Fighter of Interest: Claudia Gadelha

Claudia Gadelha of Brazil steps on the scale during the UFC Fight Night Weigh-in at the Hilton Tokyo on September 21, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan. Photo courtesy of Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

There was a time where Claudia Gadelha (15-3 MMA, 4-3 UFC) was right on the brink of glory, adoration, and championship gold. In her run through the world’s best at 115 pounds, the Brazilian grappler showed off a comprehensive boxing attack, near-unstoppable wrestling, and some of the best positional control in the UFC.

It was her longstanding feud with the all-time great, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, which truly captured the hearts of fans. Claudia was the perfect foil to the aggressive, bullying promotional-style employed by the champion.

Joanna learned Portuguese just to talk to her friend. Isn’t that sweet? *Gum chewing intensifies*

But after falling short in her title bid, and a subsequent loss to the ferocious contender Jessica Andrade, Gadelha’s stock plummeted with the public.

These days, blanket narratives of lopsided losses and career-destroying cardio issues run rampant in any popular discussion of Gadelha. To espouse such beliefs is to ignore the content of those bouts, as well as her obvious progression and adjustments being made from fight to fight. Claudia Gadelha may just be the most skilled fighter all around in the entirety of women’s mixed martial arts. At 29 years old, Gadelha still has the time and ability to realize her championship aspirations.

This is Fighter of Interest, where underrated, under the radar, or underappreciated fighters from an upcoming event are brought to light.

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Fighter of Interest: Claudia Gadelha

Claudia Gadelha is one of a long list of fighters who can say martial arts saved their life. After she fell into a life of trouble and drug use, Gadelha’s father rented her an apartment in the city of Natal, alone, at just 15 years old.

As fate would have it, the apartment was right upstairs from Kimura Nova União. Although martial arts were not “lady-like” and she was forbidden by her mother, Gadelha was drawn in and began to practice jiu-jitsu in secret. That first practice was a special moment in her life. “It was on a Tuesday, I fell in love immediately.”

Claudia would go on to win seven Brazilian national championships, as well as three world championships at brown belt. At 18 she moved to Rio De Janeiro to pursue her fighting dreams at the main Nova União gym with the likes of Andre PederneirasJose Aldo, and Renan Barao.

Star Power

Claudia Gadelha boasts impressive talent in all areas of martial arts. Some fans are even more fascinated with her shiny hair, gleaming white teeth, and nonexistent bodyfat. For others, it is the magnetic personality of the Brazilian. She is a dedicated, humble athlete who seems to internalize the blue-collar values of her small hometown.

To top it all off, she has quite a way with words.

“I want to buy a new car and a fancy dog and live my life.”

She did get that fancy dog, his name is Pablo. Happy birthday, Pablo.

Feliz aniversário Pablo!! Happy birthday Pablo!! #pablogadelhabull

A post shared by ᏟᎶ (@claudiagadelha) on

Explode and Control

As far as grappling is concerned, Gadelha is undeniably a top player. A lifelong athlete, she is able to use her immense strength to bully her opponents. An explosive takedown artist, Gadelha switches between a powerful double leg shot and forceful clinch throws, depending on the advance or retreat of her adversary.

Her tendency to trap foes against the cage, posture up and tee off worked like a charm on the Brazilian regional scene.

CLAUDIA SMESH

As she progressed in her career and began fighting in a cage, there was much more of a focus on guard passing and maintaining dominant positions. This pattern held up well into her UFC run, as demonstrated by our friend “MMA By The Numbers“:

In her bout with Herica Tiburcio, Claudia pressured aggressively nonstop. She showed off a variety of takedowns, as well as an overwhelming boxing attack. Tiburcio would go on to upset Michelle Waterson to win the Invicta atomweight title at just 21 years old.

Claudia mercilessly beating up a teenager.

Gadelha racked up an impressive 10-0 record over the likes of future UFC fighters in Valérie Létourneau and Kalindra Faria. After several scheduled bouts against the Invicta champion Carla Esparza fell through, Claudia finally made her Invicta FC debut against Japanese judo standout Ayaka Hamasaki.

