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Brazilian UFC 'pioneer' Gadelha drawing inspiration from Zhang-Joanna epic as she aims to restore herself as strawweight threat

Brazilian UFC 'pioneer' Gadelha drawing inspiration from Zhang-Joanna epic as she aims to restore herself as strawweight threat
Former strawweight title contender Claudia Gadelha meets unranked Angela Hill on Saturday as the Brazilian strives to build momentum towards another tilt at UFC gold after what has been a frustrating period of inactivity.

Number six-ranked Gadelha finally finds herself on the verge of a return after a disruptive run of cancelations which have added up to almost a year outside the octagon. 

Gadelha, 31, has not seen action since July when she defeated Randa Markos via unanimous decision in a lackluster encounter at UFC 239, part of an up-and-down sequence for the Brazilian contender who is 2-2 in her last four outings.

In recent months, Gadelha has been forced out of a fight with Cynthia Calvillo due to injury back in December, before a bout against Alexa Grasso at UFC 246 in January was also scuppered when Grasso missed weight by a whopping 4.5lbs.

Compounding Gadelha's frustrations, a scheduled match-up with Marina Rodriguez on May 2 in Oklahoma City was also scrapped when the entire card fell victim to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Weight-cut permitting, that enforced exile will finally change on Saturday night in Jacksonville, Florida, when 'Claudinha' throws down with American underdog Hill in the co-main event at UFC on ESPN+. 

"It was tough to have a fight camp during this quarantine, but we made it happen, I'm ready for Saturday night," Gadelha said this week.

"I've been in the top for so long, I had a lot of big transitions in the last few years, a lot of things going on in my life, that's where my losses came from.

"I feel like most of my losses were from things that were going on around me. Now I feel like I have the right training, the right mindset to get back to the top.

"I'm a pioneer for the sport, I feel like I've been doing this for so long that I feel like I deserve another chance for the title."

Gadelha's pioneer status stems from her long-time association with the UFC, having arrived in the organization with an unblemished 11-0 record as a BJJ specialist from the fabled Nova Uniao academy.

She was part of history when she faced Finland's Tina Lahdemaki on her UFC bow in July of 2014, in what was the promotion's first ever women's strawweight bout.

A decision victory there set up a meeting with Poland's Joanna Jedrzejczyk later that year, which Gadelha lost via controversial split decision in a fight many felt she did enough to win, and which heralded the start of an increasingly bitter feud between the two.  

Gadelha would fail to avenge that defeat, suffering a unanimous decision loss in a title bout against the Pole in 2016, in what was by then a very personal acrimony after insults were traded when the two headed up rival teams on 'The Ultimate Fighter' show.


Losses to future 115lbs ruler Jessica Andrade and Nina Ansaroff followed, as Gadelha struggled to gain momentum for another crack at a title which is now held by China's Zhang Weili, and which she retained with victory against Jedrzejczyk in March of this year. 

Gadelha will be well aware that victory against 'Overkill' Hill - a 35-year-old veteran with a 12-7 record, but who boasts a three-fight win streak heading into Saturday - will not propel her immediately up the rankings, but it could at least be the start of restored momentum, not least by setting up a potential re-run with former strawweight champ Carla Esparza, whom Gadelha saw off via split decision two years ago. 

After Esparza, 32, took out Michelle Waterson at UFC 249 in Jacksonville last weekend, she targeted her erstwhile rival, saying: “I’d been calling Claudia Gadelha out a while ago for a rematch, and I heard she recently called me out.

"I think that’s a fight we both want, and I’d love for that to happen sometime soon.” 

While she will not take Hill lightly, Gadelha will know that a future showdown against the number-seven ranked Esparza would be more likely to give her the impetus she needs for the higher-stakes fight nights that accompanied her early UFC tenure.

Gadelha herself admitted that the example served up by Zhang and Joanna in their epic showed just how high fighters will need to climb to come anywhere near the pinnacle of the strawweight ranks again, but said it had been "inspiring" for her.

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"Everybody in the division is watching this [Zhang versus Joanna], going back into the gym afterwards, hungry," she said.  

"Everybody else will try to step up and do the same, that's what separates the top of the division to the rest of the division." 

For now though, Gadelha has remained a picture of poise for what will be another behind-closed-doors event at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on Saturday, even quoting the Dalai Lama to her Instagram followers.

"When you talk you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen you may learn something new," she wrote. 

"Be open minded. Be realistic. Live in the present. Be you, my friends!!"

For Gadelha, that 'present' will soon be a long-awaited return to the UFC octagon.