When she was a young girl growing up on a farm in Umurama, a small town in rural southern Brazil, Jessica Andrade found herself doing an inordinate amount of the work.
She began work on the farm before she was in school, because everyone in the family was needed to pitch in and help. Though she was physically very small, she was always stronger than average.
“I guess it’s just my genetics,” she said, chuckling. “I have good genes. My father would give me tasks, lifting things, that my brother couldn’t handle. I guess I’m just gifted that way. I’ve always had that strength, right from the start.”
Despite being only 5-foot-2, everything about Andrade exudes power. She’s one of the physically strongest women in the strawweight division, if not the strongest, and her strength has helped her land a second title shot.
On Saturday, in front of what is expected to be a raucous hometown crowd in her favor at Jeunesse Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Andrade will challenge strawweight champion Rose Namajunas for the belt in the main event of UFC 237.
She began in the UFC, though, as a bantamweight, where her biggest asset, her strength, was largely negated. In one of her early UFC fights, she defeated Larissa Pacheco, who on Thursday lost a decision at lightweight in the PFL to two-time Olympic gold medalist Kayla Harrison. The fighters were simply too big for her, and it showed.
Andrade went 4-3 in her first seven fights in the UFC as a bantamweight, which was two divisions above where she should have been competing.
Once she moved to strawweight, she’s been a different fighter. She’s gone 7-1, with her only loss in a championship bout to Joanna Jedrzejczyk. She’s beaten the cream of the division, otherwise, with wins at 115 over Jessica Penne, Joanne Calderwood, Angela Hill, Claudia Gadelha, Tecia Torres and Karolina Kowalkiewicz.
That’s led to the shot against Namajunas, who is making the second defense of the title she won when she knocked out Jedrzejczyk in the first round at UFC 217. Andrade is a slight favorite at Las Vegas sportsbooks to win the championship.
Her experience in a five-round loss to Jedrzejczyk is more impressive given she suffered a shoulder injury a week before the bout, but refused to withdraw.
“It’s hard to evaluate that performance with Joanna because I was hurt,” Andrade said. “I came in at far from 100 percent. Strength-wise, I wasn’t where I needed to be and I had problems pushing and pulling. Stuff I normally could do without any problems, I couldn’t do.”
Jedrzejczyk used her stand-up to keep Andrade at a distance and won the bout in a shutout.
But Andrade said the fight proved beneficial to her in many ways, despite the defeat.
“I found out that I could go five rounds hard at full pace,” she said. “I hadn’t done that before and until you do it, you never know. I had questions in my head, ‘What will I be like when we get to the fourth and fifth rounds?’ I felt good and I was able to keep going hard. I didn’t fight the way I wanted, but that was something that I don’t have to worry about anymore, so there was something positive that came out of it.”
She’ll give up four inches in height and three inches of reach to the champion. It will be critical for her to not allow Namajunas to stay on the outside and throw strikes without being pressured.
Andrade raves about Namajunas’ all-around game, but she remains confident in her ability to get the job done.
“I have to deal with the reach advantage she’s going to have on me, but most girls I fight have that advantage, so I know what I have to do,” she said.
The night is set up almost perfectly for her. Two of the most significant figures in the history of MMA in Brazil, ex-featherweight champion Jose Aldo and ex-middleweight champion Anderson Silva, will set the stage for her. Aldo fights Alex Volkanovski and will be followed into the ring by Silva in the co-main event.
The night will end with Andrade attempting to join dual champion Amanda Nunes as the only Brazilians currently holding UFC belts. It is remarkable to her that she’ll be the main event, given the magnitude of stars on the card.
“Going on after Anderson fights, that’s incredible and it’s a great thing, not just for me but for all the women,” she said. “There aren’t many sports where the women are treated equally to the men, but the UFC views the women fighters equally. It’s made pretty clear by their actions.
“This is the best possible scenario for me. Having a chance to win the title in front of a home crowd, it’s like a dream. I want to give the belt to my mother, and my coach, who believed in me when no one else would. It will mean so much to be able to do it here.”
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