get punched in the face. I get hit again and again, and I don’t know what to do. She takes me down, and I’m in for an agonizing ride.

Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

When I come back to reality, I can’t feel my arms. Everything is dead, numb. I’m not giving up. I stay there, getting pummeled until the round is over. But then the referee stops the fight.

My only thought was, I made it to the UFC and I failed.

There is no worse feeling than falling at the height of your career.

I came back home devastated, certain that I should have picked a different job, or even stayed in my lane at the drugstore. I just wanted to be comforted by my mother.

But her reaction was, “What do you mean you lost? You’re always training. That’s all you do in life!”

Those words from her hit me like a rock. I cried the whole day remembering my defeat, remembering how I’d lost to myself.

Remembering how incapable I felt.

My family didn’t really understand what MMA was. That’s why they didn’t give me the support I needed. My father was far from a man who encouraged me 100%, even though he liked to watch my fights sometimes. Due to his poor financial state, he’d kept little track of my ascension. Then I learned that he had cheated on my mother, and that he had another family. This brought me so much grief.

The one who took the role of father, who raised me from the bottom, was Coach. After my loss to Liz, I wanted to stop fighting. I was thinking that maybe I could keep training, but I convinced myself never to fight again.

The same people who once said, “Jessica is going to crush it,” now criticized me. They said I lacked professionalism, lacked technique, and that I just wasn’t good enough for the UFC. That ate me up inside. But Coach told me not to listen.

He lifted me up.

He got me a psychologist in Rio de Janeiro. We always talked after I was finished with my training. And I would bawl my eyes out. I didn’t think I was good enough, but she made me believe I was.

She’d say, “Jessica, stay calm. You will be the best in the world.”

The psychologist made me look at fighting in a less destructive way. I started valuing myself more. When I thought I hadn’t done well at training, I remained focused on the next day.

I’d say, “Man, today I’m going to be better than yesterday. Not better than anyone else, better than myself.”

Three months after I lost to Liz, they booked me another fight. I defeated Rosi Sexton and beat the women’s record for most strikes landed in three rounds. Thanks to the ones who had lifted me up in my worst moment, I was back on my feet again. Stronger, more stable, and more confident.

Pedro Martins/FotoFC/The Players' Tribune
Pedro Martins/FotoFC/The Players' Tribune

At one point, I had 10 UFC fights under my belt. But at the same time, I had no money and no house to live in. That’s when I got an unexpected gift: Fernanda arrived.

Everybody thinks that I had it easy when she met me. That I was this UFC fighter, full of money, a luxury car … as if! We starved together. Several times a week, we asked ourselves, “So, what are we eating?”

Neither of us has had an answer.

She agreed to live with me as a guest at someone else’s home. We slept on a little single-bed mattress, sharing a blanket and a pillow. Tired of this, Fernanda wanted to leave, and I begged her, “Please, stay! I promise everything will work out in the end!”

She is a biologist, but abandoned her dream to support mine — to help me pay the bills and get a house for us, as well as one for my mother.

This is the woman of my life!

There is no Jessica without Fernanda, or Fernanda without Jessica.

Without her, I would never have given my father a second chance. Or a third, a fourth, a fifth … (but that’s another story).

Without her, my mother would never have understood MMA, let alone what the routine of an MMA fighter is.

In the end, I am grateful that my mother didn’t let me leave home to play football for São Paulo. I am grateful for her constant prayers for me, and for the fact that, today, she says the words I very much wanted to hear after my first fight.

Fernanda helped me value my family. She helped me understand that family is the foundation for everything.

In the end, I am grateful that my mother didn’t let me leave home to play football for São Paulo.Jéssica (Bate Estaca) Andrade

The native headdress was also her idea, actually. I bring to each fight the colors of Brazil and of the orisha that protect me. Upon climbing the stairs to the octagon, I feel the energy of the Brazilian people, of my religion – candomblé –, of my indigenous roots and of my ancestors.

You have no idea how much strength this brings me.

It was this energy that filled me with courage the day I won the UFC strawweight belt. Before the fight in Rio de Janeiro, I handed Rose Namajunas a rose. She could have chosen any other place in the world to face me, but she chose to fight at my home, before my people and my supporters. A very noble gesture on her part.

However, as fighters, when we get into the octagon, all we think about is winning. And I knew exactly what I needed to do to be victorious. I also knew that, unlike my defeat in my debut, this was a five-round fight. I could not give it my all in the first round.

I just didn’t expect to win like that.

I raise her up to my shoulders, and she keeps clinging to my arm. I make a move to throw her down and … boom! She falls on her head, her neck tilted, and blacks out.

Bate Estaca.

Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images
Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

I mean, to become a UFC champion in my home country, using the move I carry in my name? It is priceless. An epic pile driver. My biggest achievement. People stop me to this day because of this feat: “Hey, you’re the girl who almost killed the other one, right?”

I made sure to dedicate the belt to Coach. His mother was a housemaid. His father, a bricklayer. He could have invested in his career as an athlete, but gave it all up to become a coach, to take care of us so that more women are welcomed in MMA.

I believe this to be my main mission now. When we talk about PRVT, we talk about empowerment. Today, we have more girls in our team than we had back when I started. It is amazing to have become a role model for them.

I tell them, “I want to see all of you with me in the UFC. We’re all gonna fight in the same card, win lots of money, come back home, take our moms out to eat and pay the bill. I want you all to feel the same way I feel in the octagon.”

This is the energy I bring to the girls.

But without Ronda Rousey opening the doors, I would never have made it to the biggest event in the world. Without Cris Cyborg, there would not have been a woman with four belts under four different promotions. Without Amanda Nunes, we would not have a Brazilian champion in two categories.

The day I retire, I want other women to look at me and say: “Man, Jessica was awesome, funny and a lesbian. She threw so many punches and brought us lots of joy”.

Since Liz and I made history, I try my hardest to show that the flag that I fly is one of happiness.

A fighter who is gay and a champion can make a huge difference in the lives of people who are afraid to come out, afraid of what their parents might think, afraid of what could happen to them. Recently, there was a girl who sent me a message all the way from Kazakhstan, saying: “You are my inspiration!”

How many other girls can I inspire?

Just like how Marta inspired me back when I wanted to be a footballer.

Just like how I am inspired by the women who came before me and paved the way so I could be here now.

Pedro Martins/FotoFC/The Players' Tribune
Pedro Martins/FotoFC/The Players' Tribune

Actually, I have realized that inspiration is everywhere.

It’s in the hopes of fighting for another belt.

In Jessica, who grew up in a wooden house in Umuarama.

In Jessica, who was found in the countryside, in the backwoods of Paraná.

In Jessica, who worked in the drugstore.

In Jessica, who became a UFC champion.

In Jessica, who doesn’t exist without Fernanda. Or in Fernanda, who doesn’t exist without Jessica.

In the little mattress where we cried together.

In the love that connected us.

In coming back after defeat.

In the sport that became a girl’s thing. A woman’s thing!

In the 10 months I spent without fighting so I could lose weight and change class.

In the 50ºC hot tub with salt and alcohol so that I could make weight.

In all the sacrifices I have to make for my job.

In all of those things have reminded me that the best version of Jessica is yet to come.

And that, regardless of winning or losing, there will always be a new beginning for those who don't give up on fighting.