Joanna "Champion" Jedrzejczyk is one of the UFC's least-known champs, but these days she might be my favourite fighter, period.
Jedrzejczyk, whose last name is pronounced "nope, I give up," has only been competing in MMA professionally since 2012. She's the UFC's strawweight (115 lb) champion, and she's undefeated. Before leaping into the burgeoning shark tank that is women's MMA, she competed in Muay Thai for ten years, winning six world championships and four European championships. The short version? She's really fucking good at punching and kicking people until their consciousness is replaced by cartoon birds. Her striking is masterful — a precision whirlwind of distance, timing, and accuracy. I have, on a few occasions, been guilty of watching GIFs from her fights on loop, because the way she lands strikes is so damn satisfying.
She's fighting this weekend, defending her belt right before Ronda Rousey defends hers. And while I enjoy a good Rousey destruct-o-thon as much as anyone (especially after today's weigh-in scuffle), I'm way more excited to see Jedrzejczyk dissect another opponent with her surgical brand of striking.
I'm going to walk you through two occasions that forced me to stand up and take notice of Jedrzejczyk's prowess: the time she turned Jessica Penne to ground hamburger, and the time she gave one of her opponents a cookie.
Penne was her most recent opponent, and despite the fact that Penne was ranked third in the division at the time, it wasn't even close. Jedrzejczyk had looked good — great, even — in previous fights, but here she looked downright scary. Penne fought valiantly for takedowns in the first, but Jedrzejczyk either shucked them off or popped right back to her feet. Then she found her range, and the rest was equal parts hard to watch and impossible to look away from. Jedrzejczyk stayed right on the outside of Penne's punches, and then — like a coiled snake with rocket boosters on its back — struck with vicious timing. She began to absolutely punish Penne for every attempt at offence, as if to say, "What do you think this is, a fight? You clearly missed the part of the memo that read, 'slaughter.'" A probing jab, viscera-smashing body strikes, mean elbows on the ends of punching combos.
Then, in the middle of the second, Jedrzejczyk unleashed one of her specialties. She backed Penne against the fence and unleashed a positively wicked flurry. Now, it's worth noting that flurries aren't all that uncommon in MMA, but you're about as likely to see a good flurry as you are to find a diamond in a ring pop package. Jedrzejczyk flurries with purpose. Each rapid-fire strike bludgeons specific parts of her opponents' defence, opening holes for the real meat of her attack seconds later. Low, high, low, high, elbow, elbow, elbow, elbow — all to the sides, all to get that guard to drop. When it does, boom, a straight shot that nearly makes Penne crumple.
Somehow, the fight made it to the third round, with Penne gushing blood. Props to her: she was tough as hell. Her face looked like a Halloween zombie mask. Mercifully, the ref called the fight in the middle of another Jedrzejczyk flurry — one which Penne was barely even trying to defend.
But Jedrzejczyk isn't just a tiny Polish murder machine; she's also goddamn hilarious. It's not mean-spirited hilarity in the style of, say, a Ronda Rousey or a Conor McGregor (or any number of great trash talkers from other sports), either.
Which brings me to the cookie. Before Jedrzejczyk mauled Penne, she captured the strawweight title from Carla Esparza, the first women's strawweight champion in both the UFC and women's MMA organisation Invicta. She did it with ease (Esparza is a pretty one-dimensional ground fighter, and Jedrzejczyk never let her have the takedown), but what happened before the fight was arguably just as entertaining.
MMA weigh-ins are brutal. Fighters often find themselves cutting tens of pounds to make their weight classes, then re-hydrating and eating to go back to their actual weights before fight night. Done incorrectly, this stuff can put people in the hospital. Sometimes it does.
As soon as Jedrzejczyk and Esparza were done weighing in, they had their face-off — their Serious Fighty Fight Staredown For The Ages. Except it really wasn't that at all. Jedrzejczyk smiled and handed Esparza a cookie, which Esparza accepted, both grateful and mildly confused. Funny and pretty fucking cool, right? It gets better. See, Esparza's nickname is "Cookie Monster." So it was also a word gag. Shortly after that, Jedrzejczyk assured everyone that she didn't drug the cookie. Good on her.
She went on to obliterate Esparza in ways that were, frankly, not very nice at all. When asked about why everything went down the way it did, she told MMA Fighting, "I think I break her. She didn't know what to expect. Maybe she thought that I am crazy. I am really nice. But not in the cage."
Joanna Jedrzejczyk is definitely not nice in the cage.
Her opponent this weekend is a woman by the name of Valerie Letourneau. Letourneau is a solid, gritty, and aggressive striker — a change of pace since Jedrzejczyk started competing in UFC title fights. Letourneau is also a 10-to-1 underdog, a sacrificial lamb being fed to Jedrzejczyk so she can get a big win while all of Ronda Rousey's fans are watching.
That said, Jedrzejczyk's last fight against another high-level striker, Claudia Gadelha, nearly didn't go her way. She won the fight by split decision, but many fans and pundits still feel like she should have lost. Most crucially, Gadelha brought the fight to Jedrzejczyk. In both striking and clinching exchanges, she was the aggressor. She rarely let Jedrzejczyk have any space, any room to open up and strike on her terms.
I doubt Letourneau can replicate that tactic with Gadelha's level of finesse, but there is a blueprint in place for her to give Jedrzejczyk and her clean, distance-based striking fits. This will be an interesting measure of how far Jedrzejczyk has come since the fight she nearly lost. Worst case scenario, we get another Jedrzejczyk striking clinic, a thing of intoxicating smoothness and rhythm. Best case scenario, we get a real scrap — a fight five round war that leaves the octagon stained in blood, sweat, and tears.
It's hard to say. Unlike the women's bantamweight division, where Rousey is head-and-shoulders above the rest, women's strawweight is a bit more competitive. Jedrzejczyk has, so far, proven to be one of the UFC's most dominant champs, but there are still tests for her. There are still question marks, especially with Gadelha waiting in the wings.
I'm excited to see how Jedrzejczyk and her still-nascent division evolve. She has the potential to be a big star, with her crowd-pleasing fighting style and unique sense of humour. She's just gotta break through. On the flipside, if she falters here — against an opponent she's really, really supposed to beat — I doubt there'll be much air left in her balloon. For Jedrzejczyk, this weekend is do or die. Time to see if she has what it takes.
Top image credit: Getty.