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Post-Ronda Rousey, UFC Looks to New Era With Strawweight Champ Joanna Jedrzejczyk

Polish fighter might be next great hope for women’s fighting

Joanna Jedrzejczyk, UFC, Ronda Rousey retire, UFC 211

"My goal is to be undefeated champion and retire undefeated," Joanna Jedrzejczyk says.

Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty

Saturday’s UFC 211 event at American Airlines Center in Dallas is the most significant card the UFC has put on this year. Five current or former champions are scheduled to compete, but it’s reigning Women’s Strawweight titleholder Joanna Jedrzejczyk (pronounced Yed-zhey-chik), 27, who intends on stealing the show and taking the next step toward MMA stardom.

At 5-foot-6 and 115 pounds, Jedrzejczyk might be the smallest of the UFC’s 11 champions. However, within that frame is one of the most violent fighters on the planet. Jedrzejczyk has a witty and charming personality outside the Octagon, but when the cage door closes, she’s as ferocious as it gets.

But despite an undefeated record which includes seven UFC wins and four consecutive title defenses, Jedrzejczyk is still waiting to captivate a mainstream audience in the same essence of Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey and other prominent figures throughout UFC history. Jedrzejczyk carries the belief she can eventually reach a level of popularity which makes her one of the biggest stars on the UFC roster. However, she knows it’s a marathon, not a race.

“It’s not that easy [to be a star],” Jedrzejczyk tells Rolling Stone.

“I know I’m from Poland. I have so many fans in the U.S., but I don’t know if I’m able to sell the pay-per-view card. Ronda Rousey, Georges St-Pierre, McGregor; they’ve sold a lot and this is not easy. I’m trying to build my brand, but it takes time. I don’t know when I’ll be able to sell my own pay-per-view, but I’m happy to be a part.”

Jedrzejczyk is pleased with the current state of her career, but also knows there’s room for growth. The UFC has done a solid job positioning her to succeed, positioning her in the co-main event on some of the biggest cards in company history.

Just before Rousey was viciously knocked out by Holly Holm at UFC 193 in November 2015, Jedrzejczyk put on a five-round thrashing of Valerie Letourneau which left the French-Canadian looking like she’d gone through a car wreck. Minutes before McGregor became the first fighter in history to hold two titles simultaneously with a knockout of Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 in November, Jedrzejczyk won a grueling battle with fellow Polish striker Karolina Kowalkiewicz.

Those events alone reportedly sold more than two million pay-per-view units combined, and Jedrzejczyk is likely to have a large audience watching again when she fights Brazilian powerhouse Jessica Andrade at UFC 211, which is headlined by a Heavyweight title rematch between champ Stipe Miocic and challenger Junior Dos Santos.

When it comes to fighters embraced by the hardcore MMA audience, Jedrzejczyk nears the top of the list. Her broken English provides a certain type of bluntness that comes across as both endearing and terrifying. She brings hand-crafted presents to pre-fight weigh-ins just before getting in her opponent’s face with one of the most intimidating staredowns in the game. Jedrzejczyk will tear her foes apart with a vast muay-Thai arsenal, but when not fighting, prefers to use her feet to try on one of the countless pairs of sneakers in her collection.

There’s plenty to like about Jedrzejczyk, but perhaps most impressive of all is her attitude. Fighting is more important than fame – end of discussion. Her top priority is to keep her perfect record in tact and defend the title as many times as possible. And she’s adamant the pursuit of greater popularity will never stand in the way of those aspirations.

“My goal is to be undefeated champion and retire undefeated,” Jedrzejczyk says. “It’s going to be difficult, but I’m going to keep going. I must work hard every day and be focused. There’s a time for media and sponsorship, but there’s a time to work in the gym. Sometimes people cannot separate it. It’s all about being the best athlete and then about being a ‘celebrity.’ But I don’t feel like I’m a celebrity. I still can prove a lot in this sport and I want to do that.”

Although fans privy to the intricate parts of fighting can truly appreciate the Jedrzejczyk’s style, which includes an endless arsenal of striking attacks. She was a Muay Thai champion prior to her MMA career and would routinely fight larger opponents. Jedrzejczyk can deliver an output and pace which few foes can match over a 25-minute championship bout, but that might not always be to her benefit in the eyes of casual spectators.

One aspect which helped Rousey become a larger-than-life figure was the way her fights unfolded. Before her game was solved and losses piled up, “Rowdy” would dust opponents in seconds. She won multiple fights in under 60 seconds without throwing or landing a single punch, which is essentially the opposite of Jedrzejczyk, who typically punishes challengers into a state of disfigurement.

Rousey’s style appealed more to the casual fan drawn in by the pageantry of a UFC event. A fighter nicknamed “Joanna Violence” by fans may not connect with that same section of the audience, who are the difference between an average selling UFC pay-per-view and a mega-events.

That’s a reality Jedrzejczyk must deal with, and a result find alternate avenues to grow her fan base and take her appeal to the next level. Continuing her dominant reign as champion is perhaps the most obviously path, and the one Jedrzejczyk feels she can control most. There are numerous variables which go into winning or losing a fight, but Jedrzejczyk is confident in her long-term ability to remain on top.

