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Joanna Jedrzejczyk – A Pioneer of Women’s MMA

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Earlier in June, an icon of MMA decided to hang up the gloves and call it a day. After a devastating second-round knockout defeat to Zhang Weili, Joanna Jedrzejczyk has officially retired. For those new to the sport and unaware of its recent history, it may appear that Jedrzejczyk was simply not good enough to succeed at the highest level in the UFC. Indeed in her last seven fights in the organization, she lost five of them and suffered major damage along the way. Three of these losses were also title fights.

Yet, Joanna at one point in time was not only a champion in the UFC, but was among the most dominant in the entire promotion. This article will discuss the career of Joanna Jedrzejczyk and how she cemented herself as the greatest strawweight champion of all time.

Early Career/Winning Title

Born in Poland, Jedrzejczyk would first be introduced to martial arts at the age of 16 when she began practicing Muay Thai. She would take part in various kickboxing and Muay Thai competitions over the next 10 years, winning 5 IMFA gold medals as an amateur as well as winning five separate world titles as a professional compiling a record of 27-3.

Joanna would make her professional MMA debut in May 2012, and over the next two years would remain unbeaten, picking up six victories before signing to the UFC in 2014. Joanna would fight in the newly formed strawweight division and pick up her first win over Juliana Lima via unanimous decision. Due to the recent creation of the division, there was a lack of fighters to fill it up, and Jedrzejcyk found herself thrust into a No. 1 contender’s fight in what was only her second fight under the UFC banner. She would go on to win this fight as well, beating Claudia Gadelha via split decision in a fight that many thought should have gone the other way.

Yet she pushed on and was lined up to face Strawweight champ Carla Esparza at UFC 185 in Esparza’s first title defence. Jedrzejczyk went on to prove any naysayers and doubters of her ability totally wrong by emphatically finishing Esparza in the second round via TKO. The reign that followed would be unprecedented in the history of the division and has yet to be replicated to this day. 

Championship Reign

Once winning the belt in 2015, Jedrzejczyk would go on to defend the strap a record five times over the next two years. For context, Weili and Rose Namajunas are tied in second place when it comes to title defenses during the same reign, each holding a single defense. Joanna would pick up victories over Jessica Penne and Valerie Letourneau, as well as notably solidifying her controversial victory over Claudia Gadelha by cruising to a unanimous decision win in her third title defense.

She would then defeat fellow Polish fighter Karolina Kowalkiewicz at UFC 205 on a show that was described by UFC President Dana White as being the biggest in the company’s history. This was followed by defeating Jessica Andrade (who would later go on to become a champion in her own right). Joanna during this time looked totally invincible, as if she was in a different league to the rest of her opponents. It was extremely difficult to imagine anyone dethroning her anytime soon. Of course, as we all know, she would finally meet her match at UFC 217 when she was knocked out by Namajunas in a fight that was considered one of the biggest upsets in the sport at the time. 

Losing the belt and fighting Weili

Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s legacy did not end with the defeat to Namajunas, though. Possibly her most valuable contribution to women’s MMA was still yet to come. She would lose to Namajunas in a rematch of their UFC 217 encounter before picking up a win against Tecia Torres, another loss against Valentina Shevchenko for the flyweight championship and then a win against Michelle Waterson upon a return to strawweight.

The win against Waterson would propel her to a title shot for the strawweight crown against Zhang Weili. The fight against Weili will not only go down as undoubtedly the greatest fight in women’s MMA but also as one of the greatest fights in MMA as a whole. Action over all five rounds saw both Weili and Jedrzejczyk dish out heavy damage to one another with Jedrzejczyk sustaining the iconic hematoma injury on her forehead which saw her looking more like Megamind as opposed to a UFC fighter. Yet, she persisted and the fight went the distance with Weili ultimately winning the split decision.

Many thought, including myself, that Jedrzejczyk did enough to win the fight. Though the winner and loser are not the most important things to take away from this fight, rather the focus should be on the impact it had on women’s MMA as a whole.

Despite the existence of Ronda Rousey, Cris Cyborg, Valentina Shevchenko and Amanda Nunes, women’s MMA is still in its infancy and there are particular sets of fans who look down upon it and will show no interest in a card headlined by women, or even have any idea about the landscape and rankings of the women’s divisions as a whole. Often these people state that there is a lack of skill in women’s MMA and that the overall quality is less than their male counterparts. Joanna Jedrzejczyk, as well as Zhang Weili, helped shatter this idiotic ideology by delivering possibly the greatest fight that the organization or even the sport has ever seen and has totally and ultimately legitimized women’s MMA to all potential critics and naysayers.

Legacy

Ultimately the conclusion of this article is not to say that Joanna is the greatest women’s fighter of all time, as arguments could be made for the likes of Rousey, Nunes, Cyborg, Shevchenko, etc. However, Jedrzejczyk is at least in the same bracket as the names previously mentioned. Too many dismiss her claim as the greatest strawweight of all time due to the losses on her record towards the end of her career.

Yet, when one examines her resume, it is extremely impressive, including a victory over the current champion, Esparza. What is even more impressive than Jedrzejczyk’s record is her longevity and the legacy that she will leave behind. By far the most dominant strawweight in the history of the division, she was to the strawweight division what Shevchenko is to flyweights or Nunes and Rousey were to bantamweights and should be put on the same pedestal as them. All in all, she was a true pioneer for MMA and will go down as a legend of the sport and one of the greatest to ever do it.

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