Karolina Kowalkiewicz proved she was the second best female fighter in Poland, but she needs a victory on Saturday to remain in the UFC title picture.
Polish contender Karolina Kowalkiewicz operated for most of her UFC stint in relative obscurity.
She opened up the main card twice on free television before her co-main slot against Rose Namajunas. She would likely have had to win another fight before being offered Rose, had it not been for the fact that champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk herself asked that Kowalkiewicz be recruited to the UFC so that the champion could prove she was the best in their home country.
Kowalkiewicz showed mettle in a losing effort to the champion this past November, but now she has a chance to re-establish her place in the strawweight division when she faces Claudia Gadelha on Saturday. The Brazilian is ranked number one in the division and a victory keeps Kowalkiewicz in title contention should she stun the hometown favourite.
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For the Pole, the fight is a chance to freshly evaluate her skills against the elite of the division. The dominance of Jędrzejczyk has made even the most elite fighters look ordinary, and Kowalkiewicz was a relative unknown to the general fanbase when she faced Namajunas. Today, fans and fighters alike are more familiar with Kowalkiewicz and what she brings to the table.
Today, fans and fighters alike are more familiar with Kowalkiewicz and what she brings to the table.
Part of her popularity is how she walks to the beat of her own drum, even by MMA standards.
Kowalkiewicz is notorious for her exaggeratedly calm demeanour in the cage. Even at 205, in front of an electric crowd at Madison Square Garden in a historic event, she leant back against the cage and did not react during her introduction.
Even in between rounds, she eerily resumes the position right before the bell rings. Whether as a mental tactic or simply her personal preference (or both,) she is aware of the attention on her actions as she is known to wink at the camera before the fight resumes.
Her voice oozes a sweetness and lack of edge that rivals that of Joanne Calderwood. Her appearances on UFC Embedded rarely capture her displaying an intensity that would suggest she possesses the killer instinct of a fighter. She saves that for the cage where she competes with a tenacity and relentlessness that has bested ten of the eleven opponents in her career.
Her reputation as a striker in Poland got her to the UFC, but inside the Octagon she’s proven that she is one of the best on the feet in the entire world. The question is, will she display a new wrinkle in her game that she hasn’t in her past UFC appearances?
Gadelha is one of the most effective grapplers in the division who demonstrated unbreakable tenacity in her five-round battle with the champion last July. Kowalkiewicz has not had to demonstrate her ground game against her elite foes, but Gadelha is an opponent who will look to test that early and often.
To be victorious, Kowalkiewicz will have to show effective footwork and counter-striking.
Gadelha will be looking to use her punches to set-up a takedown and the memory of dropping Jędrzejczyk last year will be fresh in the mind of the Polish challenger.
Regardless, she will have to use effective footwork to counter Gadelha on the feet and force her to shoot from a distance. Defensively, she will also have to avoid getting pushed against the fence should Gadelha initiate the clinch.
If Gadelha gets her against the cage, it’s imperative that Kowalkiewicz focuses on securing a dominant position rather than opening the opportunity for Gadelha to use chain wrestling.
Kowalkiewicz’s best chance for victory will be to stifle Gadelha’s takedown attempts and get the Brazilian to brawl with her in frustration.
The Pole is a powerful striker who has shown she is one of the hardest hitters in the division. If she can deliver damage early, she puts the pressure on Gadelha to take chances. From there, Kowalkiewicz needs to stay disciplined in countering her opponent’s attack with precise strikes.
The division is ruled by a champion with an iron fist, but Kowalkiwicz locks herself in as the second best fighter in the division with a victory. For a sport as unpredictable as MMA, there are fewer positions more favourable. With the same motivation on both sides, it’s easy to predict that the two will be at their best on Saturday night.