The two undefeated grapplers met to decide the No. 1 contender for the strawweight title.

Your perfect double leg entries mean nothing, Ayaka.

The speed of Hamasaki was easily neutralized by Claudia’s remarkable physicality. Repeated shot attempts by Hamasaki ended in smooth clinch takedowns for Gadelha. While Hamasaki was able to competently defend herself for the majority of the bout, she suffered a ground and pound TKO after being trapped between the full and back mount position.

Now an outstanding 15-2, Hamasaki won and defended the Invicta atomweight belt before moving on the Rizin FF.

Making History

For the second time, Claudia Gadelha was scheduled to face Carla Esparza. After pulling out of the first fight due to a broken nose suffered in training, it was truly devastating when Claudia was hospitalized one day before their title bout. As a result of a tough weight cut, a serious bacterial infection forced Gadelha out of the fight.

Just days afterward, The Ultimate Fighter 20: A Champion Will Be Crowned was announced. The season was a tournament of the top 115 pound women in the world, the finals bout would be for the inaugural UFC strawweight championship. Gadelha was a no-brainer for the initial selection.

On The Ultimate Fighter, competitors need to make weight for up to three fights in a relatively short span of time. Gadelha’s coaches advised against participating, given the difficulty of her weight cuts.

Instead, Claudia Gadelha went straight to the UFC, meeting undefeated Finnish striker Tina Lähdemäki in the first-ever women’s 115 bout in the UFC.

Squashing “Jellybean”

Although a solid 5-0 in the Finnish regional scene, Tina “Jellybean” Lähdemäki was clearly a pawn to give Gadelha momentum in the division. This does not mean the UFC was interested in showcasing the bout, as it was the opening fight of a Fox Sports 1 card. It was the only Fight Pass preliminary bout. This was 2014 Fight Pass, mind you.

Despite a relatively empty arena and lack of exposure, Claudia went to work. The first round was a perfect encapsulation of Gadelha’s skillset. She pressured well, landing clean boxing combinations. She was overwhelming in the thai clinch, moving Lähdemäki with ease.

After landing several booming takedowns, Claudia nearly ended the fight, beating on Lähdemäki’s noggin from back mount.

Is it weird that I find the guard passing the most pleasing part of the entire round?

It was the type of beatdown that changes the commentary narrative. Brian Stann suffered from “challenger bias”, focusing on any effective offense Lähdemäki managed to generate, while lauding her toughness. In truth, it was extremely one-sided.

A new wrinkle shown as the fight progressed was Claudia’s striking offense off the clinch break. She landed some of her best punches of the fight after shrugging Lähdemäki off from the double collar tie.

Brian Stann was not wrong to praise the durability of Tina Lähdemäki. It just makes more sense to focus on the successes of the better fighter, no?

The body language of Claudia Gadelha communicated fatigue. Her breathing was labored, her feet appeared heavy and slow, and yet the offense did not stop. UFC fans learned early on that nothing short of complete exhaustion will slow Gadelha’s attack.

That was a gorgeous inside trip. The elbow to guard pass leaves you feeling some kind of way, as well.

The Feud Begins

Later that month, Joanna Jedrzejczyk arrived in the division with a decision victory over Juliana Lima. As the clear top contenders in the division, Joanna and Claudia were matched up to determine who would challenge the newly inaugurated champion, Carla Esparza.

The storyline coming in was the old cliche, “striker vs. grappler.” In a bizarre twist to many fans, Gadelha opened the bout in complete control on the feet, in the clinch and on the ground. Although a seasoned, world-level muay thai fighter, Joanna was caught off guard repeatedly by the leaping entries of Gadelha.

It was a clear and complete round for Claudia. That is, until she was stunned with a sneaky jab-uppercut through the guard with just ten seconds remaining.

I cannot imagine how demoralizing it is to have a round of hard work negated with 10 seconds left. Soul-crushing.

Gadelha’s corner urged her to stay mobile, she could not give Joanna a still target. Accordingly, Claudia moved forward nonstop, punching her way into the clinch. While the takedowns did not come easily, she was able to control position for the overwhelming majority of the round.

