When the UFC’s golden girl Ronda Rousey returns at the end of the year, she may find an imposter in her throne. Joanna Jedrzejczyk, smaller and slighter but lacking none of Rousey’s aggression, has been elected as the new queen of the cage…
She had only recently debuted in the sport when Rousey brazenly broke down the doors of acceptance three years ago, but Jedrzejczyk is already busy raising the bar of what women are capable of doing inside the UFC octagon. Straw-weight is not just the division that she rules, but an apt description of the pint-sized puncher that has shoved nostalgia about Rousey into the shadows.
“At the time I didn’t think about competing in MMA,” Jedrzejczyk exclusively told Sportsclubsociety about watching Rousey’s rise before her 2013 debut, speaking in the bashful demeanour you might expect if you met her without knowing her day-job.
“But, one day, I made a transition and said ‘let’s do this’ – it was a good choice,” she chuckled. Jedrzejczyk was hardly new to fighting altogether – she competed in kickboxing, a labour of love that scarcely yielded a living – before crossing over into MMA as part of the generation enabled by Rousey.
She comes from Poland already possessing enough western sarcasm that she initially advised people to ignore her virtually unpronounceable surname. Joanna, she was known as, until she audaciously insisted people replace ‘Jedrzejczyk’ with ‘Champion’ on the eve of her first world title shot.
Now the straw-weight champion, it seems implausible that a female with an ever-improving grasp of English has become one of the UFC’s hottest commodities, to the extent that Jedrzejczyk was picked to defend her belt on Conor McGregor’s landmark undercard in New York City.
People see me as the champion, they think I sleep on money. They didn’t see my fighting for my life, for my success. For 10 years I’ve invested in myself.
“They are coming for Conor McGregor, not for me,” laughs Jedrzejczyk, embarrassed at her popularity being pointed out.
“It’s crazy. This is what I’m talking about – people see me as the champion, they think I sleep on money. Of course I’m making better money now, but they didn’t see me fighting for my life, for my success. For 10 years I’ve invested in myself. Finally, hard work pays off.
“After [my last fight] people saw I am not doing a drama, I am not complaining. People finally saw me as a real person. I am enjoying every second, believe me.
“I have booked 24 tickets for my family and friends but there’s a big Polish community in New York so I heard lots of people are coming to see me.”
The sole times Jedrzejczyk retreats into shyness is when addressing her burgeoning fan-base but it has been achieved in the same way as any other fighter – inside the cage. She is undefeated and ruthless and possesses a whirlwind of kicks, knees and punches that has been credited with dragging the overall skill-level of the women’s game to new heights.
It is an oddity that a 27-year-old female Pole with no sporting background in her family will provide the most intriguing support to McGregor’s latest headline act. “I am a twin but my sister is too lazy to go to the gym,” jokes Jedrzejczyk, yet apparently she isn’t unique because her upcoming opponent, Karolina Kowalkiewicz, is an exact replica from the same country.
It was a big lesson. I am trying to stay humble.
But Jedrzejczyk remains the attraction for the women’s title fight – at 12-0, she has an identical record to Rousey’s before the American’s now-infamous defeat to Holly Holm that resulted in a year-long hiatus that hasn’t yet ended.
“It was a big lesson,” Jedrzejczyk says of Rousey’s loss. “I am trying to stay humble and I’m working hard every day, because it pays off. That’s the reason I’m still the champion – I will not sleep on my success. I am trying to learn new things every day from everyone.”
How can she eclipse the achievement of former women’s bantamweight champion Rousey? “Keep on doing what I’m doing, keep on defending my title. My goal and dream is to be an undefeated champion so I need to be focused on every fight. My goal is to retire as an unbeaten champion which will be very difficult, but I will make it happen.”
Rousey’s legacy in the cage could yet be improved upon because she returns in December to challenge for her old belt, but the American’s true value was her conquering of pop culture throughout her dominant reign. Jedrzejczyk was taking notes: “I could be part of a Hollywood movie, why not? I like to challenge myself in different categories of life.”
She lacks the all-American looks and accent, not something which is lost on her. “It’s going to be difficult,” Jedrzejczyk said about becoming a brand like Rousey. “I moved to America seven weeks ago when I left my management, but after my fight, I will try to sign with American management. I hope my new management get me to Hollywood. It isn’t my biggest goal – I want to be remembered as the best athlete, the best UFC champion.
“I don’t want to make tons of money, I just want to save enough for a good life in the future.” Jedrzejczyk doesn’t always speak with the same ferocity as Rousey did, but inside the cage, she is a fighter on par with any female we’ve ever seen.