Octagon jitters—it’s an infamous term. The first time a fighter steps into the UFC’s eight-sided cage, there will always be talk of whether the emotional rush and the nerves surrounding his debut will have a profound impact on his performance.

Pundits and fans making predictions on fights will cite the jitters as a reason to doubt a fighter’s chances. And in the aftermath of a defeat, these same jitters will take part of the blame for the fighter’s downfall.

So, following each UFC event, The MMA Corner will look at the fighters who made their Octagon debuts and provide impressions on their performances and their future potential under the UFC banner. In this edition, we focus on the three newcomers from UFC Fight Night 45.

Claudia Gadelha — unanimous decision victory over Tina Lahdemaki

Most fighters enter the UFC as prospects hoping to break through at the elite level. But what happens when the UFC is trying to build a new division? Well, the newcomers in that weight class are the elite competitors. That means you get fights like the first-ever UFC women’s strawweight bout between Claudia Gadelha and Tina Lahdemaki. Gadelha, a top-three strawweight, claimed the unanimous verdict over Lahdemaki, a borderline top-10 flyweight who moved down to strawweight to get her crack at the UFC.

Gadelha is a strong fighter who combines a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt with striking skills honed alongside the likes of current UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo and former UFC bantamweight champ Renan Barao. She was able to score several takedowns against Lahdemaki and even gained mount at one point. Her Muay Thai striking punished Lahdemaki in the first round and was a sufficient source of offense in the later rounds, where it took a back seat to Gadelha’s takedowns.

The biggest hole in Gadelha’s game might be her movement while standing. She needs to develop her footwork and head movement in order to avoid her opponent’s strikes in a less predictable manner than just simply backing up. However, the Brazilian has many strengths which outweigh her weaknesses. She’s a three-time BJJ world champion who has the strength and skill to dominate her fellow 115-pounders on the mat. Unlike many BJJ specialists, Gadelha also has a high level of wrestling skill. Her takedowns, including a nice trip takedown in the third round, came with ease, and it’s difficult to picture many future opponents having overwhelming success in stuffing those attempts.

Gadelha was a perennial contender for Invicta’s strawweight title, but injuries and illnesses led to a lot of scrapped fights, including multiple title fights. The biggest struggle for Gadelha comes before she climbs into the cage. She has to cut something in the neighborhood of 25 pounds to make weight—that was even a factor in her withdrawal from The Ultimate Fighter’s upcoming season—and she has to stay healthy. When she manages to do these things, she is capable of drawing comparisons to her Nova Uniao teammates. Gadelha could be in line for the first title shot after TUF concludes, and her future in the UFC looks bright. A title reign could even be on the horizon.

Potential: High

Tina Lahdemaki — unanimous decision loss to Claudia Gadelha

Gadelha may have handed Lahdemaki a unanimous decision loss, but the Finn proved a lot in her losing effort. The former flyweight has a lot of heart, and she survived a full three rounds with a high-level Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt who also possesses a solid striking attack.

Lahdemaki’s background is in boxing, and she found her rhythm at times during the later rounds. Her footwork allowed her to get in and out while landing strikes against Gadelha, but she couldn’t maintain a consistent flow throughout the contest. Gadelha was able to take her down repeatedly and dominated her on the mat. Despite Lahdemaki’s past as a flyweight, she seemed small for the strawweight division when standing toe-to-toe with Gadelha.

The 26-year-old, who trains out of the RNC Sport Club, might have come up short against Gadelha, but that loss has to be taken in context. Lahdemaki’s Brazilian foe is already an elite strawweight, whereas Lahdemaki just made the transition to the weight class and only had five pro fights under her belt coming into the contest. Furthermore, she’s not an accomplished champion from another combat sport. For Lahdemaki to avoid Gadelha’s early submission attempts and dominant top game is an accomplishment in itself.

Lahdemaki is sure to find similar frustration against other elite competitors within the division, but throw her in against other fighters with similar experience or skill—the bottom half of the top 15, for instance—and she’ll put up a lot of competitive and entertaining fights. The Finn probably won’t achieve championship status, but she could become a legitimate mid-tier gatekeeper who provides a tough challenge for any rising prospect or contender.

Potential: Medium

Jerrod Sanders — first-round TKO loss to Yosdenis Cedeno

The biggest frustration any fighter can find in a UFC debut is to have their opportunity taken away from them by an injury suffered mid-fight. That’s exactly where Jerrod Sanders found himself at the end of the first frame in his debut appearance versus Yosdenis Cedeno. Sanders had to be helped to his corner, and after being examined by a doctor, Sanders was deemed unfit to continue.

The loss goes down as a TKO due to retirement for Sanders, who was rocked early but had managed to hold his own against Cedeno through the first five minutes of action. Sanders used his wrestling instincts to dodge disaster after he was tagged with a straight right that sent him to the mat. Cedeno was able to get in some ground-and-pound, but Sanders used a takedown attempt to avoid the brunt of the attack. When he was on top, Sanders performed well, even grabbing Cedeno’s hand and trapping it behind his back to prevent the UFC veteran from returning to his feet.

It’s too bad Sanders didn’t show the same nuances in his bottom game. When Cedeno was on top, Sanders had very little to offer. The American Top Team Oklahoma City prospect did nothing more than fend off Cedeno’s offense while creating little of his own or making any attempts to escape or reverse. The wrestlers of the lightweight division will feast on Sanders if the wrestler can’t find ways to make things happen from the bottom.

Sanders’ injury brought a premature conclusion to his Octagon debut, and that misfortune is likely to garner sympathy from the UFC brass. Expect to see Sanders back in the eight-sided cage once he heals up. What he does with that next opportunity will say a lot more about his future potential with the organization.

Potential: Low to Medium

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