UFC 205 is less than a week away. None of the main card fighters have been pulled. Barring an unforeseen elevator related incident, we may just be on course for the best card the UFC has ever produced. The first title fight of the night pits polish superstars Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Karolina Kowalkiewicz. Many people are quick to draw similarities between the two. Both are Polish by birth. They are both undefeated in their professional careers. Both have backgrounds in muay thai.
However, stylistically the two of these women are radically different. Barring one (large) habit that both share on the feet, Jedrzejczyk and Kowalkiewicz have very distinct styles. One is a classical muay thai sharpshooter. The other resembles a more traditional martial arts style with an integrated muay thai clinch.
A Guide To UFC 205: Jedrzejczyk vs. Kowalkiewicz
Joanna Jedrzejczyk: Perception vs. Reality
“Joanna Champion” has received universal praise for her performances in the octagon. In the uncertain landscape of 2016 she provides a degree of certainty absent from the marquee divisions. In an age where Michael Bisping is wearing UFC gold and the women’s bantamweight title has seen four owners in the last twelve months, consistency is hard to come by. Jedrzejczyk stands out for managing to keep a strangle hold on both her belt and her entire weightclass.
It wasn’t too long ago that the UFC’s newly minted strawweight division was an open market. They even threw the top-16 into a season of The Ultimate Fighter to show how competitive the division could be. One fighter missing from that season was Jedrzejczyk, who quickly earned a title shot and since then has turned the once wide open plains of 115 pounds into her own personal hunting ground. She has stamped her name on the division so thoroughly that many forget it was actually Carla Esparza who will go down in history as the first ever 115 pound champion.
With such a run of impressive victories compounding an undefeated pro record, it is easy to see why so much hyperbole has sprouted up around Jedrzejczyk. Many acclaim her to be a “perfect striker”. I feel like this kind of pandering does Jedrzejczyk a disservice. She is by no means a perfect striker. Nobody is. From Conor McGregor to Stephen Thompson, to Jon Jones, every single fighter on the planet suffers from deficiencies in some areas. All skills come with benefits and potential hazards. Jedrzejczyk is no different. The fact that she can continue to succeed in spite of some more dangerous habits makes her performances that much more entertaining.
Built On The Basics
So much praise has been lauded onto Jedrzejczyk’s striking that it is easy to overlook that at her best, she is a minimalist. Some would even describe her style as “Basic”. That is by no means a disparaging comment. To call something basic is not to say it is bad, it is simply not unorthodox. Jedrzejczyk is not one for unusual techniques or quirky combinations. She doesn’t like high-risk-high-reward maneuvers and she recognizes that to be effective, you only need to hit them and not get hit. That is he center of high level striking. What you do between strikes and how you set them up is more important than the strikes themselves.
The strikes Jedrzejczyk favors are ones you learn in day one striking classes. The jab, the cross, and the lead hook. The leg kick, snap kick and the rear elbow. What sets her apart is how she can be so varied using these few techniques.
She has always been at her best throwing two/three shot combinations off her jab. Again, it is in the execution of her fundamentals in which she excels, not in advanced techniques. She has a few favorites for following the jab, usually the basic one-two that sees her land her stinging right straight, or a jab-low-kick.
Another Jedrzejczyk set up is her jab into a stepping right hook. This plays perfectly off her low kick and often sees her catch opponents standing on one leg as they try to check the kick. She is very good at varying her tempo and catching people off-guard. She will often catch opponents with a lead right straight as they walk towards her. This also pairs very well with her left hook to the body.
A Truly Rounded Switch Hitter
Jedrzejczyk is one of the most effective switch hitters in MMA today. Unlike almost every other fighter who switches stances mid-fight, Jedrzejczyk’s tools do not vary based on her stance. Usually, when people switch stances it is because they have a technique that works better for them from that stance. A great example is Stephen Thompson, who puts his right leg in front primarily to sidekick, and his left leg in front primarily to box. Jedrzejczyk has the same game whether orthodox or southpaw. However, the stance changes constantly vary the angle of entry of her shots. A left jab and a left straight do not occupy the same trajectory. You would be surprised just how many times Jedrzejczyk switches stances per round.
The Dangers Of Flurrying
Where Jedrzejczyk has seen herself run in to problems, literally, it is when she opens up with more than two shots at a time. While she is fantastic at picking her opponent apart at range, once she decides to finish, Jedrzejczyk can get wild. Her flurries against hurt opponents are a great point scorer. There is nothing like six or seven unanswered shots to an opponent without a return to convince a referee that the fight is over.
The key word there is unanswered. When Jedrzejczyk flurries, she keeps her hands by her chest and her chin out in the air. She has been caught by this in the past by her old nemesis Claudia Gadelha.
Hands, Not Just For Hitting
There are a lot of comparisons made between “Joanna Champion” and UFC hall-of-famer Chuck Liddell. And they can be justified in the sense that neither of them are bad grapplers by any means. They simply choose to use their grappling in a defensive capacity as to allow them to strike. Much like Liddell did, Jedrzejczyk can be described as something of a ‘handsy’ fighter.
Rather than keep herself too far away to be shot on, like Demetrious Johnson, Joanna has been known to carry her hands low to easily allow her to grab underhooks to fight off a takedown, and when she is taken down she ascribes heavily to Liddell’s philosophy, that if you want to survive on the ground on the bottom, you must be constantly moving. Looking to improve your position and butt scoot to the fence and begin to fence-walk back to the feet wherever possible.
Being handsy also aids Jedrzejczyk in breaking her opponents’ offence. Whenever her opponent looks to rush in, Jedrzejczyk’s hands are out to meet them and keep them at arm’s length.
