UFC Strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk has quickly pushed her name into the “greatest of all time” debate. Unlike those who came before her, Jedrzejczyk is only interested in achieving fame for what she does inside the cage.
Less than a fortnight ago, Joanna Jedrzejczyk produced the best performance of her career. At UFC 211, the Polish champion put her UFC title belt on the line against one of her most dangerous opponents yet, Jessica Andrade.
The fight was over as a contest after the first round. Jedrzejczyk dominated proceedings, just as she had against Carla Esparza, Jessica Penne, Valerie Letourneau and Karolina Kowalkiewicz.
Only Claudia Gadelha, herself an unbelievably talented strawweight, has been able to compete with the champion. Even then, Jedrzejczyk has overcome in-cage adversity to defeat the Brazilian standout twice.
Such accomplished performances at the top of the 115-pound division have raised questions. Where does Jedrzejczyk sit on the all-time list?
How does her own brand of divisional control compare to that of former bantamweight Queen Ronda Rousey?
For Jedrzejczyk, one more successful title defence might be the charm. The 29-year-old has five in the bag already. Rousey managed six.
Where Jedrzejczyk is currently considered unbeatable, Rousey was once too. Yet there remain stark differences and it goes far beyond Jedrzejczyk and Rousey’s elite specialisations – Muay Thai and Judo respectively.
Rousey achieved a level of superstardom that the MMA world had not seen before. She courted and charmed a new audience, breaking new ground and pushing MMA onto mainstream outlets that had rarely, sometimes never, covered it before.
Jedrzejczyk has always been a supporter and admirer of Rousey, but during a recent interview with Sports Illustrated, the strawweight champion highlighted her different approach to staying at the top.
“I’m focused on my preparations. My sponsors, people from media, they know when I’m in the camp I’m just focused on preparations,” Jedrzejczyk told Sports Illustrated. “I prefer to make less money, I prefer to have smaller sponsors, less obligations.
“At the end, I want to defend my title. I wish that all of the fighters they were focused like me. I’m not the best, but I know what is important, what is good, what is better for me.”
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For her past two title defences, Jedrzejczyk moved to American Top Team. An elite gym with an outstanding group of female talents, including reigning UFC bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes.
Against Andrade, we saw the benefits of that. Jedrzejczyk’s already excellent footwork looked better than ever; her defensive wrestling another level up. Andrade was a dangerous opponent who was nullified and made to look out of her depth.
Jedrzejczyk has been doing all the things Rousey was vilified for not doing. Changing camps, evolving, pushing herself to focus on fighting and, almost, fighting alone.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe drew the ire of the online MMA community at the turn of the year when he claimed that Rousey was never evolving, and had been cheating on the sport.
“She’s cheating on UFC because she wants to be an action star,” said Sharpe on an episode of Undisputed. “In that sport, you’re either all in, or you get knocked out.”
While Sharpe was derided largely for being an MMA outsider, his comments hit the mark. It is the exact same reason that Jedrzejczyk is humbly focused on becoming a better fighter, and avoiding the sort of high pressured media scrutiny that Rousey was subject to.
“There are so many dedicated fighters in the UFC, it’s not easy, the UFC is simply the best MMA organisation in the world. If you’re not focused or not working hard enough, you’re out,” Jedrzejczyk told Sports Illustrated. “Coming from a legitimate UFC champion, rather than a football player turned TV co-host, the comments carried more weight.
“It was not easy to become a UFC fighter and UFC champion, but I think it’s more difficult to keep defending the belt because all eyes are on me,” Jedrzejczyk said. “My opponents, the coaches of my opponents, have more time to prepare for the fight with me.
“It’s pretty difficult, but I like it. I like to challenge myself every day and I like to keep on proving to all of them that there is only one strawweight champion of the world.”
That there is, and her level of performance is matched only by the absolute best in the sport.
Jedrzejczyk may never have been able to attract the level of attention of a Ronda Rousey, even if she had courted it, but Joanna “Champion” is bearing the fruits of her labour in the cage and becoming a force even more unstoppable.