Polish MMA has found its two brightest stars in the UFC’s strawweight division.
When #JoannaJedrzejczyk attempts the fourth defense of her strawweight championship at UFC 205 against #KarolinaKowalkiewicz, it will be the first time in UFC history that two Poles have fought for a UFC championship. Jedrzejczyk, already staking a reputable claim as the finest female competitor in the sport’s history, has beaten and bloodied every opponent in her path, with only Brazilian powerhouse #ClaudiaGadelha posing any real challenge to the champion. Kowalkiewicz, meanwhile, enters her first UFC championship fight on the back of a close split decision win over #RoseNamajunas, one of many close decisions throughout her career.
The pair have met before. In 2012, the two faced each other in an amateur bout in their native Poland, with “Joanna Champion” submitting Kowalkiewicz in the opening round. Much has changed since then, and each has evolved dramatically as a technician.
Jedrzejczyk is a natural striker, one of the UFC’s finest, and is known for her distinct fluidity and diversity. Fighting out of both southpaw and orthodox stances, the champion is an equally adept puncher and kicker, forming long and often dizzying combinations which she can both start and finish with kicks. Her comfort on the feet is preternatural, and is a key component of her fluidity. Jedrzejczyk’s movement is extremely coordinated, with her feet adjusting effortlessly behind her as she moves to strike; this allows her to attack while moving in any direction, and at any angle, even throwing punching combinations while moving backwards. This unique coordination in conjunction with her comfort as a striker afford her a great deal of options with her combination striking, the cornerstone of her game. Where the champion truly shines is in her creativity; with each strike in her repertoire bearing the ease and flow indicative of constant repetition, she is capable of adjusting her shot selection mid-combination as her opponent reacts. Strings of punches alternating between the head and body, kicks interjected at any point in the sequence, and seamless stance switching are all hallmarks of Jedrzejczyk’s combination game, and this ability to manipulate the flow of her combos mid-strike allows her to capitalize on opportunities which would be impossible for most other fighters.
As a kicker, Jedrzejczyk favors the front snap kick, thrown to both the head and body, and a tricky low kicking game. From the orthodox stance, she will swing low to the outside of an opponent’s lead thigh, while landing on the inside of the thigh from the southpaw stance, often switching stances specifically to land kicks to her preferred side of her target’s leg. With remarkable leg speed, Jedrzejczyk will often throw low kicks with no setup, framing outwards with one or both arms to push an opponent back and deter counters. If an opponent is not checking or countering her low kicks, she will begin to throw high kicks from either stance, her blinding speed often catching foes off guard and unprepared.
Though a Thai striker and a credentialed world champion in Muay Thai, boxing fundamentals permeate the game of "Joanna Champion". Her head movement is especially crisp and well-timed, while her footwork is consistently sharp. Rarely backing up in straight lines, she will attack from a straight angle before quickly escaping backwards on a diagonal angle, sometimes re-engaging as an opponent turns to adjust before simply cutting another angle and escaping. Her craftiness and ability to read the flow of striking exchanges is equal to that of any fighter in the sport.
Jedrzejczyk’s defensive grappling is airtight, having defeated both Gadelha and #CarlaEsparza, arguably the division’s two best wrestlers. Against Esparza, Jedrzejczyk effortlessly stuffed the then-champion’s takedowns, constantly positioning herself at angles which made takedown attempts in open space difficult to complete. In her rematch against Gadelha, she was repeatedly taken down in the early rounds, but showed excellent scrambling in her ability to return to her feet almost instantly on many occasions. Constantly forcing a grappling-inclined opponent to work, she will never rest in guard and rarely finds herself with her back flat to the canvas. Rolling onto one hip, she likes to base herself with a single hand while controlling the arm of an opponent, scooting herself towards the fence before wall-walking back to her feet. The champion’s incredible conditioning belies the fact that this constant activity is exhausting; Gadelha, after winning the first two rounds, had tired significantly by the pivotal third round, and was no longer able to hold Jedrzejczyk down for any prolonged period of time, eventually finding herself unable to score takedowns whatsoever.
In the clinch, Jedrzejczyk likes to push opponents towards the fence, throwing elbows from every trajectory before disengaging at a moment’s notice and initiating combinations. Her unique ability to throw strikes from any position enables her to strike in the clinch even at moments when she may seem off-balance, or when the fighters are maneuvering for position. This element lends her in-fighting a high degree of unpredictability, and leaves her with many offensive and defensive options.
The challenger is not so polished as a striker. Against Namajunas, Kowalkiewicz lost large portions of the fight in open space to the relatively inexperienced “Thug Rose”. Her head was almost always stationary, with very little in the way of defensive slips or weaves, and she never pulled away from the center line as she struck, leaving her chin exposed during every engagement. Namajunas was able to repeatedly punish her with hard counter strikes as she threw naked low kicks and hesitant combinations with little weight behind them. Kowalkiewicz’s striking game, however, is secondary in her skillset to her clinch game, where she truly shines.
As a clinch fighter, Kowalkiewicz is extremely aggressive in a way uncharacteristic of her standup game. From the double collar tie, she feeds foes a steady stream of knees to the body, opening up the head, and possesses great skill in manipulating an opponent’s weight by pulling their head in various directions. When an opponent attempts to break the collar tie by fighting her hands, Kowalkiewicz will release one hand, hammering in lightning-quick elbows over the top, before re-establishing the position and continuing her assault of knees to the gut.
In the fight with Namajunas, Kowalkiewicz was seemingly outmatched everywhere except for the clinch, but managed to force this position with such tenacity that she was able to outwork the less experienced clinch fighter, fatiguing her with knees to the body until the clinch presented itself more and more readily. The ruthlessness and dogged determination with which she exploited her advantage in the in-fight was indicative of a fighter with a fine tactical mind.
As gifted a clinch fighter as Kowalkiewicz is, her greatest issue may be her ability to find or maintain that position. Not known for her pressuring footwork, getting inside of the champion’s lengthy strikes is a difficult proposition, made even more so by the fact that the challenger is so hittable in open space. Each failed attempt at initiating the in-fight is likely to result in Jedrzejczyk landing continuous offense as Kowalkiewicz advances, and as she retreats. Over time, this accumulated damage could serve as a deterrent to her clinch entries, placing the fight more firmly in open space, where Jedrzejczyk should have a sizeable technical edge.
Much of her offense is attritive, targeting exact points of the legs and body with precision and wearing opponents down over time. As they begin to slow, the champion’s pace only increases, drowning tiring foes under the weight of her volume. To challenge her without clearly defined answers to her offensive toolkit is both exhausting and terrifying; the mangled, bloodied faces of her previous opponents serving as a testament to the punishing nature of her onslaught.
When Poland’s favorite daughters duel for the UFC strawweight championship, it will serve not only as a monumental moment for Polish MMA, but for women’s MMA. Every bit as gifted a fighter as former bantamweight champion #RondaRousey, Jedrzejczyk has been unable to achieve the breakout success of her heavier peers, a quality shared by the rest of the relatively unknown but talent-rich strawweight division. In the UFC’s debut at #MadisonSquareGarden, in a championship fight on the main card of the most high-profile pay-per-view in MMA history, these two women will be afforded the opportunity to stand under a spotlight brighter than has ever been shone on a female mixed martial artist. When the dust settles, the winner may find herself a star not only in her native Poland, but appreciated by a plethora of new fans, exposed to the skill and depth of women’s MMA’s richest and most exciting division for the first time.