At a time when many fighters are moving up in weight to try to sort out their struggling careers, the UFC’s newest women’s strawweight contender has made waves by doing things the old-fashioned way. Jessica Andrade has dropped down a couple of weight classes in order to find success.
After spending the first three years of her Octagon career at 135 pounds and producing a rather pedestrian 4-3 record, Andrade needed something to get her career pointed back in the right direction. After Andrade lost to Raquel Pennington, a decent fighter but not one who is viewed as a possible title contender, it was obvious the 24-year-old Brazilian was struggling far worse than her talent suggested she should be.
When matched up against opponents against whom she could use her length and size to her advantage, Andrade sometimes looked like she could become a legitimate threat for the Ronda Rouseys and Miesha Tates of the women’s bantamweight division. However, when she was fighting a woman that could outmuscle her on the mat or keep her at a distance on the feet, she looked lost.
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a change in weight might pay huge dividends for the Brazilian. The real question was actually whether Andrade would be able to pull off losing 20 pounds more — the UFC’s lack of a flyweight division for the women left Andrade with the daunting task of dropping down not just one weight class, but two — than she was accustomed to cutting for her fights at bantamweight.
Andrade took a six-month break after her loss to Pennington and then she came back at her new weight of 115 pounds. Andrade has since gone from a middle-of-the-pack bantamweight fighter with some untapped potential to a holy-shit-this-girl-might-be-the-future type of contender at strawweight.
The Brazilian made her strawweight debut against Jessica Penne, a former title challenger who was fighting for the first time since a championship loss to Joanna Jędrzejczyk a year prior. It was clear almost from the opening bell that Andrade was going to be a completely different animal in her new division. Andrade was all over her much smaller opponent, closing the distance and unleashing brutal hooks to the head and body. Penne, who’s a former Invicta atomweight champion, was completely outgunned and actually ended up getting hurt right at the bell before coming out of her corner looking flustered to start the second round. After that, it was elementary for Andrade. She continued to pour on the punches and eventually backed her opponent against the cage and started to tee off until the referee was forced to jump in. It was as impressive a performance as we’d seen from the Brazilian, and the fact that it came against a former title challenger in a new weight class was enough to open up some eyes.
As good as Andrade looked against Penne, there was plenty of reason to be skeptical of how much better she would be at 115 pounds once she fought someone closer to her own size. That’s exactly what the UFC gave her in her last outing at last weekend’s UFC 203 card, where Andrade put a hurting on Joanne Calderwood, a pretty damn good fighter, to open up the main card. Calderwood might not be quite as big as Andrade, but she’s a decently sized strawweight who even fought in a randomly made 125-pound fight in her last outing before squaring off against Andrade. That ended up meaning nothing, as “JoJo” looked just as overwhelmed by the new and improved “Bate Estaca” as Penne did. Calderwood was taken down almost immediately and was worked over with ease before succumbing to a first-round submission.
Penne’s strength is her grappling, but Andrade completely negated it by putting the pressure on the smaller fighter and leaving her to defend instead of looking for takedowns. Calderwood’s striking is amongst the best in the division, but Andrade took the fight down in seconds before mounting a flurry of offense and grabbing a rear-naked choke. Not only is Andrade fighting smart, but she’s showing versatility in her game. She fights to the weaknesses of her opponents, and this could prove to be her key if she ends up in a title fight.
Suddenly, Andrade is 2-0 in her new division with a pair of wins over a couple of really highly regarded fighters at 115 pounds. The former bantamweight gatekeeper looks like a strawweight contender. With Jędrzejczyk currently running through the division like a hot knife through butter, a title shot could be just a win away. Following her victory over Calderwood, Andrade is now ranked fifth in the UFC’s women’s strawweight rankings.
That ranking doesn’t even really justify how close she is to title contention, either. Top-ranked Claudia Gadelha just lost her second fight with Jędrzejczyk and has at least a two- or three-fight path back to the top. Rose Namajunas, who sits at No. 4 in the UFC’s rankings, just suffered a loss in her last outing as well. That leaves just two women — Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Carla Esparza — between Andrade and a title fight. Since Esparza was the one who lost the belt to “Joanna Champion,” common sense says the next fight goes to Kowalkiewicz, Jędrzejczyk’s fellow countrywoman. This leaves Esparza as the obvious next test for Andrade, with the winner set to be next in line for a shot at the crown.
It’s impossible to truly gauge what level a strawweight is on at the moment without seeing them fight either Jędrzejczyk or Gadelha. These two women seem to be a good notch above the rest. However, Andrade, based on her last two performances, is gaining ground quickly. It’s easy to place her as at least a possible threat to Jędrzejczyk’s strap.
Andrade’s added size would be a huge asset toward getting an aggressive striker like Jędrzejczyk to the floor. The Brazilian’s submission game is by far the strongest part of her game, which makes her possibly the most dangerous opponent the champion could fight at this point. Gadelha, before running out of gas in her fight with Jędrzejczyk earlier this year, proved that the champ can be beaten with pressure. Andrade is certainly capable of delivering that type of pressure.
It’s not quite time to start calling for an Andrade title fight. However, if the Brazilian can make it three straight and take out someone like Esparza, then we’re talking about a real title threat. Andrade may not have looked like much as a bantamweight, but she’s becoming a monster of an opponent for any strawweight brave enough to step into the cage with her.