Janaisa “Evil Princess” Morandin didn’t train for a few months after her last fight versus Emily Ducote in August. The bout headlined as the co-main event at Invicta FC 36.
Under the bright lights, thoughts consumed Morandin far more than any physical pain. Something inside bothered the Invicta FC strawweight, and yet nobody in her corner knew.
“I fell [into a depression], I fell really deep after losing the fight for the belt. Even before the last fight, I was already depressed,” Morandin said in Portuguese. “My depression wasn’t because of defeat, but because I felt I had nothing to fight for. I hid it from everyone because I was afraid that they wouldn’t let me fight.”
The “Evil Princess” became a great athlete through the years – at the expense of no longer being a person, she added. When it wasn’t enough to win the title, she needed to reframe her life and her reason for fighting.
Morandin took time off to assess her whole situation and found her safe haven in Louisiana.
While training at Elite Combat Academy, she met a good friend of Brent Mason, Victoria Leonardo’s husband, in Dr. Curt Prejean and his wife Bobbie Jo Dean-Prejean. They attended one of her Muay Thai classes and noticed her impaired vision.
“After we met, we noticed that she’s basically blind. My mother and aunt work for an eye surgeon,” Mrs. Prejean said. “We talked to Dr. Shelby about helping her out. I don’t know if it was the mother’s intuition, but we just hit it off. Fate brought her to be a part of our family.”
They did everything they could to get her back into fight mode, she added.
“I said, ‘baby girl you aren’t going to be able to fight if you can’t see.’ So, my mother and aunt talked to their surgeon, and they offered to do a SMILE (Small Incision Lenticule Extraction) eye correction for her. Just because she’s family.”
The Brazilian strawweight stayed with the Prejeans since she had appointments a week before her eye surgery. Astigmatism was the condition that makes her vision blurry.
Morandin wore glasses since childhood, but the degree of her vision gotten worse in the past few years. Getting the surgery helped improve her reaction, as her vision lacked focus.
An eye operation was just the surface level of what she needed en route of a strawweight title. Thoughts consumed her mind that the outer world couldn’t grip what transpired within.
BENEATH THE SURFACE
“We hide it [our mental health], I was one of them that would hide from everyone. We are seen as athletes, superheroes, champions, fighters and only lastly as human beings,” Morandin said. “It seems that we are no longer human beings, who are subject to failure. Every time I said I needed some time, it was still because I still didn’t know if I was going to make it back.”
When Morandin walked through the Prejeans’ door, Mrs. Prejean immediately saw something was on her mind. She asked her as she does with her own children:
“Janaisam, what’s on your mind? Talk to me.”
“She would say, ‘I couldn’t do this punch combo. I worked and worked, I just kept doing the wrong footwork with the combo punch.’ I was like, ‘that’s alright sometimes doing it too much can just affect you because you’re focusing on everything that you’re doing wrong. Just let it go, and go back to the gym tomorrow.’”
The first time Morandin came to the Prejeans home, she looked around and saw how everything was very open. How there weren’t things on the windows. There weren’t tall brick walls, nothing that blocked off any one.
“I didn’t understand why she was kind of tearing up a bit,” Mrs. Prejean said.
Mrs. Prejean: “Janaisa, what’s wrong?”
Morandin: “I’ve never seen homes like this.”
Mrs. Prejean: “What do you mean?”
“That’s when she was telling me about her neighborhood, how she grew up – you can’t walk with a purse,” Mrs. Prejean said. “It just broke my heart, I could’ve not imagined growing up that way. And, that was the first impression immediately after she walked out of my car.”
As a mother, it took her back envisioning how Morandin grew up in Brazil.
“I wanted to sweep her up and cuddle, and tell her it’s going to be OK. That was the very first insight into her life and how she actually grew up.”
Morandin lived in the small city of Erechim, Rio Grande do Sul. Living in a toxic home environment of domestic violence. She moved on her own at the age of 16 to Florianópolis, SC. That’s when she began competing in Muay Thai.
Moving around became the usual for Morandin, while her mother Soeli Santos continued to live in Erechim.
