When Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) star Jessica Andrade stepped into the Octagon for the biggest fight of her career in Texas earlier this year, it was monumental for more reason than one.
Win, lose, or draw, Andrade had promised herself she would propose to partner Fernada during her post fight interview in the middle of the Octagon – the eight-sided caged battleground where UFC fighters compete.
LGBT viewers held their breath as Andrade asked her same-sex partner to marry her over a microphone, in front of 18,000 raucous Texan fight fans. And while she came up short in the fight itself, she was praised by commentators and fans alike for pushing forward in the bout and breaking new ground with her proposal.
“I think because we were in the United States where people already accept this kind of relationship, it was easier,” she says of the moment thousands of cheers unanimously rang out.
“It was an incredible moment. Even in Brazil when I came back, everyone was like ‘You did great on the fight, but the proposal was wonderful.'”
Andrade met her now fiancé Fernanda in 2013 in the only place a truly modern love story can begin: social media.
“I already knew it was love even before I met her in person,” she tells me, explaining it took the pair two years to meet in the flesh.
You can’t let that big smile or those really cute dimples fool you. Andrade is a brawler – nicknamed “Pile Driver” (or Bate Estaca in her native Brazil) for good reason.
A mixed martial artist with a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitzu, Andrade was signed to the UFC in 2011. In her debut fight against former-marine Liz Carmouche, she made LGBT history.
“In addition to being the first UFC fight between two openly gay athletes, I was also the first [female] Brazilian to step inside the Octagon,” she tells me.
“So it was a fight that represented everything for me. It was a dream to show who I really was, without any fear or shame. To be myself in front of the cameras and in front of the world.
She’s quick to point out that she doesn’t regard being ‘out’ in sport as a choice.
“I was born this way and chose my happiness,” she says.
“And I never hid from anyone. If my mother, who is the person I love most in the world, accepted me as I was, why would I be ashamed to show who I am to the rest of the world? What matters is my character.”
The UFC’s gender equality got off to a rocky start with President Dana White famously announcing he would never allow women in the Octagon, in an interview with TMZ. Yet fast forward just a few years and he would be eating his words with ‘Rowdy’ Ronda Rousey as his company’s biggest star.
Andrade feels the UFC has come a long way since that initial narrow-minded view and has set an important standard in professional sport: paying its male and female athletes equally.
“In most places, the woman is not treated the same, but in the UFC, she is,” she says.
“We have the same payment criteria as men. I think this is incredible, because anywhere else in the world women receive less or should work harder to earn more. I’ve seen women win more money than men in the UFC and that’s all on merit. And that’s cool (sic).”
Andrade never feared how the crowd would react to her same-sex proposal, she only feared Fernanda being “mad at me for saying this in front of the whole world.”
Fernanda wasn’t mad. The big day is planned for the end of September, and Andrade would like them to be thinking about kids by the end of the year.
I suggest Australia is a great place for a honeymoon. Andrade confirms she’s heard it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world and she would, “love to get to know the country and the kangaroos.”
Warmed with pride for the way Andrade wears her sexuality on her sleeve I ask if her deep Catholic roots ever caused her to struggle with her sexuality and what advice she has for those who struggle with their own, and once again I am touched by her outlook.
“Even though I am a Catholic, I strongly believe that the force majeure is God. And if you do good things, good things will come to you,” she says.
“At the time of final judgment, it will be just me and God. God will ask me, “If it was sin, why did I do it?” And I’m going to say that he put me in the world with free will to find my happiness.
“And I was very happy when I was here.
“My advice is to do no harm to anyone, but always seek your happiness.”
A remarkable mantra for an athlete who’s professionally required to punch opponents unconscious.