That’s why Jedrzejczyk, 29, makes sacrifices. Despite starting her career 12-0 with three UFC title defenses, Jedrzejczyk left her native Poland and moved to Florida’s American Top Team, which is regarded as one of the top gyms in the world. She’s already the best in her division, but to stay there, evolution is crucial. 

“It’s not easy; my fiancé, my friends, my family are back home,” Jedrzejczyk says. “It’s hard but it makes me stronger. I was looking for good people around me. When you’re getting better and becoming more popular there are so many people who want to cheat on you and want to just take. But definitely I have good people around me and I can be calm. I don’t want to have the feeling of losing. I’m such a big competitor. I’ve competed a lot and I don’t want to lose.”

That’s why Jedrzejczyk, 29, makes sacrifices. Despite starting her career 12-0 with three UFC title defenses, Jedrzejczyk left her native Poland and moved to Florida’s American Top Team, which is regarded as one of the top gyms in the world. She’s already the best in her division, but to stay there, evolution is crucial.

Excelling physically will only take a fighter so far. The mental aspect carries perhaps even more importance, and Jedrzejczyk has that part locked down. She knows how to intimidate an opponent as well as anyone and refuses to break in her fights during moments of adversity, which happen when someone spends as much time fighting as Jedrzejczyk.

Longtime champions can encounter unexpected hiccups on their mental resolve. St-Pierre, one of the greatest champions in UFC history, vacated his title in December 2013 and took a hiatus from the sport in large part due to the overwhelming burden and expectations attached to being UFC champion. Ever-aware of history and her surroundings, Jedrzejczyk promises to learn from past champions, not follow their identical footsteps.

“I’m trying to push that pressure away,” Jedrzejczyk says. “I always say I don’t feel stress and I don’t feel pressure, but it was not easy to become a UFC fighter. UFC is the best organization. There are other organizations with other fighters and other champions, but UFC is simply the best. It was not easy to become a fighter, or a champion, then defend the belt. It’s more and more difficult with every title defense, but I stay humble. You can do media, you can do the photoshoots, the videos, the commercials, but you must be focused on your work in the gym first.”

Jedrzejczyk can’t force herself into a position to be one of the biggest stars in the sport, but there are certainly things which can aid her cause. She wants to surpass Rousey’s record for most consecutive title defenses for a female UFC champion (six). Beating Andrade at UFC 211 would give her five, so she’s well on her way. Beyond that, Jedrzejczyk wants to join McGregor as the second fighter in UFC history to hold multiple championship belts at once, something which not long ago was inconceivable, but is now very much a reality.

Up until recently the UFC employed three female weight classes: Strawweight, Bantamweight and Featherweight. The gap between Strawweight and Bantamweight is 20 pounds, which means moving up would result in an extreme physical disadvantage against the division’s bigger competitors. Just days ahead of UFC 211, though, the organization officially announced the introduction of a Women’s Flyweight class, which is actually Jedrzejczyk’s ideal weight.

With plans in place to introduce a 125-pound belt later this year Jedrzejczyk’s opportunity is there for the taking. She’s mentioned her desire to be a dual-division titleholder many times in the past, but now that the reality is here, Jedrzejczyk’s chance to heighten her profile even more is very real.

“I’ve been talking about it for such a long time and people were like, ‘Oh, Joanna is crazy, focus on your belt,'” Jedrzejczyk says. “But I know what I want from myself and what I can expect from myself. I want to be the first female fighter to hold two belts. First I want to reach the record of Ronda Rousey. She had six successful title defenses, which is a pretty big deal to me. I want to be an undefeated champion and retire undefeated. It’s not going to be easy.”

The UFC’s biggest shakers and movers are those who can carry a pay-per-view card on their own. Jedrzejczyk is not there yet, but she has the necessary package to become a real draw. She’s essential the UFC’s version of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is one of the best in the NBA, but has struggled to be fully embraced because of factors such as his complex name and the fact he competes in a smaller market (or in Jedrzejczyk’s case, division) like Milwaukee.

The greatest obstacle in Jedrzejczyk’s mind, however, is the one right in front of her. A single loss could make the entire narrative go away, and compared to most of her previous challengers, Andrade is particularly dangerous. UFC 211 goes down at the same Dallas venue in which Jedrzejczyk brutalized Carla Esparza to win the belt at UFC 185 in March 2015, and there’s a hope it will also be the site of a breakthrough moment that takes her career to the next level.

“Every fight people say, ‘Oh, she’s coming for you, she’s going to knock you out or submit you,'” Jedrzejczyk says. “But the thing is, there’s no easy fights. When the people get to the top, they get to the top for a reason. You don’t get the title shot if you’re not working. I know Jessica’s weaknesses, but I must be focused on myself, challenge myself every day, learn new things and just be better. Prove to people and everyone that I’m simply the best and I’m the right person who holds the belt.”

In This Article: Ronda Rousey, UFC

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