Eventually, Morandin came back and helped her mother for two years. At age 18, she made her MMA debut living in Balneário Camboriú, SC.
The “Evil Princess” went 9-0 in her MMA pro career. Then, she moved again. This time she relocated to Curitiba, Paraná.
“Evil Princess” trained under Killer Bees’ Rodrigo Vidal, which she said that it was the best Muay Thai training she had in Brazil.
At 23, she moved to Florida and continued her training with Killer Bees at their Melbourne, FL gym, American Killer Bees. She went to American Top Team, just for a fight camp and decided to stay.
Living in a foreign country, away from her mother, made it difficult in finding a support system that she needed.
“I was afraid that I would never be able to enter the cage again. Going back and forth from training, crying every day,” Morandin said. “I had anxiety attacks, panic attacks alone in another country, another language. Afraid of everything and everyone. I reached a level where I had nothing but the fight itself.”
The Prejeans aren’t just a family that provided eye surgery, but a family that brought Morandin in as their own daughter. She received the support that she longed for.
“They changed my life. They are my second family, who brought me back with love. Before meeting them, I didn’t believe in people anymore,” Morandin said. “They brought me back when they showed up and gave me love and believed in my dream. Because they made me feel special again. They saw something in me that I couldn’t see at that stage of my life.”
“I felt defeated. I let the feeling of defeat take over my life because I couldn’t talk to anybody, I didn’t feel good enough to do what I love the most – which is fighting. And they loved the person Janaisa, not ‘Evil Princess.’ They made me see that I was much more than what was happening. They made me feel like a human being again.”
When Mrs. Prejean first met Morandin, she saw brokenness, no self-confidence. The root of it all was mental.
“Physically she was fight-ready, in her mind she wasn’t. It was beating her up. We took a lot of time sitting down and breaking that wall, and figuring out what was blocking her,” Mrs. Prejean said. “It was self-confidence. We did everything that we could do to build that confidence back up.”
Morandin used to be very shy and Prejean sought that she needed to break that with her talkative personality. She would start talking to people eventually when normally she wouldn’t.
“Janaisa needed someone to be there to listen, and not to fix,” Mrs. Prejean said. “She was able to speak freely, to express how she’s feeling, instead of someone trying to fix her.”
Mrs. Prejean’s three sons now have a sister in Morandin. The MMA fighter of the family spent a lot of time with the middle child, Kaden, the wrestler. His coaches would open their mats to her, as she practiced with the team.
The Invicta FC strawweight became not only a mentor to Kaden but also became one of his biggest supporters.
“I was never able to cheer for someone or accompany someone to play, because when I decided to fight I abandoned everything,” Morandin said. “It was the fight and me, training and me. I was able to breathe a little in that time with them, without worrying about myself.”
“Watching his performance was a light on my path, and also made me want to do it all over again. He’s a very talented wrestler. I’ve loved wrestling before, but after spending that time with him and the boys at school, my love [for wrestling] increased and the desire to learn more also.”
Getting to know wrestling up close was a dream for Morandin. Road trips to Atlanta for Kaden’s wrestling championships was quality time with family. It’s something that Morandin didn’t have as a kid.
“The trips to the wrestling championships in Atlanta [Georgia] felt very nostalgic for me. I remember when I traveled to amateur Muay Thai championships in Brazil and did it all for the love of it,” she said. “I remembered when I fought for love, I would drive for hours to the championship, do several fights during the day, and come back home at night with a medal and joy.”
Those memories are intact vividly as if it were today. It was the only good thing she had growing up. Travels with friends, karaoke and playing games during the trips.
“The people I met, also the opponents I faced, made me a better athlete. To be able to see another world outside my home,” she said. “And to see that there was life outside of domestic violence. Practice was my escape every day. Championships were the only thing that made me believe in the future.”
Santos didn’t agree with her daughter competing in Muay Thai at first. With domestic violence at home, she thought it would only promote more violence.
