On the face of it, Joanna Jędrzejczyk from Poland probably wasn’t the person the suits had in mind when drawing up the template to take women’s MMA into 2017 and beyond. Her surname, for starters, is as tough to write and pronounce as any in sport. A cluster of consonants, it is interpreted in various ways and often butchered to such a degree that many now choose to refer to her by an alternative moniker: Joanna Champion.
There is also the language barrier, something Joanna has admirably knocked down like an opponent in recent times, yet something that might have made her a tough sell to the masses if A) she hadn’t worked diligently on it and B) she couldn’t kick ass in a language now universal.
Finally, Joanna Jędrzejczyk wasn’t equipped to be the face of women’s MMA because, frankly, it’s a role that goes against everything she believes in. Hair tightly braided, eyes dark and buried deep in their sockets, Jędrzejczyk cut a ghoulish figure in her early UFC fights and, indeed, public appearances. There was no attempt on her behalf or anyone else’s to glamourise the violence she took such pleasure in dishing out. She was wonderfully transparent in that sense, a fighter to her core. Fighter first, female second; substance over style.
It says everything about her fighting abilities and reign as UFC strawweight champion, then, that Joanna Jędrzejczyk has outlasted her peers – those ‘Most Likely To…’ – and is now considered not just the best 115-pound female fighter on the planet but the best female fighter, period. Taken a step further, some even consider her striking, her forte and calling card, to be among the very best in MMA, irrespective of gender.
Ronda Rousey may have bashed down the door for women’s MMA, but it’s Joanna Jędrzejczyk who has since entered, rearranged the furniture, made the bed, washed the dishes, hoovered and made a respectable home of it.
Content to do it the hard way, there was no one pointing Joanna in the right direction, let alone rolling out the red carpet for her on the way to the door. The 29-year-old, instead, entered the UFC in 2014, as part of their new women’s strawweight division, to little or no fanfare. She was a European standout, someone no doubt tipped for the top, but few were earmarking her as a future superstar. Old-school was how Jędrzejczyk would have to do it; win fights, beat contenders, make noise with her fists, feet and elbows.
She did just that. Hard-fought decision wins against Juliana Lima and Cláudia Gadelha led to a shot at the UFC strawweight champion Carla Esparza in March 2015, and two rounds was all it took for Jędrzejczyk to have her way with the American and highlight the disparity in skill between the pair. It was as one-sided as any title fight you’re likely to see, one which saw Jędrzejczyk announce her arrival on the throne in a way that almost didn’t seem fair to a champion still in her honeymoon period. It wasn’t just the result, either. It was the manner of the performance, the nastiness of it. Jędrzejczyk didn’t only beat Esparza and stop her in two rounds, she beat her in such a way that made it both hard to watch and hard to comprehend why these two women – champion and challenger – had been put together in the first place.
Since then, Joanna Champion has become a thing. It has a ring to it. “Well, I’m still champion,” she says whenever called by her second name. Certainly, Jessica Penne, Valérie Létourneau, Gadelha and Karolina Kowalkiewicz, all of whom she has defeated in defence of her title, will refer to Jędrzejczyk, 13-0, as Champion. The Champion. Still Champion.
It’s the job of Jéssica Andrade, Jędrzejczyk’s next challenger, to on one hand respect the Polish destroyer’s skill-set and position – stopping just short of calling her Champion – but, on the other hand, believe she can do what no other woman has managed in an MMA fight, which is to say find a way to beat her.
The 25-year-old Brazilian has fought as high as 137-pounds in her six-year MMA career but has truly flourished since dropping to strawweight in 2016. It’s there, weighing in and around 115-pounds, she has knocked out Jessica Penne, submitted Joanne Calderwood and, last time out, slugged it out with former Invicta FC champion Angela Hill en route to a comfortable unanimous decision. It’s there she has looked like a future title challenger or perhaps even a champion. Short, stocky and freakishly strong – a strength owing to her time manoeuvring heavier foes – Andrade, 16-5, appears to possess the tools required to give Jędrzejczyk looks she will have not yet encountered during her title reign. Moreover, she has just the style – aggressive, robust, all-action – to complement Joanna’s and have those sat in the front row wincing during exchanges.
“I’ve known Jessica for a while,” Jędrzejczyk said on a UFC 211 conference call, touching on the fact her and Andrade were previously managed by the same company and have trained together on occasion. “I respect Jessica as an athlete and we’re going to have a great fight in the Octagon.”
“Jessica proved a lot in the strawweight division. She dropped from 135 and won three straight fights. She’s the right person and it’s going to be a really tough fight between me and Jessica.
“She’s very strong physically. She likes to fight, she likes to exchange punches. But, like I said every time, I’m getting better and better and I want to defend my title. This is what I want to do.”
Refreshingly, it’s all she wants to do. No movies, no commercials, no long-term desire to take over the world. For now, Joanna Jędrzejczyk is content to be a fighter. Better yet, a champion.