Phil and David break down everything you need to know about Kowalkiewicz vs. Gadelha at UFC 212, and everything you don’t about toadstools.
Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Claudia Gadelha battle for strawweight contendership this June 3, 2017 at the Jeunesse Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Single sentence summary
Phil: Durability vs athleticism, as Joanna’s toughest tests battle it out.
David: The fight to decide supremacy at Joanna’s Toadstool-weight.
Record: Claudia Gadelha 14-2 Karolina Kowalkiewicz 10-1
Odds: Claudia Gadelha -305 Karolina Kowalkiewicz +275
History / Introduction to the fighters
Phil: Gadelha was expected by most to be the heir apparent to the strawweight throne after the TUF season to crown the first title holder played out, but she was derailed by Joanna Jedrzejczyk in a tough, nip-tuck (and hilariously dirty) fight. She battled her way back to a title shot, and looked like she might be able to take the belt away from the Polish star, until her inefficient style and the champion’s brutal pace wore her down late. Now she’s in that dreaded Benavidez / Franklin zone, where it’ll be very difficult to get a rematch, and no-one wants to fight her. All credit to Karolina, then- it seems like we rarely get these kind of clear, defining matchups to determine who’s second best. I’m still bummed we never got a Joe B / Dodson fight.
David: Gadelha is in the Frankie Edgar phase of her career: already lost twice to the champion, and hoping the raw force of victory can propel her into an unlikely rubber match. She has the talent to make it happen. It’s just a question of improvement. Is her improvement commensurate with Joanna’s? I don’t think so, personally. It’s part of the reason why I’m not a big fan of this fight on the surface – a Kowalkiewicz rematch with Joanna is more interesting, so why give her Gadelha, one of her toughest stylistic matchups? She dominated Cortney Case, which isn’t easy. But was it enough to earn her this particular bout?
Phil: If Gadelha has performed slightly below expectations in the UFC, then Kowalkiewicz has performed well above them. I think I once referred to her as the potential Bisping of the division, and I think that still holds up, although she is perhaps even more mentally durable than the Count. While she’s not particularly technically stunning anywhere apart from the clinch, her unbelievable mental toughness and pace has managed to win her matchups against vastly superior athletes like Namajunas, and allowed her to have a brief, shining moment of success against Rose Namajunas (Editor’s Note: is this your way of celebrating Repeat Day?).
David: I’ll do one worse for Kowalkiewicz than Bisping (who is probably still flipping off errant cameraman) – KK reminded me too much of a Chris Camozzi type when she first came in. She was too much of a five tools fighter, I thought. Somewhere along the way it became obvious I was missing the talent forest for the clinch trees. And then she fought Jedrzejzcyk in a bout I thought she’d get blown out in. Instead she seemed to lose more to tactical errors than Joanna simply being far (thought still) superior. Unfortunately we’re not getting that rematch.
What’s at stake?
David: A lot. If Gadelha loses she’s probably looking at a potential change in weight. There’s no way she’s able to climb the ladder back to Joanna – already a pipedream of sorts. Karolina has a lot less to lose, but probably even more to gain. An impressive win, especially a finish, would have us rethinking her ceiling as the pastry-chef-next-door looking badass she is.
Phil: Unsure. Both have fought JJ, both could conceivably fight her again, but I’m not sure that they get the chance, in the near future at least. In the short term I expect the winner to get someone like Torres or Markos.
David: Torres, yes, but Markos – she’s slowly turning into the Tyson Griffin of the division: tough and talented, but constantly underperforming.
Where do they want it?
Phil: Gadelha is similar to the Jacare archetype: big punches into takedowns and crushing top position. Like Jacare, she favours a hard right cross counter which she occasionally chains with a left hook. She’s become more of a natural combination puncher more recently, although her weight transfer and hip connection occasionally gets a bit lost, leaving her “dragging” a bit on her punches. She’s enough of an athlete that she can overcome this with pure physical ability against basically everyone but Jedrzejczyk, though.
She’s a marvellous technical wrestler, with a nice counter double leg which she chains into body lock and lower body takedowns relentlessly. Once on top she has vicious ground and pound for a strawweight, and although she’s left Nova Uniao, she still has the trademark top position triangle. Essentially, she can handle herself on the feet, she’s the best wrestler in the division and likely the best pure athlete as well.
