mma / Columns

Joanna Champion Takes it to the Next Level

May 15, 2017 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Joanna Jedrzejczyk

It’s about time people start learning how to spell “Jędrzejczyk,” because we’re going to be talking about Joanna Champion for a long time.

Jędrzejczyk completed her fifth strawweight title defense on Saturday at UFC 211 in a performance that was about as perfect as a champion can have against a top-five contender. Her challenger, Jéssica Andrade, had been a middling, undersized bantamweight before moving down to the 115-pound division. At strawweight, she had been a tank and plowed through three opponents before arriving at Jędrzejczyk’s doorstep. Likely the strongest fighter in the division, Andrade went into the fight as only a small underdog; her strength and tenacity figured to threat to the champion.

Outside of an early bull rush of punches that caused a hematoma on Jędrzejczyk’s forehead, the Polish champion put on a master class in dismantling a powerful, but less technical, fighter. She landed with volume; a steady diet of jabs and low kicks kept the challenger at bay while setting up well-timed and quick straight rights and head kicks. In all, Jędrzejczyk landed 225 significant strikes by Fight Metric’s count, with 63% of her attempts scoring.

As she had in past fights, Jędrzejczyk once again displayed excellent defense wrestling. Andrade, who lifted Jędrzejczyk up for big slams multiple times, only planted Jędrzejczyk on her back twice, and both times the champion escaped quickly to her feet. By not allowing Andrade to work her dangerous top game or get anything started on the feet, Jędrzejczyk took away all of her opponent’s best weapons, forcing Andrade to fight on her terms. To her credit, Andrade never relented, exuding gameness to the very end and never allowed Jędrzejczyk the opportunity to stroll to the finish line. However, no matter Andrade’s efforts, the fight was one of the cleanest, most brilliant five-round title defenses in MMA history.

Ever since she took the title from Carla Esparza two years ago, the UFC has been in a slow building phase with Jędrzejczyk. Her first championship defense took place on UFC Fight Pass, and then her second in the semi-main event slot underneath the Ronda Rousey vs. Holly Holm fight. For her third fight, she headlined on Fox Sports 1, and then last November she performed third-from the top at UFC 205 in Madison Square Garden. Saturday at UFC 211 was another semi-main event slot, with the live crowd treating her as a big star. Of the eight other UFC greats that made five or more title defenses, the longest any of them had to wait to main event on pay-per-view was the fourth title defense. Through six title fights and five title defenses, Jędrzejczyk has never been the main event of a UFC pay-per-view. It’s time for that to change.

Jędrzejczyk has a natural charm, the type that makes a high-level fighter a box office attraction. In addition, leading into her title defenses, she carries an intensity that few match; it makes for a great soundbite from a press conference or stare down photo. However, because Jędrzejczyk has never been the focus of a large-scale event, media and fan attention is naturally drawn over to the main marquee fight. Being part of major shows has benefitted Jędrzejczyk’s visibility, but that lack of focus has hindered her development as a main event star.

Ronda Rousey attracted unprecedented levels of media attention because her name and picture drew clicks and magazine sales. With Rousey out of the picture at least for the near future, there will be media outlets interested in UFC’s next great female star, particularly as she vies to tie Rousey’s six title defense mark in her next fight. As the centerpiece of a pay-per-view and therefore the recipient of a push from the UFC, Jędrzejczyk will at the very least attract significantly more media attention than Demetrious Johnson, which translates to pay-per-view success to some degree.

The presumed next fight for Jędrzejczyk is not the perfect pay-per-view main event fight. It appears that Rose Namajunas, who submitted Michelle Waterson in April, is next in line for Jędrzejczyk. On one hand, given the styles at play, it promises to be an exciting and violent fight. On the other, Jędrzejczyk should have a sizable advantage on the feet and in the clinch. While Namajunas is very dangerous on the ground, better wrestlers than her have failed to keep Jędrzejczyk on the mat, and better grapplers than her have failed to stop Jędrzejczyk.

Although the element of Jędrzejczyk’s title being in significant danger would add interest to the bout, there are many worse things than an exciting one-sided fight. In this case, it could even be a very good thing. People checking out Jędrzejczyk for the first time would see that she is the real deal, and the media coverage leaving the event would be centered on her. It would be a nice change.

After five championship defenses, Jędrzejczyk has grown as much as she will be able to in her current position. Continually booking her in semi-main events will no longer benefit her star power. Alternatively, pushing her to a pay-per-view main event slot won’t hurt Jędrzejczyk nor the UFC, and may ultimately be very beneficial to both parties. The pay-per-view main event is a spotlight that Jędrzejczyk is overdue for.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.

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Joanna Jedrzejcyzk, Dan Plunkett