Not many people give Jennifer Maia a real shot at beating Valentina Shevchenko and becoming a UFC champion at Saturday night’s UFC 255 in Las Vegas, but that’s not new to the Brazilian. Feeling overlooked her entire career, Maia vows to teach the entire world a lesson inside the octagon.
“I was the underdog in my last fight and saw several comments, especially here in Brazil, all in favor of my opponent,” said Maia, who submitted Joanne Calderwood with an armbar in under five minutes in August. “They don’t recognize me. I feel more appreciated outside than here in Brazil. I try not to care about it because I have to show my worth in the fight.”
“I have more important things to do, like training to win a fight,” Maia said. “It’s sad that they don’t recognize me, but I work hard every day to make them change their minds.”
Beating Shevchenko at UFC 255 “will not only be a huge accomplishment for me,” she said, but also “prove to these people that they don’t know my history, but they should. Maybe I have to become world champion for them to know me, and know there’s a reason why I got here.”
It was a long road from Curitiba to the top of the UFC flyweight class, and it all began in 2003.
A 15-year-old Maia loved sports, but had no idea what muay Thai and mixed martial arts were despite the popularity of the sports in her hometown. Her passion for bodybuilding led her to signing up to lift weights work out at a local gym. A few days later, however, a muay Thai class going down on the next room caught her attention.
“I feel in love with muay Thai in my second class and never stopped,” said Maia, who realized she was a very competitive person from the get go. “I loved playing soccer, but I saw that I got injured too much and therefore couldn’t train muay Thai, so I decided to quit soccer.”
Maia’s sister worked as a secretary for a local company and insisted on offering Maia a job opportunity as an intern. Maia, who at that point was already hooked by the martial arts, ignored the daily calls because “I never pictured working as a secretary, wearing a uniform inside an office.”
Maia had no idea what she would do for a living, but knew she had to be involved with sports.
“My family was always connected to sports, especially soccer, so they always pushed us towards sports,” Maia said. “But, when I told them I was going to start teaching muay Thai classes [at age 17], they were worried. They thought I would have no future in sports.
“They resisted at first, they were worried, but I told them I was happy doing that regardless of how much money I was making or how long it might take (for me to succeed), and asked them to let me do it.”
Maia wanted to follow her heart, and her parents eventually respected her wish. Coincidentally, Maia decided to walk away from muay Thai years later, to pursue a different career, for more money and recognition.
“We saw that MMA had more attention,” said Maia, who made her debut in the sport at age 21, stopping Suelen Pinheiro Ribeiro via first-round TKO a few miles away from home in Curitiba. “Maybe I wouldn’t have such a bright future in muay Thai.”
MMA would finally become a big deal in Brazil years later with the success of Anderson Silva, Jose Aldo, Junior dos Santos and Renan Barao in the UFC, but Maia wasn’t a big fan of the sport when she made the transition.
If muay Thai was as big as MMA in Brazil, Maia said, she probably would have never made the jump to the cages. In fact, the future UFC flyweight contender felt “insecure” ahead of the challenges MMA brought to the table.
“I loved muay Thai and was afraid of fighting MMA because of this mix of martial arts where you have to be complete,” said Maia, who got married to her first and only coach, Edicarlos “Monstro” Goncalves, a couple of years before her first MMA bout. “I felt comfortable when I made my debut and that love for the sport grew to a point it became another passion of mine.”
“Even though I trained jiu-jitsu for a long time already, I didn’t feel safe at first because I didn’t have much experience in tournaments,” she continued. “Fighting on the feet was my essence, I had a lot of experience in tournaments and felt comfortable. I knew that MMA involved takedowns and other stuff, so this mixture made me insecure. I became more well-rounded as time went by, perfecting in every area, and that’s when I felt more comfortable.”
With a record of 5-1-1 in the regional circuit and all of her wins coming by way of knockout or submission, Maia was offered her first shot in an international promotion. It was a quick night for her at Cage Warriors Fighting Championship in Dubai, however, when Sheila Gaff ignored Maia’s offer to touch gloves and knocked her out in just 10 seconds.
Maia admits “it was really hard to accept” that loss and doesn’t remember much from that contest. The lesson learned that night was to be alert at all times, she said.
