Joanna Jedrzejczyk first entered the UFC a little over three years ago, making an inauspicious debut on the early undercard of a FOX show. Eight wins later, it seems as if both everything and nothing has changed for the Polish standout. Now the reigning UFC strawweight champion, Jedrzejczyk’s winning ways remain intact. But Jedrzejczyk has also become a legitimate star, having carried her fiery persona and still-undefeated record to the very top of the division while establishing herself as one of the most dominant Octagon champions of her era.
Jedrzejczyk will look to continue that run on Nov. 4 when she meets the next challenge on her hit list, Rose Namajunas, at Madison Square Garden for UFC 217. And in truth, with Jedrzejczyk having already systematically destroyed each of top three contenders at strawweight, Namajunas may very well represent the last chance for the division’s upper class to dethrone their ruling queen.
So what dangers does “Thug Rose” bring into UFC 217 that Jessica Andrade, Claudia Gadelha, Karolina Kowalkiewicz and each of Jedrzejczyk’s past victims did not?
“Just being myself,” Namajunas explained Wednesday on a UFC 217 media conference call. “That’s pretty difficult to deal with. When I’m totally in tune with myself and I’m flowing, it don’t matter who I’m fighting, that’s just a problem for anybody.
“Losing the first title fight (in 2014) definitely has brought my team together closer than ever and has made everybody kinda just build me up from the ground up, because I was definitely riding on a lot of talent and a lot of, just, improvisational skills. But since then we’ve built a good base of boxing, movement, and then added in my kicks there and my jiu-jitsu, so I’ve totally changed from being a bottom fighter to a top fighter. Now I’m totally complete everywhere, so I’m the total package.”
That sort of self-confidence wasn’t always present in Namajunas, a 25-year-old up-and-comer who has taken her time working back to the belt. And with the champion sitting on the other end of the phone line, Namajunas’ words were music to Jedrzejczyk’s ears.
“I’m very happy. This is what I’m expecting: War, Rose,” Jedrzejczyk responded. “I’m expecting a really good fight and a real war — but I want to just tell you that you’ve never, never faced someone like me, and I’m the best champion for a reason. And I will prove that on Nov. 4, baby. I’m making history one more time at the Garden.”
Stylistically, Namajunas presents a different sort of challenge than any of Jedrzejczyk’s recent title challengers.
Namajunas’ creativity and grappling acumen are two of her best traits, and both were on full display this past April when she decimated Michelle Waterson within two rounds at UFC on FOX 24.
Namajunas promises the diversity of her skillset has only improved in the time since.
“All my jabs, they’re all different,” Namajunas said. “I have a million different jabs. I have all these different sets that, if you don’t see all the different footwork and different head movement, the fakes, all that stuff, just the transitions with the kicks and chokes and everything like that — that’s all creative.”
“Sorry for interrupting,” Jedrzejczyk interjected. “I have only one jab. It’s long and very strong, and that’s enough. She’s not ready.”
While Namajunas is a diverse and fluid striker, the most lethal part of her game often lies in her ground work. Of her nine MMA victories — including her trio of unofficial wins on The Ultimate Fighter 20 — Namajunas has finished eight of her foes with submissions, including impressive showings over Joanne Calderwood, Paige VanZant, and Angela Hill.
By contrast, the mat is one of the last unknowns still surrounding Jedrzejczyk’s title reign. Of all of Jedrzejczyk’s title defenses, Gadelha was the only woman who was able to find a modicum of success pulling Jedrzejczyk to the floor, and even that minor accomplishment was a struggle. So Jedrzejczyk simply laughs when she hears pundits wondering whether Namajunas holds the grappling edge ahead of UFC 217.
“You know who is training at ATT? … BJJ world champions,” Jedrzejczyk said.
“There is something about me they don’t know. We can talk about this fight — how it’s going to look, how is she going to show up, how am I going to show up — but I’m taking care of how I’m going to look on Nov. 4, and I know I’m ready but they are not ready for me. You will never understand the [dedication] of my person and my fighting career, of me being a champion. And the thing is, you don’t see me on the ground, but I feel pretty confident on the ground.
“Everything is on-point. I know that she’s tricky, she’s sneaky, and her ground game is very good, that she’s going for submissions. Rear-naked chokes are her thing. But man, first of all, if she wants to take me down, if she wants me to submit, she must go through the punches and kicks. And if she wants to play on the ground, I will play on the ground and choke her out. That’s the thing.”