The last time the UFC visited Dallas, two years ago at UFC 185, Joanna Jedrzejczyk sent strawweight champion Carla Esparza into a real-time vertigo of Hitchcockian proportions. As in, as soon as Esparza realized she couldn’t take Jedrzejczyk down to the ground — which is where she makes her living, hammer-fisting and elbowing people from wiggling positions on the canvas — she got that far-off look and the room began to spin. And you knew exactly what was going through her mind between the first and second rounds, after taking 60 percent of what Jedrzejczyk was throwing at her on the chin: Well, I’m fucked.
That was Jedrzejczyk’s unsuspecting arrival, the night in Dallas when she made Esparza look one-dimensional and twice delusional. She blew up Esparza with her striking, and confounded UFC commentator Mike Goldberg with her consonants. It wasn’t supposed to go like that. The UFC had rolled out the women’s strawweight division in one massive heap in 2014 via its reality show vehicle, The Ultimate Fighter, in which the 16 contestants were exalted as the "best 115-pounders on the planet" by UFC president Dana White. Esparza, by dint of winning that season and therefore the inaugural strawweight title, had proved herself the logical best of the best.
So who the hell was the electric banshee from Poland who tore up Esparza’s Plan A — which had worked on everyone else — and made a public demonstration of how uncomfortable things can get when there is no Plan B?
That’s the weird foot that Jedrzejczyk got off on in her run as Joanna Champion. She was booked as Esparza’s first title defense, and emerged as Poland’s first UFC titleholder. Two years later, as she returns to Dallas this weekend against Jessica Andrade as the UFC’s most dominant female champion — on the year’s first truly compelling pay-per-view. To a large extent it still feels like we’re trying to wrap our heads around this figure that left Jessica Penne in the cage looking like Carrie at the prom. Jedrzejczyk, a slight fighter with a nasty clinch game developed over a decade competing in Muay Thai, hasn’t captivated the mainstream interest that former women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey did. Not even close.
Why is that? What does it take to be a star in the UFC in 2017?
It’s tempting to say because she is from Poland, and that — subliminally — her name is packed with zzz’s. But the truth is she’s a spark plug who has plenty of star value in the leather exchange. Her stare downs with opponents are always a thing to behold, as she tends to get a little evil. She speaks fairly good English, better than Brazil’s Anderson Silva and Stockton, California’s Nate Diaz, and she’s an ebullient spirit. Best of all, she’s not afraid to speak her mind, and she can be charming when she does.
"I know that I’m not the prettiest one," she said on a media conference call, before UFC 205 back in November. "I’m not having big boobies or I’m not American, but I want people to remember me as the best female fighter, undefeated in MMA, and the UFC champion of the world."
Boobies and patriotism aside, Jedrzejczyk’s on her way to doing just that. Undefeated through 13 fights (and 7–0 in the UFC), she’s already defended the strawweight title four times. Should she defeat Andrade in Saturday night’s comain event, she’ll be one win away from tying Rousey’s record of six defenses. Yet the two couldn’t be more different in terms of fanfare.
Coming out of her fourth title defense — just a month before Jedrzejczyk took out Esparza — Rousey was already a pop culture icon. Beyoncé was using her "I’m not a do-nothing bitch" rant as an inspirational montage to open shows. Clay Travis lost his head (more than usual) and wrote a column stating that Rousey needed to fight boxer Floyd Mayweather … and was completely serious. Joe Rogan was shouting that Rousey wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime, but a once-ever, in human history. Rousey was 12–0 when she fought Holly Holm in 2015, and the hysteria over her invincibility led Vegas odds-makers into making her a 10-to-1 favorite over a decorated boxing champion.
Jedrzejczyk was drowned out by the noise by the time she came along. She was second from the moment she became no. 1. Jedrzejczyk was a footnote in women’s MMA because somebody was already hogging the space.
There are other reasons she hasn’t caught on, though. Rousey finished everyone she faced heading into her bout with Holm, usually in the first round. Her savagery was downright Tysonesque, just ruthless and mesmerizing. Rousey became a siphon for disposable income for that very reason. She sold approximately 900,000 pay-per-views for her fight with Bethe Correia, which was held in Brazil. That’s 100,000 more PPVs than the first three PPVs of 2017 — UFC 208, 209, and 210 — combined.
Jedrzejczyk isn’t like that. She destroyed Penne in her first title defense, but has won her last three bouts via one-sided decisions. Jedrzejczyk is far more methodical in how she gets it done. There’s a cat-playing-with-its-food feel to her fights. Realizing the difference in cardio, she said she let Claudia Gadelha wear herself out over the course of the first two rounds in their fight last July so she could pour it on late. That’s captivating in the Georges St-Pierre–fight-bubble sense of dialing in the right game plan, but hardly a lure for a casual fan hoping to witness exquisite violence.
The UFC has never put Jedrzejczyk in a main event for a pay-per-view, nor a fight night that makes complete sense (headlining a show in Germany isn’t Poland). Before Conor McGregor became the biggest draw in MMA history — and before he was even a champion in the promotion — the UFC tailored an event for him in Dublin, Ireland, back in 2014. It is still considered one of the most electric fight night shows in UFC history. Despite the UFC having a show in Krakow shortly after she became champion, Jedrzejczyk has yet to fight in her own country for the promotion. At some point, she needs to be marketed right. To be given her own shine. Her return to Dallas is just coincidental, but her run as a champion isn’t.