Back to the winning column in Brazil, Maia defeated future UFC champion Jessica Andrade via decision, then again flew overseas, this time to challenge ex-Bellator queen Zoila Frausto in her Invicta FC debut in April 2013.
“I had no idea who I was about to fight, I had no idea what was going on,” Maia said. “I just went there to fight. I was happy to be fighting for Invicta, a promotion I loved watching back home, and all of a sudden I was surrounded by athletes I admired. I only realized how big that was for my career after the fight. I entered Invicta as an unknown and became known right there. That win elevated me, it made the world know me.”
Her career was far from a smooth ride, though. After losing a decision to Leslie Smith in her second Invicta FC appearance three months later, Maia went back to the Brazilian circuit to get a pair of victories under her belt before losing a controversial decision to DeAnna Bennett in her return to the United States in 2014.
“The Leslie fight, she was a tough opponent who was moving down in weight to fight me, and I would have fought for the belt with a win,” Maia said. “It was one of the best fights of the year and I was happy with my work. I was like, ‘I really lost, maybe it’s not the time yet (to fight for the belt).’
“But I was really sad when I lost to DeAnna because I knew I won that fight and the judges gave it to her, but I never felt unprepared (for international promotions). I was really upset, but I kept my head up because I knew my time would come.”
Maia once again returned to the winning column in her native country, going 3-0 in just six months before Invicta FC offered her a chance to compete for an interim title against Vanessa Porto, her first nemesis in the sport.
“I saw it wasn’t in vain, I was ready for it,” said Maia, who defeated Porto via decision in March 2016. “My first loss was against her, she was way more experienced than me. She was fighting Cris Cyborg when I started training, so having the chance to fight her a second time was very special. I wished for that Invicta belt ever since the first time I saw it.”
Looking back at her entire career, the roller coaster of emotions in the UFC with three wins in five bouts—and a few hiccups on the scale—it all motivates Maia ahead of her life’s biggest challenge.
Valentina Shevchenko is one of the greatest fighters to ever enter the octagon, topping the likes of Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Holly Holm, Julianna Pena, Liz Carmouche and Katlyn Chookagian under the bright lights of the UFC. Oddsmaker place a possible victory for Maia among the all-time upsets, and she just doesn’t care.
“I get emotional talking about it, it’s like a movie going on inside my head,” Maia said of her MMA career. “I’m not that person that said ‘I wanna be a UFC champion’ when I started training. No, I always remained with my foot on the ground and let things happen. ‘My time will come,’ I thought. One step at a time, I’ll win one fight after the other and people will recognize me for my effort.
“I didn’t want it to be about luck, I wanted it to be about hard work. Many Brazilians held those UFC belts before, and this is my moment. I feel happy and accomplished for being here living this dream.”
Shevchenko is “incredible, very tough and smart,” Maia said, but “she’s not that monster. No one’s unbeatable. Everybody thought Ronda (Rousey) was unbeatable, but there’s always someone that goes there and wins. Cris Cyborg was great inspiration for me and I thought she would never lose, and she ended up losing. No one’s unbeatable.
“Someone will go there and will win. People talk about her because she’s doing such a perfect job and continuing as the champion, but I believe this is my chance, this is my opportunity.”
Maia won’t go on the record and predict a stoppage victory over Shevchenko, foreseeing a decision win in Las Vegas. She will, however, make “Bullet” pay for any mistake in the octagon.
“Maybe I’ll surprise her just like I did in my last fight with a submission,” Maia said. “Surprising (everyone) with a knockout, that would be wonderful. It’s hard to say (how I’ll win) because I’m fighting such a tough opponent, but I believe it’s going to be a hard-fought battle. I’ll have to show I’m the superior fighter one round after round.”
Beating Shevchenko would be huge for her career. More important, it gives Maia the recognition she feels she already deserved a long time ago.
“I was the Invicta FC champion back when the UFC didn’t have this weight class,” Maia said, so a win “will make me a two-time world champion, one of the best in the world. The whole world will find out about me. They’ve seen me already, but I’ll definitely become the No. 1 for the world to see after I win the UFC belt.”