If you watch that round in full, Joanna’s hands and fingers were up to no good the whole time. While pushing on Claudia’s face, there was clearly some “finger in eyeball” action going down.

Again we need to address the blanket narratives surrounding Claudia’s conditioning. At a furious pace, in a fight where she was badly hurt, Gadelha was the fresher, more active fighter in the third round. While she paced herself on the feet, Claudia utilized extremely taxing takedown setups and entries to keep Joanna’s outfighting disabled.

That defense, and ANOTHER inside trip. You’re a boi for life if you’re hitting inside trips.

It was a gritty performance from Gadelha. It becomes even more impressive in the context of Joanna’s run following this bout. Although it appeared Gadelha had two rounds to one, Joanna was awarded the split decision victory.

No Easy Fights

Injuries kept Claudia out of action for nearly eight months, when she was tasked with welcoming the World Series of Fighting (RIP) champion Jessica Aguilar to the UFC.

An intimidating 19-4, Aguilar’s resume may have been the best in the division. Originally a Bellator standout, Aguilar holds wins over a champion in Carla Esparza, as well as two victories over a women’s MMA pioneer and one of the greatest of all time, Megumi Fujii.

While Claudia was dominant with her outfighting attack early on, it was the double collar tie that opened up the most significant strikes of the round.

Box her up, knee the head, blast her off her feet. Repeat.

Aguilar’s nose was badly broken, her vision was impeded, and her breathing was hampered. As Aguilar slowed, she became much more vulnerable to the power-punching assault of the Brazilian workhorse.

Aguilar seemed confused as to what Claudia had against her. This was clearly a vengeful, hate-fueled assault. Still mad about that split decision, am I right?

Through two rounds Aguilar had done little but show off her durability. American Top Team coach Mike Brown advised Aguilar to stick with the low kicks to Gadelha’s heavy lead leg stance. After absorbing several thudding kicks, Claudia finally slowed, taking her foot off the gas dramatically.

She finished every round with the same double leg, big lift each time. That’s a job well done.

It was much too little too late, as Gadelha could pick her opportunities and continue to have her way with Aguilar.

War for the Belt

The win over Aguilar set up a hate-fueled rematch between Claudia and her arch nemesis, Joanna Jedrzejcyzk. Since their first bout, Joanna went on to win the title by dominating Carla Esparza en route to a standing TKO. In her subsequent two title defenses, Joanna became a global star, establishing herself as the greatest striker in women’s MMA.

To build hype for the bout, Joanna and Claudia coached opposite one another on The Ultimate Fighter Season 23. Throughout the season Joanna antagonized Claudia, who attempted to turn the other cheek for the most part. Things became heated, however, when Joanna continued to escalate her taunting.

Dude. You can’t say that.

Joanna came off as a bully, some went even further to discuss the racist connotations of her trash talk. Joanna’s charisma had led her to darling status among many fans, but opinion was at an all-time low after the season concluded. All the momentum was held by Claudia Gadelha.

That momentum seemed to carry into the fight, as Gadelha began the bout on fire, a woman possessed.

REVENGE!!!!!!

Storming out of the gates, Claudia pressured the champion and sat her on her butt with a lancing jab. She was picking up where she left off in their first bout, entering striking exchanges on her own terms and securing takedowns as needed.

Joanna is a fighter who relies on building momentum, gradually picking up the pace of her beautiful striking attack. Claudia’s gameplan was to suffocate the champion, to control every moment of the fight. When Claudia’s boxing became less effective, she forced clinch situations to strike off the break and set up takedown entries.

*Almost* hitting that throw was probably Joanna’s best moment in that round.

As in many Claudia Gadelha fights, the third round is where the complexion began to change. Clearly winded, Gadelha continued to enforce her will, albeit with longer breaks in between charges. For long stretches, Joanna had room to strike and break down the already fatigued challenger. Still surrendering takedowns, the champion found escape a much more accessible option this time around.

