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Brazilian fighter finds an MMA home in Albuquerque

She’ll always be a potiguar. There’s a lot of carioca in there, too.

But now, even as MMA fighter Claudia Gadelha comes home to Brazil for her fight against Poland’s Karolina Kowalkiewicz on Saturday, she’s planning to become una burqueña.

Perhaps she already is.

Gadelha, 28, first came to Albuquerque late last summer. After her second loss to UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, she left her longtime Rio de Janeiro training base with the powerful Nova União team and headed north.

“I trained my whole life in the same camp in Brazil, and I felt like I needed to move,” Gadelha said in an interview last week at Albuquerque’s Luttrell-Yee MMA. “I needed to get better as a person and as a professional athlete. But you can’t get any better if you keep doing the same thing.”

She trains principally with Chris Luttrell and Ray Yee at their gym in northeast Albuquerque, but spends time at Jackson-Wink MMA as well, sparring with, among others, former UFC bantamweight champion Holly Holm. Gadelha’s personal boxing coach, New Jersey resident Don Cioffi, has come in for the training camp.

After Saturday’s fight, Gadelha plans to spend the month of June in Brazil. Then, she said, it’s back to ‘Burque — full time.

That decision was made at the urging of Luttrell.

“I think it needed to happen,” Luttrell said, “because the current (115-pound) champion is Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and she’s amazing. I’m like ‘Claudia, we need to catch her. It’s tough just having you come in for every camp. I need you here full time because we’ve got to catch up to her.’ And every girl in that division, to be honest, is tough as heck.”

As professional athletes go, they don’t get much tougher than Gadelha — a 115-pound package of power, skill and athleticism.

As a teenager, she’d left her hometown of Mossoró in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Norte — a native of that state is forever a potiguar — and began training in Brazilian jiujitsu at Nova União in Rio. She’s a seven-time Brazilian champion and a three-time world champion in that discipline.

She made her MMA debut in 2008. In 2014, unbeaten through 11 fights, she defeated Tina Lahdemaki in the first-ever 115-pound women’s UFC fight. She enters Saturday’s fight with a 14-2 record, the only losses to Jedrzejczyk.

Even before the second Jedrzejczyk fight, Gadelha had planned to come to Albuquerque to train with Luttrell. A mutual friend had put them in touch, and they’d communicated electronically. But commitments to her role as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter 23, filmed in Las Vegas, Nev., kept her away until after the fight.

At Luttrell-Yee, Gadelha has been able to get the intensive individual coaching she believed was lacking at Nova União, which has produced UFC champions like Renan Barão, Jose Aldo (who’s fighting American Max Holloway in Saturday’s main event), Junior Dos Santos and many top contenders.

“I’m glad I got to meet Chris Luttrell and coach Ray,” she said, “because that was what I needed now in my career. I need coaches that give me a lot of attention and care about me and plan for my fights and take care of me as a pro athlete.”

Luttrell, a three-time state wrestling champion at Manzano in the early 1980s, is one of the founding fathers of MMA in Albuquerque. Yee brings an extensive background in Muay Thai and other kickboxing disciplines.

By design, Yee said, he and Luttrell have kept their clientele small enough that they’re able to devote extended time to each individual.

“We’re not the mega-facility that has 60 different fighters that are all trying to do the same thing,” Yee said. “We’re able to really focus on our fighters and our clients.”

Luttrell had seen Gadelha fight before he was approached about coaching her and knew how talented she was. But, when she arrived in Albuquerque, he was surprised at some of the things she didn’t know.

“A lot of this stuff is like basic MMA, and we just assumed (she knew),” he said. “She’ll tell me, ‘Coach, I’ve never seen any of that.’ We can go through maneuver after technique after maneuver, just one after another after another, and she’s like, ‘I’ve never known that.'”

Of their contribution, Yee said, “It’s really enhancing what she brings to the table. She’s obviously one of the best fighters on the planet. … With this sport, you have to evolve constantly, and I think that’s what coach Luttrell and I bring to the table, that we’re constantly evolving as well.”

Gadelha has proved to be a fast learner. In her first fight since she came to Luttrell-Yee, in November, she was dominant throughout in defeating Cortney Casey by unanimous decision. All three judges scored all three rounds for the Brazilian.

Does she miss her native country, her family and friends? Of course.

“I’m very attached to Brazil,” she said. “… I’m from the Northeast, close to the Amazon. That’s where my family lives. But for the past 10 years I’ve lived in Rio. I have a lot of friends there and I have a lot of feelings for the city.”

Gadelha, though, is a sophisticated young woman who adapts easily to change. Her nearly impeccable English is self-taught. She studied law in Brazil with plans for a career in law enforcement. She’s a businesswoman, with her own fitness/martial arts academy in Randolph, N.J. She has endorsement deals with Apollon, a New Jersey dietary supplement company, and Bomberg, a Swiss watchmaker.

Besides, she said, she enjoys the safety and security she feels while in the U.S.

The current American political turmoil is small batatas compared to that of Brazil, where the current president is under investigation for corruption, his predecessor was impeached and convicted, and her predecessor is under investigation for corruption.

“I like the American way,” Gadelha said. “More organized. It can be more professional. Brazil has a cultural problem with the government. We’re going through a lot of bad things now, and I kind of like the way things work out here.

“I feel safe. I can do anything I want and I can have anything I want, and in Brazil everything is so hard.”

Talk about hard: TUF 23, where she and Jedrzejczyk — never friends — became rival coaches, bitter adversaries and exchanged hateful rhetoric leading up to their second fight.

That, Luttrell and Yee said, is not the “Claudinha” they’ve come to know.

“I think (Luttrell) and I both look at her almost like an adopted daughter,” Yee said. “It’s an absolute joy to have her in our gym.”

Her trash talk with Jedrzejczyk has not been the norm during Gadelha’s career. The most unkind she’ll say about Kowalkiewicz is this: “I’m not very impressed with Karolina’s game. But she’s very tough, don’t get me wrong. She’s the type of fighter that doesn’t quit. But the technique is just not very solid.

“I’m very confident with everything that I know, and I’m sure that with everything she’s bringing to the table, I’ll be ahead.”

Though she remains the UFC’s No. 1 strawweight challenger, Gadelha isn’t in line for another title shot in the near future because she has lost to Jedrzejczyk twice — unless Jedrzejczyk should lose in the interim, which is considered unlikely.

Yet, Gadelha said she’s not interested in a move up to 125 pounds, a women’s division the UFC is planning to launch soon.

The plan, Gadelha said, is to win Saturday in front of her carioca fans and her potiguar family and friends, then take her career as it comes.

“I’m in a transition in my life and I’m learning new things,” she said. “I’m still adjusting to the new camp and the new game.”

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