When Claudia Gadelha and Yan Xiaonan collide at UFC Fight Night 182 in Las Vegas this weekend, it is a contest which could affect the future lie of the land in the upper realms of the 115lbs ranks.
On one side of the octagon will be Gadelha, a fighter who has already tasted what it feels like to contest UFC gold, and who is determined to rebuild her chances of dining at the top table once again.
Facing her will be Yan, a Chinese contender unbeaten in a decade and who is desperate for a shot at Zhang Weili – the countrywoman who currently rules the UFC’s strawweight roost.
For the winner, the spoils and the chance for her name to be uttered ever more loudly in the 115lbs title conversation; for the loser, a slip back down the greasy strawweight pole and the prospect of a protracted scramble back up it.
This was a bout originally planned for back in September on the undercard at UFC 253 on Fight Island, but was forced back when Gadelha injured a knee in training.
The venue this weekend will be the UFC’s Apex facility, but while the location is different, the aims remain very much the same for both fighters.
Yan rolls in to the contest unbeaten in five fights since she made her UFC bow in November of 2017, last time out dominating Poland’s Karolina Kowalkiewicz in Auckland in February for a unanimous decision victory – the same result each of ‘Fury’s’ octagon outings has ended in thus far.
Outside of a no contest against Emi Fujino at Road FC in 2014, Yan’s only blemish in her 14-fight professional career remains the submission loss to Karina Hallinan at Martial Combat 10 just over a decade ago.
For Gadelha, a fan favorite now in her seventh year with the UFC and preparing for a 23rd professional MMA contest, Saturday night is the chance to continue the momentum she has built with successive wins over Randa Markos and Angela Hill, the later of those coming via an attritional split-decision victory back in May.
Both Yan and Gadelha will be looking to propel themselves closer to a shot at the belt currently around the waist of Zhang Weili, who became China’s first ever UFC champion when she stunned Jessica Andrade in Shenzhen in August 2019, and who has since defended her title in an all-time classic against Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
While Zhang is tipped to face former champion Rose Namajunas next year, and Polish slugger Jedrzejczyk is also an inevitable part of any title discussions, Yan and Gadelha will do their own prospects no harm with victory this weekend in Las Vegas.
“I am aware that if I win this fight there is the chance that I might fight Weili,” Yan told the South China Morning Post.
“That is the direction I want to go in. Of course we know each other, although we are not close friends.
“We are in different gyms but I have watched her like everyone else. I think I am faster than her so I can beat her. I think about this a lot, about how to beat her.
“Because we are both Chinese I think I know how to fight her better than everyone else, and I know how to beat her.”
Gadelha, 31, will be a formidable roadblock on that path.
‘Claudinha’ has very much been there and (almost) done that, fighting in the UFC’s first-ever women’s strawweight bout back in 2014 before suffering a failed shot at gold against then-champion Jedrzejczyk in what was a bitter rematch in 2016.
Yan knows that a victory over the battle-hardened Brazilian – currently four places above her at fourth in the women’s 115lbs rankings – would be a significant scalp to add to her resume.
“With Claudia it is all about her grappling. That’s the most dangerous thing for me to face,” Yan said of the BJJ black belt who is awaiting her on Saturday night.
“But for me I have my boxing, my hands and my footwork. They will make all the difference. They are the key elements because I think I am way faster than Claudia. I will use my feet, my pace, to beat her.”
Yan’s preparations have taken place the Team Alpha Male gym set up by UFC legend Uriah Faber in Sacramento, California, which the Chinese fighter says has provided the ideal setting as she plots Gadelha’s downfall.
“I don’t feel like I have been visiting, I feel like I belong there and Urijah has been great,” Yan told the SCMP.
“He has been working with my wrestling and giving me tips on how to fight Claudia, and I think this will help me a lot. My condition, physically and mentally, is very good. I feel as good as I have ever felt…”
“Working with Urijah has helped build the confidence I need to fight someone like Claudia, a grappler.”
Fan favorite Gadelha’s own message issued to her 934,000 followers on social media during fight week was one of humility.
“The main thing here is staying humble, growth, self worth and your why. Always remember why you do what you do, this is your super power. Super heroes are humans,” wrote the Brazilian.
Many might see such talk of “super powers” somewhat appropriate, given the current consensus among MMA fans that it will likely take a superhuman effort from the UFC women’s strawweight fold to dethrone Zhang – but either Gadelha or Yan will at least edge closer to getting a chance to try when things are done and dusted in Las Vegas on Saturday night.