Here’s the thing. When Claudia is tired, she does less. But when she DOES do things, it’s still fantastic. She’s still boxing her up, completely exhausted!

The crazy thing about Claudia Gadelha is that no matter what, her offense is effective. She is an absolute workhorse, while her volume may decrease, her skills and tenacity will continue to shine. At the end of a grueling third round, she was still taking Joanna off her feet, even dropping her with a short elbow.

The fourth round was a disaster. Perhaps it was part of the gameplan, but Claudia barely moved, completely allowing Joanna to strike at will. Her defense held up for the most part, but it was one-sided. It appeared the break had some benefits, as Gadelha was able to generate meaningful offense in the fifth and final round.

Absolutely nothing left in the tank, still going after her. Bless your heart.

There is a strong argument for Claudia Gadelha winning the first two rounds, and a solid case for the third round. However, the best she could hope for was a draw. The championship rounds were a blowout in favor of Joanna.

The fact remained that Gadelha followed a gameplan that was guaranteed to lead to complete fatigue, and she pursued it admirably. It was a fantastic effort, but many fans will not tolerate a fighter who gasses out. It is an uneducated position, but a clearly observable phenomenon.

Recover and Rebuild

Claudia looked to rebound in her native Brazil against Cortney Casey. A former Division 1 soccer player, Casey’s elite athleticism translated into a solid UFC career. After two “Fight of the Night” losses to start her tenure, Casey hit her stride, capping a two-fight streak with a dominant submission victory over the talented Randa Markos.

Casey is a decent enough striker, but her scrambling and submission game stand out. Cortney Casey may well have the best up-kicks in all of MMA.

The length and height of Casey made it difficult for Gadelha to outfight as she normally does to begin each fight. It was much easier to wait on the attacks of Casey, countering for huge takedown entries.

“I saw Joanna fail to hit that throw, just knew I had to go for it. Looked fun, ya know?”

The second round was defined by the pressure of Gadelha. She entered the clinch frequently off Casey’s offense and her own leaping boxing combinations. As we had seen in the past, Claudia’s wrestling and striking offense are at their best entering and exiting the clinch.

How many ranked strawweights do you need to watch Claudia dominate before accepting she’s a transcendent talent?

There was a touch of controversy in the final round. After a high-amplitude takedown, Claudia threw a hopping kick at the head of a grounded Cortney Casey. Perhaps she thought Casey was about to return to her feet and the kick would land to the body. It should be the case that intention is not important, and that an attempted foul is a foul.

As a man, I cannot tell you what kind of damage a kick to the bun does. I would hypothesize it’s not a meaningful place to get hit.

The kick missed, that much was clear in the replay. The Brazilian commission ruled it was an accidental foul, and no point was taken. That was not the correct call.

Otherwise, it was a dominant showing for Gadelha. Most importantly, Claudia kept a high pace through three rounds against a strong, well-conditioned athlete. It did little to silence her doubters, but the evidence is there.

Light Work

Claudia was back to her winning ways. While many including Gadelha would argue she was one-and-one with the champion, a number one contender bout was not unreasonable.

Claudia was matched up with a former title challenger and absolute babe in Poland’s Karolina Kowalkiewicz. Fighting for KSW and Invicta, Karolina entered the UFC an impressive 7-0. A 3-0 UFC run capped off by a hard-fought victory over Rose Namajunas warranted a shot at the title. Karolina dropped a decision, but had Joanna badly hurt late in the fight.

Karolina is an exceptionally well-rounded fighter, there is no clear path to victory for any opponent. She’s a competent and dangerous striker, an adept clinch striker, and a very talented grappler in spurts. On top of all this, she’s downright charming.

That lean. That smile. Not as cute when I do it, I’ll tell you that.

The fight was wrought with tension. Claudia was hesitant to openly engage with the longer striker, Karolina knew that if she became aggressive, it would open up takedown opportunities. As we’ve seen time and time again, Claudia is able to force the positions she wants and take control of the fight.

After securing a beautiful trip takedown, Claudia capitalized on Karolina’s eager attempts to get up. Giving a world champion black belt your back is inadvisable.

