By Tony Reid
*** This feature originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Fighters Only ***
Leading strawweight contender Claudia Gadelha was on the verge of superstardom after her first two rounds against Joanna Jedrzejczyk in July. Following a heated coaching stint on the 23rd season of The Ultimate Fighter opposite her bitter rival, the Brazilian stormed into an early lead and was on target to take the title.
Three rounds later, however, the champion had battled back and ‘Claudinha’ has missed her chance. Now she has to climb back toward the mountain top. It won’t be easy, but nothing has been in her MMA career so far.
Originally from the northern state of Rio Grande do Norte, she moved to Rio de Janeiro to spend a decade training at Nova Uniao with current UFC interim featherweight champion José Aldo, former bantamweight champion Renan Barao and many others. She became the youngest black belt in the gym’s history. Gadelha shared life-changing moments with the team and admits it was a struggle to make the decision to train without much money, but she had to put her own career and future first, she says.
“In the beginning of my career I had José Aldo, Jussier Formiga, and Renan Barao make it,” recalls Gadelha, who got back in the win column in November with a one-sided beatdown of newcomer Cortney Casey. “We had hard times together. We used to live in another city and we travelled to Rio de Janeiro to Nova Uniao to train there. We didn’t have anything. We used to live in a little apartment. We used to sleep on a mat that we got from friends.
“We walked 45 minutes to get home every day. Half of that was walking up stairs because we used to live in the favelas. Today we look at each other and we say, ‘We made it!’ When I was filming the last weeks of The Ultimate Fighter we went out one night and it was like, ‘Oh my God. Look what we did. Look where we were. Look where we are now.’ It was very sensitive to even talk about that now.”
“We used to sleep all weekend because we didn’t have food to eat. We would sleep as long and late as we could because we didn’t want to be awake feeling hungry. Things like that make all the difference. It’s different when someone has a good life and wants to be a fighter from someone who has nothing in life who never had anything in life and fights to survive.
“That’s way different. That’s why we all made it. I am very happy where I am now and I’m very happy to see those guys do good. We are family. I love them.”
Despite those struggles, Gadelha was in one of the world’s best training environments. It helped her to become one of the world’s best female fighters. Her only defeats are to the pound-for-pound number one in the world. The result of their first encounter is still disputed and the second was one of 2016’s greatest. It means she still holds her head high.
“I am proud of every fight. Each fight was a little step to get to where I am now” Gadelha tells FO, but she adds her appetite will not be satisfied unless she’s in the ‘W’ column. “The flavour of the victory is so good. I am always fighting for that. I want to taste that flavour all the time.”
Gadelha’s formative years in the sport also mean she carries a chip on her shoulder. She isn’t shy about voicing her opinion about those who had an easier road than she did who still choose to fight.
“Good for them,” Gadelha says. “They had the opportunity. We had to find opportunity. We made it happen. When I get inside the Octagon with someone who I know didn’t go through what I did I say, ‘Motherf**ker, I will kill you right now. You will never go through what I did.’
“When you get into the Octagon with anyone, you look back, you see all that you had been through to get there. You fight for your life. You had nothing. Now you have everything. Why are you going to let this person ruin it for you? That’s food on my plate.”
Experiences of poverty have also driven Gadelha to seek a strategy to survive once she has finished fighting She studied law at university and has considered another taxing career once she’s finished pursuing the 115lb title.
“In Brazil, I wanted to be a federal police officer. To be a federal police officer you had to go through law school. I had an uncle who was a federal officer. I grew up looking up to him. I wanted to be badass like him.
“That’s something I might do in my life yet. My career is going very well but your career is short. I finished law school so maybe when I retire I will be a federal police officer.”
And if that doesn’t work out, there’s always America. Gadelha still calls Brazil home, but has opened a signature gym to fall back on in the States – Claudia Gadelha’s MMA and BJJ Academy, in Randolph, New Jersey. She’s also swapped South America for North for her training camp at Luttrell’s MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which is conveniently just a few minutes away from more fighting knowledge at martial arts mecca, Jackson-Wink MMA.
Now in new surroundings, she’s all set up for a new assault on the title. It’s going to be tough, but Claudia Gadelha has beaten greater odds before.