After a heartbreaking split-decision loss in her sequel with Rose Namajunas at UFC 251, it might be tempting for the layman to assume Jessica Andrade’s debut at flyweight this Saturday at UFC Fight Night: Ortega vs Korean Zombie somehow signals that she has given up on recapturing the strawweight gold. Andrade is here to assure you that’s not the case.
“My coach and I talked about this,” the Brazilian explains via translator. “I think we always wanted me to fight in several different categories. Fighting at 125 pounds was something I wanted when I became a champion at 115 pounds, but I didn't have the opportunity. This time I said we should ask for a fight at 125. I wanted to make history, to be one of the first female fighters to fight in three different categories. It worked, the UFC accepted it, and maybe I will be able to compete for the 125 belt. It's something I've been looking forward to for a long time.”
And, of course, having an extra ten pounds to work with never hurts, particularly during fight week.
“I had a little more difficulty to make weight the last time. In the end, I weighed in below the limit because I was stubborn,” she laughs.
It’s worth remembering that Andrade came into the UFC at bantamweight, putting together a respectable seven-fight run before doing the unthinkable and dropping to strawweight. While it’s commonplace for fighters to move up a weight class as they age, Andrade’s gamble at fighting 20 pounds lighter paid off with one of the most successful streaks the division has seen, culminating in championship gold in her first meeting with Namajunas at UFC 237.
Flyweight didn’t exist back when she made her move to strawweight, and at 125 pounds, she feels she’s found a happy medium, despite the significant changes in how she prepares.
“Physical training has changed a lot,” she says, describing the months since her first appearance on Fight Island. “I did more heavy load training to get stronger. It is a weight class in which the girls are taller, have a larger wingspan, so I have to be better to compensate for my height. The weight is much easier, I can eat well, add carbohydrates. The PI people praised me, so I'm very happy. It had been a long time since I'd been happy like that in a fight week. At 115 I was very worried about hitting the weight, and not now. It makes a lot of difference.”
It’s interesting to hear Andrade talk about getting stronger when punching power has been her bread and butter all along. Opponents have been startled by the blows Andrade has dished out, and she sits atop the strawweight record book for most knockouts as a result. Combined with her blinding speed, she’s been consistently able to compensate for being a misleadingly slight 5 ft 1 ½ in.
It’s redundant to ask how she prepares for opponents taller than her when essentially everyone she’s ever faced has had that advantage. But in her first attempt at flyweight, she’s drawn Katlyn Chookagian, a fighter eight inches taller with a six-inch reach advantage. Andrade just smiles.
“The taller they are, the greater the fall. I really like to grab people and throw them up in the air, and once you're up there, there's no way to defend yourself. There is no defense to floating in the air. The key is to close the distance, don’t get hit, find the right moment to grab her and put her down.”
Don’t get hit. Sage advice, but easier said than done, particularly against the No. 1 contender in the division.
“Katlyn is a big fighter, so I can't give her space. From what I’ve been told and from what I’ve watched, she doesn’t pack a lot of punch, but she scores a lot of points and she kicks well. She has good submissions, so I have to be very careful when going to the ground and working the ground-and-pound, to make sure she won’t finish me or try to kick my head - because she doesn’t even have to lift her leg too much for that.”
A win vs “Blonde Fighter” would insert her right in the thick of things at 125 pounds, and the next question is an obvious one.
“What if I beat Valentina? I have that in my mind. If that happens, there could be a fight against Zhang Weili, if I am the champion. I am willing to fight in all weight classes. If the UFC wants me to fight Amanda (Nunes), I will too.” She’s laughing, but there’s a glint in her eye that tells you she’s not kidding. And don’t rule out a rubber match with Rose if the stars align.
“If Rose doesn't retire, or I don’t retire by then, it would be nice. I would like it to be a five-round fight, so I could show more of what I’ve learned and I didn't use in the last fight. But for sure this fight is going to happen sometime, and I hope it will.”
Coronavirus certainly hasn’t slowed Andrade’s fighting career or dampened her ambitions for history. But when fear of the illness is finally behind us, her ambitions are sublimely benign.
“I really want to go to the movies,” she says achingly. “I miss it so much; I love watching movies. With this pandemic, I’m not able to go to the movies, I can’t go to the mall, and I like being around people. And I miss being with my family, too. I live with my in-laws, but I hardly see my mom and dad. As soon as this pandemic goes away, it would be great to get the whole family together, have a party…and go to the movies."
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