“She’s clearly fishing for a choke, I better use one of my arms to throw elbows instead of fighting hands.”

It was Claudia’s first UFC finish, and her first “Performance of the Night” award. Gadelha had completely run through one of the division’s top contenders.

LAST FIGHT: Def. by Jessica Andrade via Unanimous Decision

Known fondly in some circles as “Wandrade,” Jessica Andrade is a throwback to the windmilling Brazilian brawlers of old. Comparisons to bantamweight John Lineker don’t quite do her justice, however. Andrade has freakish mutant strength which she uses to ragdoll opponents off snatch single legs.

Andrade’s horrifying 3-0 run at strawweight was cut short by the outfighting matador Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Joanna was the only one of Andrade’s strawweight opponents who was able to keep the brawling powerhouse at distance, picking her apart over five rounds.

Claudia Gadelha certainly had the skillset to pull off a similar performance, which she demonstrated clearly early in the first round. In a surprise to many, Gadelha showed off brilliant boxing, throwing in combination against an advancing Andrade.

Some of these fools were unaware Claudia got them HANDS. As an aside, I’m very intrigued if that style of head movement has ever worked for Andrade.

However, to say Claudia was inefficient with her energy is an understatement. Although Andrade was there to be hit, relentlessly power punching an iron-chinned maniac is a recipe for disaster. Gadelha backed off, allowing Andrade to begin her soul-breaking onslaught.

To counter an Andrade slam attempt, Claudia sold out on a guillotine, falling a bit short when attempting to pull guard.

Did you know, Jessica Andrade says she NEVER LIFTS WEIGHTS? That’s ridiculous. She’s either lying, or growing up on a farm is the best base for MMA.

There’s no doubt Claudia’s conditioning has improved, but she cannot afford to use her energy in this way. Especially against a relentless, tireless fighter like Andrade.

Many are aware of what happened throughout the bout from there on. Andrade continued to throw Claudia through the air, landing horrific ground and pound to the head and body. But Claudia still had her moments of solid offense.

She proved Andrade can be hurt. That’s a win in my book.

The outfighting and counters were still there. In the face of exhaustion, Claudia still finds success. In the closing moments of the second round, Andrade dropped for another snatch single, looking to slam Gadelha once more. This time, Claudia was able to lock up her guard.

Claudia you savage. This is in the midst of a pretty serious ass-beating.

Some may argue the choke wasn’t deep, but you see Andrade adjusting her posture after Claudia adjusts and begins to lean back and use the leverage from her guard. Say what you will, but Claudia can handle adversity.

After her title loss, Gadelha moved her training camp to New Mexico, utilizing a mix of her own coaches and the staff at the famed Jackson-Winkeljohn gym. This did not sit well with Andrade, who declared Gadelha was no longer Brazilian.

There was a lot of heat leading into the bout, but it appeared Claudia had earned Andrade’s respect by the third round.

Sportsmanship!

It was an ugly loss, but there are plenty of positives to take away from Claudia’s performance.

NEXT FIGHT: vs. Carla Esparza at UFC 225

This match has been a long time coming. After the first two bouts were canceled, Esparza made claims that Claudia was running from her. There are hard feelings on both sides.

After the loss to Andrade, Gadelha made some changes to her training. Claudia is now based in Las Vegas, primarily operating out of the UFC Performance Institute. She still works with many of her coaches and teammates from Albuquerque, with the addition of many of the UFC’s top athletes.

As far as the matchup is concerned, there are some aspects of Esparza’s game to watch out for. A credentialed wrestler, Esparza keeps a consistent pace, attacking a high number of shots throughout each fight.

If Claudia wants to keep it standing, she would certainly outstrike and damage Esparza. If she wants to play on top, the tools are there to pursue that gameplan.

In a grudge match of sorts, it will be interesting to see what adjustments Claudia has made, and how she approaches the match.

On a stacked card, you can watch Claudia Gadelha vs. Carla Esparza as the co-main event of the Fox Sports 1 preliminary card. You can expect that bout to take place around 9 PM Eastern. War Claudia.

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