Pocket-sized Polish powerhouse Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s accomplishments are unmatched in the UFC’s smallest weight division. The organisation’s first female European champion won strawweight gold and earned the rank of women’s pound-for-pound number one with exciting striking to become a true crossover star in her home country. She’s also earned a unique nickname that summarizes it all: ‘Champion’.
“I was born as a champion”
We almost didn’t see Joanna Jedrzejczyk in the Octagon. Zuffa scouts tried to recruit her for season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter but, despite the title of inaugural UFC strawweight championship on offer for the competition winner, she refused.
“Yes, I got the offer, they called me, but I couldn’t make 115lb,” the 28-year-old explains. “I was fighting in 125 so I was like, ‘Hey guys I’ve been trying to make 115 but I couldn’t.’”
But matchmaker Sean Shelby had seen her potential, and wouldn’t take no for an answer a few months later. His target explains: “When I fought with Rosi Sexton – former UFC fighter – in June 2014 in England I got the call from the UFC. ‘Girl. We want to sign you at 115. You have a fight coming up in five weeks.’ I said yes. I made this weight and now it’s not a problem.”
While the reality show was being filmed, Jedrzejczyk beat Juliana Lima and Claudia Gadelha to earn a shot at the champion that was crowned that season. By the time UFC 185 fight week arrived, she told fans and the media that she – not newly-minted strawweight champion Carla Esparza – was the best fighter in her division.
This cool, confident and confrontational challenger enchanted everyone, but there was a problem. No one could seem to pronounce her name correctly. Luckily, the Polish starlet had a simple solution. A win and new moniker would clear any confusion.
“I got a lot of attention from the media before my fight with Carla Esparza and so many people didn’t know me (at) that time and they couldn’t pronounce my name. So I said, ‘Guys, it’s going be easy soon. You’re going to call me Joanna Champion because I’m going to win this belt.’”
She emphatically earned her new nickname by making the ‘Cookie Monster’ crumble in less than two rounds. The wrestler was shut down and punished with precise and powerful striking that was reminiscent of Chuck Liddell in his prime – she even had painted nails like the UFC Hall of Famer. Now the world knew who Joanna was and she had the 12lb of golden hardware that meant it didn’t matter if everyone’s Polish pronunciation wasn’t up to scratch.
“I feel like I was born as a champion. I had a dream, I got the talent from God and I’m working so hard to show my talent to everyone,” she says. “It’s been very long and hard to get the title but I feel like I deserve it. All my life I’ve been working for this so I’m very happy. I like it when people call me Joanna Champion. I don’t need some crazy nickname.”
Jedrzejczyk could also add another ‘Champion’ to her name if she gets her wish and she returns to her flyweight roots. The weight class is rumoured to be the next to be added to the UFC, and its first fight, between Joanne Calderwood and Valerie Letourneau, took place in June. As soon as a title is created, Joanna expects to be at the front of the queue to claim it.
“I’m happy ‘JoJo’ and Valerie fought at 125 and after my victory I want to make one more fight at 115 and then fight for the belt in the 125lb division,” Jedrzejczyk adds. “I want to be the first female champion who’s going to hold two belts in two weight divisions.”
“I wanted to be girly as well”
Winning belts is nothing new for the consensus pound-for-pound best female fighter in the world. Her cage career was preceded by 10 years of Muay Thai success, during which she won four European and six world titles.
But her MMA achievements were unexpected – at least at first. When she returned home to Olsztyn, Poland and her Arrachion MMA team – following a spell under K-1 legend Ernesto Hoost in the kickboxing paradise of the Netherlands – she was the only one training as a pure striker. She didn’t want to risk her femininity by rolling around on the mats.
“My coaches (said), ‘Your striking is very good, just learn some wrestling and jiu-jitsu.’ But I was like, ‘Man, I don’t like the cauliflowers, I don’t like the submissions,’ so I was a little bit afraid. I know my body is changing all the time because of the training but I wanted to be girly as well. I didn’t want to look like a gremlin or something like that.
“But then I thought, ‘OK. Why not? I will get into the UFC.’ So I joined in the wrestling training and the first few (sessions) I was frustrated because I like to keep on dominating all the time. But at the beginning I got submitted so many times and that’s why I was a little bit angry. But I was like, ‘No. I’m gonna take it, I’m gonna be the best, I’m gonna be the world champion like I was in Muay Thai. And that’s what I did. I’ve been training like crazy.”
Now Miss Champion has a full compliment of skills that allows her to compete in any area of fighting. She says her ground game would surprise her opponents, but she knows what she does best – punches, kicks, knees and elbows – and that’s what she’s going to stick with. Her elite experience puts her streets ahead of the competition.
“I think (I am) very fast and furious, so that’s why I have been winning,” she explains. “They (are) too slow for me. I take fights second by second. Most of the fighters are coming into the fight with one plan, but you cannot just have one plan. This is what I’ve been doing for all my career and this is why I’m doing well in my UFC career.”
She adds she’s become even more dangerous, too: “I always wanted to get better and better every fight and this is what I’ve been doing. I’m more explosive, I’m more powerful and I’ve got KO power. I’m very happy because when I’ve been competing in Muay Thai I was walking around at 125lb and I didn’t have enough power to knock my opponents out.”
“I want to show that MMA is beautiful”
Jedrzejczyk received almost nothing but adulation during the first two years of her UFC run thanks to her unquestionable brilliance in the Octagon. But like the last women’s world-champion TUF coach before her – Ronda Rousey – she received some criticism for the way she was portrayed on the reality show.
Clashes with Claudia Gadelha were common in the gym, and were used by her title rival as fuel to insult her and try to rally support behind her challenge for the belt. But the champion insists the show didn’t tell the whole story.
“I spent an amazing six weeks shooting The Ultimate Fighter. I met really good people from the crew. The coaches from my team (and) Claudia’s team were very nice people,” she assures Fighters Only. “But the thing is, they show me as a bad person in the first few episodes. I know the story. I’ve been there and I can tell you honestly, the stories were different. They show me as a f**king bully and bad person. I’m not this person.
“My people know the truth. They show Claudia as the good person, but I’m still humble and I’m still focused. I’m happy that I’m still a champion. I appreciate that because I know how hard I’m working to keep this belt.”
Whatever anyone thinks about her performance as a coach, it takes nothing away from the way she conducts herself in the cage – particularly in Poland. Her people have embraced their combat queen and recently voted her as one of their 10 best sports stars in the country’s annual poll for its athlete of the year, alongside world-famous stars from football, tennis and athletics.
“Man it was amazing! Not just for me, but for my team and all the MMA fighters in Poland. I’ve got so much exposure for Polish MMA. It was amazing for me and I’m very happy. I like to show people that we MMA fighters are good and smart people. We are not hooligans. I want to show that MMA is very beautiful,” she says.
And that’s where the next part of Jedrzejczyk’s career starts. She’s already proved she’s the best in the world. Now she’s set to prove that Poland is up there with the most powerful nations in MMA.
“I love my country,” she says. “I’m very proud that I’m Polish and European. The training is very good. I know so many fighters travel to the US, but you know why? Because there’s so many different fighters. They’ve got so many different sparring partners from all over the world. This is what we need in Poland sometimes but I cannot complain. I have probably eight different sparring partners in my weight class in my gym so I have everything I need.
“When people heard about me they asked if they can join me in Poland and I say, ‘Guys, you can come any time.’”
Expect an influx of guests accepting that invitation to Central Europe to join Team Joanna soon. It’s where champions are made.
*** This feature originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Fighters Only ***