Monday, June 21, 2021

UFC Trying To Make Joanna Jedrzejczyk A Superstar In New TV Interview Special

With UFC set to feature her in the return of the UFC 1 On 1 interview show tomorrow night (November 2nd) at 7:30 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1, it’s a good time to reflect back on the rise of UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Why? Because she wasn’t much more than an unknown a year or two ago.

When UFC announced that they were signing almost the entirety of Invicta FC’s 115 pound strawweight division to launch their own version of the division, the move was met with unanimous kudos. The strawweights (and the 105 pound atomweights, several of which also moved over) were carrying Invicta’s cards, had the best fights, the most interesting personalities, and all had unique, distinctive looks. They would not all run together; you’d remember there fighters’ names after you saw them.

The bulk of the Invicta fighters went into the Ultimate Fighter house for a title tournament, with only Paige VanZant (too young to drink alcohol in the TUF house),  Julianna Lima (doesn’t speak english), and Claudia Gadelha (couldn’t make the weight repeatedly during filming) as holdouts. All three would debut on Fight Pass prelims in the months before the TUF finale, with Lima and Gadelha fighting unknown European kickboxers as part of an unofficial tournament for the first title shot.

Gadelha beat her unknown opponent, Finland’s Tina Lahdemaki, who is still under UFC contract but hasn’t fought since. Lima proceeded by be pieced up by her opponent: Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who was making her strawweight debut after going 6-0 at 125 pounds. Soon, we realized that she was more than just some random kickboxer, starting with the Gadelha fight. Positioned as the featured televised prelim on the December 2014 Fox special, they had probably the highest level UFC women’s fight to date, with Jedrzejczyk dropping Gadelha en route to winning a close decision. The night before, Carla Esparza won the title in Las Vegas, so Jedrzejczyk would be her first challenger.

In the week leading up to UFC 185, where Esparza-Jedrzejczyk was the co-main event, Jedrzejczyk picked up a lot of steam among hardcore MMA fans. She had an endearing personality in videos posted by both the UFC and her own YouTube channel, but she was also a confident badass. Come fight night, she proceeded to completely destroy Esparza, stuffing her takedowns elbowing her on the way up, and blitzing her en route to a brutal stoppage. Throughout, she looked like the best striker in the UFC regardless of gender.

Suddenly, a lot of people were thinking the same thing: Who the hell is this woman?

Women’s kickboxing is, unfortunately, lacking in the type of high profile fights/cards/titles that men’s kickboxing has had for years, first with K-1 and now with Glory. So when Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg said that Joanna Jedrzejczyk was a multiple time world Muay Thai champion, lots of fans just assumed that she was like every other World Kickboxing or Muay Thai Champion in MMA. They’re not exactly hard to find, and they vary wildly in quality. Other than the biggest of kickboxing geeks like Team Takedown striking coach Steven Wright, who scours YouTube for region fights, nobody knew that her alphabet soup of titles were legitimate.

In her first defense, Joanna Jedrzejczyk went through Jessica Penne like a buzzsaw and won over the Berlin crowd just like she won over the fans in Texas when she beat Esparza. Amazingly fun to watch with an endearing personality, she IS a star. She’s just not a celebrity yet. This month, the UFC is trying to change that.

The UFC 1 On 1 show that airs tomorrow is the return of the program after a long break, and it’s part of the push for this month’s UFC 193 pay-per-view card from Melbourne, Australia. Ronda Rousey is in the main event, so to make Joanna Jedrzejczyk a bigger name and draw from Rousey’s more female-skewing audience, she’s in the co-headliner. It’s a smart plan, and you can tell just how much UFC has thought this through by watching the interview, which is the best installment of the series to date.

Yes, she remains incredibly likable and quotable (on Penne:  “She’s tough, she can handle it, she can handle a lot. But in second round, I felt sorry for her. And  for her nose.”), but that’s not all of it. Rousey gets a soundbite to position “Joanna Champion” as an alternate universe version of herself, saying that “She’s the kind of fighter that I would be if I had a striking base from the beginning instead of a grappling base. I see the other side of my coin with her.” The “female Chuck Liddell” comparison that some have used for Jedrzejczyk is brought up here, to the point that they slickly edited together a comparison to show just how similar her finish of Esparza was to his of Tito Ortiz. Her relatable backstory of getting into Muay Thai just as a way to lose weight is even brought up. But then there’s the big one:

It’s not a secret that the UFC’s exclusive apparel deal with Reebok has been subject to heavy criticism from fans and fighters alike due to the financial hit from fighters losing sponsors. Jedrzejczyk, however, is the one fighter who it’s clear genuinely loves the deal. Not only does she have a special deal with Reebok Poland that pays her more, but she’s an obsessive, adorably geeky sneaker collector who’s now getting free kicks all the time. If Joanna Jedrzejczyk loves the Reebok deal, then it has t be OK, doesn’t it?

There is one potential dark cloud over the UFC in the interview: Presumably stemming from her long (70-80 fights) Muay Thai career, Jedrzejczyk only wants to spend two to three more years in the UFC before retiring. Just like Rousey, she’s one of a kind and irreplaceable. However, there’s still light at the end of the tunnel, because she has a great rival/close number two in Gadelha that will also be a great UFC representative.

Until then, though? Let’s enjoy Joanna Champion.