Prior to UFC Fight Night 117, Claudia Gadelha was the consensus best strawweight in the UFC not named Joanna.
She was 15-2, with her only losses coming against the champion. She holds the distinction of being the only woman to have a close fight with Joanna Jedrzejczyk, losing a split decision against her in a three-round bout prior to her title reign. Any doubts about her quality of opposition were erased when, in her most recent bout, she submitted the #2 ranked Karolina Kowalkiewicz in the first round. Jessica Andrade was tough and hard hitting, but Gadelha was supposed to outsmart and outwork her for a decision win.
Instead, Jessica Andrade has emerged as the most dangerous challenger for the strawweight title to date.
A surprising edge
Andrade may have been physically stronger, but Gadelha had the ground advantage on paper; her pedigree ran deeper while Andrade had been submitted twice in the UFC already. Many people figured that if Gadelha was put on her back, she could threaten with submissions or work her way up. If she got the top game, she could take an entire round.
Well, all of that was true . . . for Andrade.
After landing crisp counters and opening up a cut on Andrade’s hairline, Gadelha countered a takedown by grabbing the guillotine and attempting to wrench her opponent’s neck. I say “attempting” because Andrade countered this by grabbing Gadelha’s leg, lifting her over her head and slamming her into the canvas.
To her credit, Gadelha didn't stop to wonder how Daniel Cormier got into his Jessica Andrade costume and instead popped right back up. But she ended up on the bottom again and would stay there for the rest of the round. Her feeble submission attempts were shaken off as Andrade alternated between brutal head and body shots. Andrade was the bloodied fighter, but it was clear that she held a grappling advantage that few had suspected.
It would be the story of the whole fight: Gadelha's takedown attempts being stuffed while Andrade's would allow her to do massive, fight changing damage.
Shades of Lineker
The striking was supposed to be fairly even, with Gadelha holding the edge in speed and technique while Andrade had the heavier hands and sturdier chin. And for the first round, that looked to be the case; Gadelha was hitting Andrade with crisp counters and eating the occasional heavy punch in return. But by the second round, the momentum rested squarely with Andrade.
Gadelha's counters were far and few between and seemed to annoy Andrade more than they hurt her. In turn, Gadelha was repeatedly walked down to the fence and eating massive shots to the head and body. To her credit she showed incredible resilience, refusing to be knocked down even once. But she was reeling and stumbling after nearly every exchange while the only time Andrade looked unsteady was if she put too much weight behind her punch and lost balance.
The commentary team made an excellent observation, noting that Andrade was looking like John Lineker.
Fan-friendly as they come, Lineker is often regarded as "sloppy" by casual fans because wings wide punches to the head and body and, inexplicably, wins most of his fights. But there is a method to his madness, and it helped him become one of the best brawlers in the UFC.
Because he stands only 5' 3" with a fairly short reach, Lineker uses these traits to his advantage. His shorter limbs reach their top speed faster and can be thrown in quick succession. When he crouches low, his shoulders automatically guard his jaw as he throws upwards at taller opponents. In turn, his opponents have to open up their defense to throw down at him. So what he'll do is get his opponents to the fence where they can't retreat, move inside their effective range and start throwing a salvo of power shots.
If his opponents try to cover, he'll alternate between the body and head so he's guaranteed to do damage. If his opponents try to trade, their guard is compromised and they're often staggered by the extremely hard hitting Lineker. The number and caliber of fighters who have fallen victim to this simple pressure-fighting strategy is staggering.
Andrade didn't crouch as low nor did she carry as much power, but the strategy was the same; get Gadelha to the fence and start throwing shots where the risk of the counter was low. In the event Gadelha did throw a counter off the fence, it was relatively ineffective and she was often rewarded with a thudding overhand punch for her troubles.
But Andrade combined this with great wrestling and punishing body shots in the clinch, making her game far more well-rounded than Lineker's ever will be.
The most dangerous challenger
It's amazing how far Andrade has come in just one fight.
Against Joanna, she kept hunting for takedowns that weren't there and, in desperation, lunging forward with her punches. The fact was that Andrade's berserk aggression was counter fodder for the consensus #1 WMMA fighter in the world.
And yet against Gadelha, Andrade's aggression was molded and shaped into something deadly.
Rather than running through the counters, Andrade would eat them and just keep up her pressure. Rather than chasing takedowns, Andrade would wait for the right opportunity when Gadelha was too worried about her punching power and then lift her. It's no wonder that Gadelha was sucking wind by the middle of the second round; having to repeatedly fight off a stronger opponent while scurrying around the ring wears your legs down. It's the reason why Canelo Alvarez was visibly tiring against Gennady Golovkin despite avoiding most of the power shots and how legendary boxers like Roberto Duran and Julio Cesar Chavez carved out their legacies.
There is room for improvement of course. Andrade could tuck her chin better during her flurries against the fence and she was caught reaching with her left hook a couple times. But other than that, Andrade truly is a different fighter now.
So can she overcome Joanna?
The champion is a different beast than Gadelha. She's far larger, longer, and her strikes are wicked quick. Andrade will have to deal with intercepting knees to the guts and elbows off the turn along with chopping leg kicks and front kicks. Her cardio is also exceptional; she tired out Gadelha by stuffing takedown after takedown. Andrade will still be an underdog, obviously.
But what if she fights like she did this weekend? What if she shuffles forward and cuts off the ring, allowing Joanna's punches and kicks to glance off her rather than eating them clean until she can get her against the fence? What if she gets inside Joanna's long strikes but stays far enough away to avoid elbows and knees and starts throwing leg kicks and body punches? She still may lose, but there's no doubt she'd make one hell of a fight out of it.
Rose Namajunas has the next crack at the champion, but Andrade head and shoulders above the rest of the field.
And maybe, just maybe, she can take the belt.
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