To Joanna Jedrzejczyk, her UFC strawweight title is more than a belt. It’s not just a lustrous decoration symbolic of her achievements in mixed martial arts, it’s an identity, an extension of herself.
It’s even, given the complexity of her family name, conceived her nickname: “Joanna Champion”.
When the Polish striker articulates the significance of the belt to her, she speaks with the same intensity a parent would of their child. After all, her journey to the pinnacle has stretched over a decade having first competed in kickboxing at just 15 years old.
Her voyage in combat sports took her to Muay Thai, where she became a six-time world champion, before culminating in her coronation as one of the most formidable female MMA fighters on the planet.
The 28-year-old is just the third ever European UFC champion, and the first to hail from Poland, elevating her to a platform and status in her home country fantasists would have deemed far-fetched.
Right now, her sovereignty over the division – she has decimated her last three opponents, including Carla Esparza to take the title last March – has shifted her onto a path which superstar Ronda Rousey has tread. Her unapologetic confidence is married to supremely technical striking, arguably the best in MMA, and with the belt around her waist and an undefeated record intact, Jedrzejczyk can taste future stardom.
It is no surprise then that she considers the title her “baby”. On the eve of the historic UFC 200 blockbuster, she will attempt to protect the belt and her status as champion for the third time in The Ultimate Fighter Finale on Friday (UAE: 06:00 +1).
She will meet a familiar foe in Claudia Gadelha, her Brazilian adversary who she edged in a razor thin decision back in 2014. But while so many fighters would refuse to look further than the test in front of them, Jedrzejczyk is happy to discuss her future ambitions, more specifically to add another belt to her title offspring once a new 125lbs division is formed.
“I want to defend my belt two times this year and then at the end of the year I’ll think about the new year,” Jedrzejczyk tells Sport360.
“But I want to be the first UFC female fighter to hold two belts. Even when I make my debut at 125lbs, I am still going to fight at 115lbs.
“I want to be the first fighter who fights for the 125lbs title. For sure they will make more fights before that happens but I want to be the first who is going to fight for that belt. I am going to do this, and I am going to be the first to hold two titles.”
First though, she must conquer Gadelha in the revisit of their three-round war, which was undoubtedly the toughest examination of her career to date.
The pair have verbally – even physically at one stage – clashed during The Ultimate Fighter series as competing coaches.
Quite simply, they do not like each other, their contempt for one another stemming from the tight nature of their first meeting.
That disdain spilled over into an off-camera brawl and some of the oral jabs handed out by Jedrzejczyk has, in some viewer’s eyes, slightly stained her character.
However, the Pole asserts this form of mental conflict is born out of her protective instincts.
“Honestly, it’s all because of Claudia,” she says of her negative perception. “I don’t want to blame her and I don’t want to blame The Ultimate Fighter and the way they showed me. She is someone who is dangerous for me, someone who wants to take my dreams away and I am going to fight for that.
“That’s what I have been doing with Claudia. I became a champion and I was so happy, I’d been working for that all my life and I cannot let anyone take that away from me. If people have kids, they fight for their kids and give their life for them, this is what I am doing with my belt, my baby. This is my dreams and my life.
“She has said lots of bad things to me and my team so I just want to fight her so badly. It’s all going to be over on July 8. I’m going to close this episode of my life with her in it and I hope we shake hands after this fight and all will be okay.
“She’s the number one contender and I am the champion, she must respect that. If she is going to beat me then I will give respect to her but I don’t think she is going to be able to.”
Rousey has transcended women’s MMA and is a true pioneer. The former 135lbs queen blazed a trail which has opened the door for fighters like Jedrzejczyk to flourish. Before the UFC introduced a strawweight division, Jedrzejczyk had given thought to retirement.
Now, having emerged from the shadows of obscurity three years ago, a future as electric as her lightning fast striking awaits.
“I remember four or five years ago when I started MMA I wasn’t that happy,” she says. “Now I am happy because I know that hard work pays back. I want to get two belts and retire as the champ. I don’t know how much longer there is for me and I don’t know how I am going to feel next year because when I am training, I am preparing 100 per cent so I hope I am going to stay healthy, and that’s what I want. Be healthy, be happy and continue to do what I am doing.”
Key to those aspirations will be to remain on top. A cloud of uncertainty hangs over the return of Rousey after she suffered the first defeat of her career in a shock upset to Holly Holm last November.
Jedrzejczyk has been equally as dominant but given the mental fragility of Rousey in the wake of her loss, the Pole is keen to avoid a similar fall from grace.
“I don’t need this lesson,” says Jedrzejczyk when asked if she has learnt from Rousey’s downfall.
“It was a hard lesson for Ronda Rousey but I think she was very confident because she was one of the greatest. MMA is a beautiful sport but sometimes it is a brutal sport, sometimes you can lose, sometimes you can win, that is all you need to know.
“The biggest lesson I learnt from the Holly Holm fight with Ronda is that you cannot be so dominant all the time. You have to be prepared for a big war, anytime.”
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