“I thought it would be more violence, we went through difficult times of violence already,” Santos said. “On the contrary, it was a sport and a discipline. She played with her older brother and liked it. I became her number one fan with pride.”
A decade ago, Santos and her 15-year old daughter Janaisa ran away from home, just the way they were dressed – slippers and home clothes.
Sitting on a park bench at dawn, they hugged each other while looking at the stars, wondering when they were going to be able to make it back home.
“I told her that soon we would laugh at this moment, and she will be rejoicing in Las Vegas. We dreamed of coming to the U.S,” Santos said. “It was an example of overcoming what we went through.”
Santos was a teacher during the day and a production supervisor for a clothing company at night. For six months, she worked overnight until Santos managed to open her own clothing store.
Many times they found their stuff broken and thrown on the floor when they would return home. Morandin was looking for more support and intensifying her training before her parents separated.
Santos bought a 125 CC motorcycle that gave them “freedom” to move around. They walked around the avenue at dawn, until they were sure they could return home safely. On the weekends, Santos stayed at her father’s house.
Morandin’s father stopped drinking and has “another beautiful family” but she doesn’t neglect what she and her mother have suffered.
“It was me and her against the world. My mother was amazing. Even in the worst moments, we defended each other,” she said. “We never stopped believing that one day we would be able to change that. She and I together made that change with our own strength.”
Santos suffered a lot with the distance away from Morandin. She cried a lot, without any direction. Yet, she encouraged her daughter to pursue her career and stay in the U.S.
Mrs. Prejean communicated with Morandin’s mother through WhatsApp, even though there’s a language barrier. She saw that a daughter needed the loving family atmosphere that her mother provided back in Brazil.
“I am very grateful to have found a true friend in Bobbie. Janaisa always tells me everything and the support, friendship, and help from her family and her second mother,” Santos said. “She’s growing more as a fighter and person.”
Morandin got acquainted with each family member. At first, she would sit down and barely interact. A family of “chitter-chatters” didn’t allow her to give one or two answers. She started to notice the family was interested in her.
There’s only one proper way for a Louisiana family to usher in their new daughter: attend a football game. She never saw a football game until seeing the youngest son, Karson, play at Evangel Christian Academy.
“She thought Karson made a big play because the referee was calling him out for face mask. Our fans were wondering what she was cheering for,” Mrs. Prejean. “She also opened our eyes to her culture. Cooking pão de queijo (cheese bread), and opened her culture for the boys.”
Morandin would wake up early and grab her coffee and have conversations with Mr. Prejean, who’s a heart surgeon. She would cook breakfast each morning. But at first, she wouldn’t even pull out a pot nor a container.
The comfort of home grew on her as she lived with the Prejeans. And, the family found a daughter and a sister that they never had.
“She fits in this family so perfectly. I cried when I had to send her back to Florida. She broke me in how it would feel like to send my boys to college,” Mrs. Prejean said. “It was only two weeks until I had to go and visit her in Florida, which was my first time going to Florida.”
Morandin stayed with the Prejeans from mid-August until November, when she moved back to Florida. The family didn’t want her to leave; that’s how quickly became part of their family.
Last Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Prejeans had a visiting family guest for the holidays.
“When she comes home, she beats up on the boys. Which is hilarious because she’s 5 foot nothing and my oldest son is 6-foot-3. She can take him down,” Mrs. Prejean said. “When we do family activities, she’s able to take a step back and doesn’t feel like fighting is year-round. That’s what she really needs.”
WHY I FIGHT
The Invicta FC strawweight gave up on trusting people until she found her family in Louisiana. They gave her a new sense to fight again, as she returned to American Top Team.
“Today I don’t fight for a title, but to show women that they can do anything. Because one day my mother needed hope,” she said. “And, it was because of the struggle that I managed to give it to her.”
Through her own story and her clothing brand, Morandin’s main objective is to inspire and donate to women victims of domestic violence.
“I want to show people in my small town in the inland of southern Brazil who knows my story,” she said. “That if I got out of those abusive conditions and got where I am today, then anyone can do it. We have the power to create our own history, and mine is starting all over.”