It would also help if Jedrzejczyk could find a foil, like Anderson Silva did back in the day when Chael Sonnen came along. Rousey had Tate. Jon Jones has Daniel Cormier. Jose Aldo had McGregor. The UFC tried to provide a rival in the form of fellow Polish fighter Karolina Kowalkiewicz, but it didn’t take. Not enough hatred in the air.
If she gets by Andrade on Saturday night, perhaps the UFC will do the smart thing and book Jedrzejczyk against "Thug" Rose Namajunas, the resurfaced contender who was — get this — being groomed as "the next Ronda Rousey" before losing to Esparza in the TUF 20 finale. A fight for Rousey’s vacated mojo? It’s the kind of thing that could break Jedrzejczyk through.
The reason UFC 211 carries the feel of an oasis is due to its depth, with two title fights at the top — including the heavyweight rematch between Stipe Miocic and Junior dos Santos. There’s a riveting fight between 24-year-old Yair Rodriguez, a burgeoning Mexican fighter projected to be a champion someday (soon), against former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar. Rodriguez embarrassed B.J. Penn in one of the saddest mismatches on record his last time out, and Edgar was the one that sent Penn on his downward spiral to begin with by beating him twice in 2010, and then again for good measure in 2014. This is old-school matchmaking, giving a young, up-and-coming fighter a still viable former champion who refuses to budge from his contender’s spot.
Which is similar to the fight between Demian Maia and the self-appointed welterweight hitman, Jorge Masvidal. With six straight wins, Maia is by any measure the no. 1 contender in the division. He was next in line for a title shot before Stephen Thompson and current champ Tyron Woodley fought to majority draw at UFC 205 in November, and were forced into a five-round snoozefest of a rematch a little over three months later. Now Maia is stuck in a "stay busy" situation against Masvidal, who believes the UFC booked him in the spot to take care of its "problem." (You know, get rid of an unwanted contender.) Maia, a soft-spoken jiujitsu ace who is perhaps the closest thing the UFC has to a pacifist — he takes little damage and doles out minimal damage, yet he is so skilled in the art of human origami that he makes everyone tap — is forever one win away.
Should he beat Masvidal, who is coming off a knockout of Donald Cerrone, the torches would come out if the UFC didn’t book him into the fight with Woodley.
Of course, it takes a support system like this to hoist up a main event like it’s a 500-pound cherry on top. The rematch between Miocic and dos Santos has a perfunctory feel to it, especially since former champ dos Santos was the last man to defeat current champ Miocic — in a unanimous decision back in 2014. Both fighters are carrying the kind of power that should require registration (14 combined KO/TKOs in the UFC, seven apiece), yet neither has the charisma, the pluck, nor the sheer immensity of thorax that we’ve come to know from previous heavyweight champions.
Brock Lesnar was the biggest draw the UFC heavyweight division has known, as he arrived as a kind of cartoon monstrosity from the WWE. People were intrigued by the fact/fiction ratio in his bouts and compelled by his sudden asshole turns. When he won some fights, including the UFC 100 ransacking of Frank Mir to unify the titles (after which he went berserker), his run became a cumulative fascination for everyone — casual fans, MMA fans, pro wrestling fans, everyone. The common thread? Most wanted to see him get his ass kicked.
Which he did at UFC 121 against Cain Velasquez, the Mexican American heavyweight who looked poised to break every heavyweight record there was. Instead, injuries cut Velasquez down faster than any one opponent could. He was eventually beat by Fabricio Werdum, who was then knocked out by Miocic. The baton of violence is a real thing at heavyweight; winning the belt is one thing, defending it more than twice has proved near impossible.
Lesnar and Velasquez are tied for the UFC record of two title defenses. Miocic has a chance to join that company if he can get by Dos Santos in Saturday’s main event, which would serve him well in taking in a share of the spotlight. Because right now, Miocic might be the least-talked-about heavyweight champion of all time.
And it’s unfortunate, because Cleveland loves itself some Stipe Miocic. At UFC 203 in September, the UFC catered an event to the Euclid, Ohio, native in Cleveland — the city he got off the schneid by winning a title over Werdum in May 2016, which opened the door for the Cavs, who won the NBA title a month later (which opened the door for the Indians, who fell just shy of winning the World Series last October).
It was pandemonium in Cleveland when he knocked out Alistair Overeem. The loudest a building has been since McGregor beat Diego Brandao in Dublin. But so far, Miocic has been unsung outside of the Rock ’n’ Roll Capital of the World. The problem is, outside of his comical Twitter persona, he’s a bore. Mufflers are more interesting to listen to than Miocic. He sounds like Redd Foxx stuck in the television in Poltergeist when he gets to mumbling. That kind of thing may endear him to Cleveland, but it has the rest of America reaching to turn on the subtitles.
If Miocic is going to emerge as a draw in the UFC, he’s going to have to brush off the old adage that in the end, actions speak louder than words. He’s got the action part down, as he’s knocked out his past four opponents, the past three in the first round. A knockout of dos Santos gets him in elite company and buys his personality time to catch up.
UFC 211 is kind of like that. Most of the top fighters on the main card, including the two champions, are on the cusp of something. The asking price of $59.99 for high def might be a small price to pay to see all that something materialize.