The year was 2017, and Vanessa Melo found out she was pregnant.

Melo, then 29, had just lost her first international bout, a fight in Finland against Suvi Salmimies. She was 5-5 as a professional MMA fighter. Her inner circle thought it was time to give up her MMA dreams and focus on being a mother.

Instead, Melo fought like a lion protecting her cubs. She went from a .500 regional circuit fighter to a UFC bantamweight on a five-fight winning streak.

“Many people doubted I would come back,” Melo told MMA Fighting ahead of her Octagon debut versus Irene Aldana in Mexico City. “I gained too much weight during pregnancy. You have your baby and can’t train that much anymore. But I came back hungrier than ever. I didn’t pay attention to what people were saying about me.”

Melo admits she had doubt, too. But the support of her boyfriend, fellow MMA fighter Guilherme dos Santos, helped her put the gloves on again. She took her daughter, Aysha, to the gym every day until she decided to return to fighting. She made her comeback September 2018 and defeated Nubia Nascimento via decision.

Twelve months and four fights later, Melo is fighting for the biggest MMA promotion in the world. She’s undefeated as a mom.

UFC Mexico City takes place Sept. 21, four days after Aysha turns two. She won’t be in Mexico with her mother this time, but distance won’t change a thing for Melo.

“Being a mom is surreal,” Melo said. “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened in my life. My little Aysha is everything to me. I came back to fighting with a different mindset. It sounds cliché, you know, but a mother is born when a baby is born. A new Vanessa was born that day. (I’m) more mature, more conscious; I’m happy to have my daughter. She’s everything to me. I learn so much from her.

“I have no words to express how big this love is. I came back more focused, different. My life has completely changed with her. After she was born, it’s nothing but wins for me.”

Being in the UFC isn’t only an important career goal – it also helps financially. Melo is one of several fighters who’ve yet to be paid by Asian promotion Battlefield. At that ill-fated event, she defeated Jan Finney for a $5,000 check that never came.

Unfortunately, Mello was forced to give up 30 percent of her purse for Aldana when she missed weight for Saturday’s fight. Still, signing with the UFC happened “at the right time,” she said.

Outside the cage, she’ll continue to sell gingerbread, truffles, brigadeiros and other candies she cooks in her hometown to make extra money and make ends meet. And when the cage closes, she promises to unleash against Aldana – and defend her record as a mother.

“There’s a reason why she’s in the top 10,” Melo said of Aldana. “She’s a very tough athlete, but a fight is a fight. I’m going there to win, of course, and so is she. There’s not much to say, other than we’ll see what happens in the fight.”

“She’s experienced, but so am I,” she continued. “We have the same amount of fights (at 15). She’s in the UFC for a while, but I’ve also fought tough athletes. I prefer not to say (how I’m going to win), so I don’t create expectations from others. It’s a tough fight against a top-10 (opponent), but I think I’m ready.”

The UFC Fight Night event goes down at Arena Ciudad de Mexico in Mexico City and airs live on ESPN+.