David: Gadelha reminds me of who Andrade would be if Andrade had less Lineker genes. She’s a tank of a fighter, using her raw strength and power to get in deep on opponents to score takeowns/land that overhand right. You mention Jacare, which is a good comparison. A bit of a Jacare-Ricardo Arona hybrid if anything. With her insane upper body strength, she can bulldoze through an unobtainium sprawl (that was the name of those special rocks the evil corporations wanted from Avatar right?). She doesn’t chain submission attempts the way Jacare does, instead letting her top heavy grappling squeeze mistakes out of her opponents.
Striking wise she’s improved at certain things. The flash jab knockdown on Joanna didn’t prove much, but I liked seeing her mix her attack up with a few uppercuts – it’s an underrated weapon for grapplers who are used to having their opponents dip down to defend takedowns.
Phil: Billed as a kickboxer, Kowalkiewicz is perhaps a more enthusiastic than devastatingly skilled striker, tending to come in behind marching combinations which end with a kick, a la Condit or Werdum. Essentially it feels a little like she tends to get caught up in cute, stance-shifting offense because she’s so confident in her physical toughness. This has gotten her laced by counters by Namajunas and JJ. However, that forward marching momentum also brings her into the clinch, where she’s arguably at her best.
Here her best traits – a surprising amount of physical strength, a deep and technical approach, and a bottomless gas tank – really get to thrive. Like Jedrzejczyk, she favours the classic Muai Thai approach to grappling, working off elbow frames, short elbows, and hard knees to the body.
David: Kowalkiewicz sacrifices raw force with raw fluidity. She’s sort of unique in the MMA world in this regard – moving laterally constantly to angle for strikes, reset, and keeping her opponents off rhythm. I don’t think it’s a deliberate feature of her plan to enter the clinch but it functions toward her benefit all the same. She has an array of options for clinch entries and once there, I don’t know that there’s a more eager fighter in the clinch than Kowalkiewicz. You can actually see her opponent’s life bar go down by the seconds when she’s kneeing and torquing their bodies into submission.
Insight from past fights
Phil: Many people think that Gadelha won her first fight against Joanna, and if their rematch had been three rounds she would have won that one as well. She starts fast and Karolina… does not. She’s lost every first round she’s had in the UFC, as far as I’m aware, which means she’s almost certainly going to have to dig herself out of a hole. Neither is she a particularly dynamic finisher, which means that she absolutely must win the second and third rounds. I’m skeptical.
David: True but Gadelha still has to deal with Karolina’s clinch. As good as Gadelha is, Karolina’s durability will keep her in the fight into the third round. How well will Gadelha respond to having to take punishment, or struggle for takedowns? Kowalkiewicz is not the better technician, but maybe she’s the better all around, nails out, scrapper.
Phil: Camp switch? Gadelha has changed from Nova Uniao to Luttrell-Yee MMA, while sparring at Jackson-Wink. I’ll be interested to see whether it’s a good switch. Nova Uniao is a good camp, but their approach to weight cutting and S&C is perhaps a little outdated, so it will be illuminating to see if Gadelha looks more or less comfortable.
David: Eye pokes. That dirty ass, no limit grudge match between Joanna and Claudia the first time around wasn’t all JJ. Plus this just feels like the kind of fight that a UFC referee is bound to screw up.
Phil: Over three rounds, this seems like a very tough matchup for Kowalkiewicz. As mentioned, she’s almost certainly likely to drop the first round. Gadelha is the bigger hitter, and an exceptional wrestler. Even if she fades in the third, I find it hard to see Kowalkiewicz rallying with the kind of offense that would pick her up the win. Claudia Gadelha by unanimous decision.
David: I hate picking against Kowalkiewicz here. I’m not all that interested in JJ-Gadelha III. But she’s a premiere talent and three rounds gives her an advantage. Yes, Gadelha has improved her gas tank, but it’s not an asset the way it is for KK, who would be better served if this fight were five rounds. I expect KK to start out slow like usual, only to rack up damage too little too late in the third round. Claudia Gadelha by Split Decision.