It is this constant shoving and stiff-arming more than anything else that allows Jedrzejczyk to maintain her preferred range. You cannot walk through a person’s arm. While “heeling” as it is referred to in boxing is illegal, it is a perfectly legal tactic in MMA.
Issues In Close
It would not be fair to say that Jedrzejczyk is a bad in-fighter. Her work from the clinch with elbows and knees while fending off takedowns are legendary. However, if there is a range where she is in the most danger, it is when she is right in front of her opponent. When she is in finish mode, Jedrzejczyk sacrifices a lot of defensive traits in order to pursue a finish. Her stiff arming disappears and her head stays on the centerline. Almost every time she gets hurt or dropped, it is when she is either coming in or swinging back at her opponent.
That last gif will be of particular importance when talking about Jedrzejczyk’s next opponent, Karolina Kowalkiewicz.
Karolina Kowalkiewicz: Activity is Key
Kowalkiewicz is a very different type of fighter to the champion. While one is focused on maintaining range, the other can’t seem to help but close it. The first thing to note about Kowalkiewicz’s style is that defense is not high on her list of priorities. Her style is based around volume, activity, and aggression. This may not be obvious at a glance, but the key to Kowalkiewicz’s success has always been using her aggression to mask her questionable defensive choices.
While Jedrzejczyk can become defensively unaware when she is being aggressive, her style at it’s base is built around defense. Her stiff arming and long, rangy attack serves to keep her out of the way of shots for the majority of her bouts. Kowalkiewicz, on the other hand, has a style that involves very little in terms of defensive awareness. Her hands get lower and lower as the bout progresses, often ending up by her waist.
A common misconception is that you shouldn’t fight with your hands down. Like almost everything else in the fight game, it comes with advantages and disadvantages. This in itself is not a sign of bad defense. Dominick Cruz is a terrific example of someone who uses his low hands to bait people into swinging at his head, then avoids the shots accordingly. Kowalkiewicz keeps her hands low, but she also keeps her head exceptionally straight. She doesn’t deviate from the centerline at all. As a result she is right there to be hit whenever she steps in, just like Jedrzejczyk. However, her low hands are not only at range. Even when fighting in close, Kowalkiewicz will keep her hands low and her chin up.
Another interesting thing about Kowalkiewicz is that she does not close the distance like a traditional muay thai fighter. Instead, she uses a technique more commonly found in point fighting competitions: the blitz. Kowalkiewicz will often step with her punches as she’s throwing them, which allows her to quickly cover distance while remaining aggressive.
The blitz by itself does is not usually that effective for her. However, it does serve to set up her clinch and kicks. If Ronda Rousey’s career showed us anything, it is that marching into the clinch is still a viable strategy in women’s MMA. If her opponent backs up, Kowalkiewicz will finish with a left body kick. Because of her stepping motion, the switch for the kick is hidden very well.
There are a few disadvantages of this style, first and foremost that running at your opponent is a dangerous game. Getting caught with a punch while moving into a blow does much more damage than taking it while in your stance.
It is also hard to be mobile while doing this. You must commit your weight to moving forward, and if your opponent circles off, you can’t easily follow them.
The Double Up
Where Kowalkiewicz begins to be a danger to people is when she enters close range. While she may not be defensively aware when she’s there, she uses a tool that many others do not. When in close, she will double up on shots.
This to me is the most interesting thing about Kowalkiewicz’s game. She will double up all kinds of strikes: punches, kicks, elbows, and knees. The advantage of doubling up is that it goes against orthodox rhythms. The blows that hurt the most are the ones you do not expect. Most people will alternate right and left-sided blows. By doubling up, Kowalkiewicz will often land a blow then land a second as their opponent expects one to come from the other side.
As soon as Kowalkiewicz lands the first right hand, you see Rose raise her right hand in anticipation of a left hand follow up. Instead, she eats another right hand. She may not hit hard, but the power of a landed punch is immeasurably more than a missed one.
Kowalkiewicz will also double up kicks, alternating low and high to catch opponents off guard.
Kowalkiewicz is at her most effective within the clinch. Her pace is something to behold, she will constantly attack with knees and elbows. While this can lead to some lax positional grappling, again her naked aggression sees her through. It is in the clinch that Kowalkiewicz’s double-ups become even more effective.
Kowalkiewicz does her damage in pace. She stays active and forces work, disrupts breathing and doesn’t seem to mind if she gets hit doing it.
This fight is not without it’s merits, but it is probably one of the hardest fights on this card to be excited for. Kowalkiewicz is still a relative unknown, and her style has habits traditionally exploited by Jedrzejczyk. She keeps her hands low, she marches with punches, and she relies on her opponent standing to meet her to get the clinch rather than trying to cut the cage.
Jedrzejczyk’s stiff-arming and linear strikes are the perfect foil for deterring charging opponents (see Holly Holm/Ronda Rousey for an example of this). She will give ground and stiff arm her opponents off, then punish them with straight punches they cannot walk through.
Where this fight could get interesting is if Kowalkiewicz can gain the clinch. Jedrzejczyk has proved hittable when on offence, and Kowalkiewicz is perfectly happy to take one to give three. Her double-ups could also play havoc with Jedrzejczyk’s style, as the timing of deflecting them is very different to more conventional striking patterns.
This fight is like every fight. Both fighters have habits that the other can exploit. Kowalkiewicz seems to come out worse when looking for potential holes, but that does not mean she cannot pull off the win. She is tailor-made to bring out all the habits in Jedrzejczyk’s style, the good and the bad. That means we are in for either a dominating performance from one of the most thoughtful strikers in MMA today or another seemingly dominant champion will fall seemingly from nowhere, only to show what has and will always be the case. A fight is never a guarantee, regardless of who is fighting.