LAS VEGAS – When Rose Namajunas met Carla Esparza at The Ultimate Fighter 20 finale in December, odds-makers already had Namajunas as a slight favorite to win the season and the inaugural strawweight title that came with it. “Thug Rose” was the betting favorite despite the fact that “The Cookie Monster” was the reigning Invicta FC champion riding a four-fight winning streak.
The hype was heavy for Namajunas. UFC president Dana White referred to her as a ‘female version of Anderson Silva.’ Esparza had different plans, though, and went on to dominate the young challenger en route to a third-round submission, securing UFC gold in the process.
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On Saturday, in the co-main event of UFC 185, Esparza makes the first defense of her title against another dangerous striker, Polish prospect Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
Much like Namajunas, Jedrzejczyk is predominantly known for her striking. However, the undefeated challenger will be bringing quite a few more professional fighting credentials when she enters the Octagon in American Airlines Arena in Dallas on Saturday.
Jedrzejczyk is a six-time world Muay Thai champion. By 2012 she had become so dominant in the stand-up realm that she was finding it hard to find opponents.
She was already training at an MMA gym in Poland and her coaches constantly urged her to experiment in jiu-jitsu and wrestling. As professional Muay Thai fights became harder and harder to come by, she eventually gave into her coaches' pleas and began MMA training full-time.
Three years later, she is fighting for a UFC championship.
“In the beginning I thought I was going to do two or three more fights before the title shot,” Jedrzejczyk told Yahoo Sports. “Dana and people from UFC decided [that I would get a title shot], so I’m happy. I had tough fights, tough opponents, so that’s why I’m here. I didn’t get it for free.”
One week before her showdown with Esparza, Jedrzejczyk seemed surprisingly relaxed as she met media inside Robert Drysdale’s Las Vegas jiu-jitsu school. Her feet are calloused and worn, presumably from all the drilling she’s been doing in preparation for Esparza’s ground attacks. Her hair, matted in sweat, is twisted up in a tight bun atop her head.
Word around the gym is, that’s just how she is: “I do not care. It is fine,” is her credo, they say. This applies to not only her appearance, but also her ‘head down,’ almost robotic approach to training.
And it doesn’t take long to figure out how true that statement really is.
“I’m ready for Carla,” she said. “Everyone is talking about it [Esparza’s wrestling] but I do not care. I prepared good. I am complete MMA fighter, not just a striker.”
Just because Jedrzejczyk (8-0) is a ‘head down,’ gritty type of fighter with a reputation for “I do not care” rhetoric doesn’t mean that this moment is lost on her. In fact, the native of Olsztyn, Poland, is well aware that this fight could be a huge boost to the growing MMA scene in her home country.
A win over Esparza (10-2) would make her the first mixed martial arts champion the country has seen, and it would place her alongside boxers like Krzysztof Wlodarczyk, Dariusz Michalczewski and Tomasz Adamek in the annals of Polish fight-sport history.
Drysdale, a renowned jiu-jitsu black belt, is impressed by the toughness of the Poles he's trained with and said Jedrzejczyk fits right in with those hard-nosed athletes.
“I say this all the time, and people think I’m crazy, but I go to Brazil and I never have a hard time with blue belts or purple belts," Drysdale said. "The first time I ever had trouble with a blue belt in my life -- I’m talking, guys giving me a run for my money, making me work – was in Poland.”
Drysdale is not Jedrzejczyk’s full-time coach. But he has known her since 2010 and is a regular to her camps abroad. Jedrzejczyk has been honing her skills for her upcoming co-main event tilt at Drysdale's gym.
Drysdale has more important wins and championships in competitive jiu-jitsu than just about any other grappler in the world. He is also an undefeated UFC light heavyweight who has finished every single one of his seven fights via first-round submission. Drysdale is also one of the most successful trainers on the global circuit, traveling around the world with dizzying regularity.
So, when Drysdale speaks about skill and promise in the sport of mixed martial arts, it demands attention.
“I just have a really hard time believing that [Esparza] will beat her,” Drysdale said. “I have a hard time seeing Joanna lose in that weight class at all honesty; I see her as the Ronda Rousey of the division. I just don’t think anyone can beat her.
“I think Joanna probably has the fastest hands in all of MMA.”
Over the course of his career, Drysdale has trained a who’s who of MMA royalty, including the likes of Randy Couture, Vitor Belfort and Forrest Griffin, but he remains steadfast in his proclamation.
“Vitor Belfort, I think she’s up there in terms of speed. Look at her hit, man,” he said. ”Look at her straight punches; look at how fast they get thrown and come back.”
He continued, “Her speed is ridiculous. Granted, she is at a lighter weight so that’s to be expected but I truly believe that she’s unusually fast. Her punches are really sharp. She’s in, she’s out; she has excellent footwork. She knows when she’s hurt an opponent; she has plenty of striking experience. And she knows how to bully you without putting herself in danger.”
If bullying is the name of the game, then the Polish slugger best have her wits about her. Because her opponent, Esparza, is about as dominant as it gets in the original art of bullying — wrestling — the likes of which no strawweight has seen up until this point.
Esparza’s run through TUF was highlighted by her grappling and physical dominance. She eliminated top-ranked strawweights Tecia Torres, Jessica Penne and then Namajunas on her way to the title. Whenever she would find herself in a spot of trouble, she used her veteran know-how and sturdy wrestling base to control the action and tilt momentum in her favor.
If MMA has taught us anything over the years, it’s that a strong grappling base can be a fighter’s ticket to MMA immortality.
“She’s a good wrestler, so I expect her to wrestle a lot,” Jedrzejczyk said. “She’s tough. She’s a champion. All respect to her, but I’m going to win.”
Jedrzejczyk made her UFC debut before the champion when she handled Juliana Lima in a unanimous decision at UFC on FOX in July. Her next fight was an upset win over highly touted Brazilian, Claudia Gadelha, in December at a UFC on FOX card, and it earned her the shot at Esparza. So, if actual in-ring UFC time matters, it will be the challenger who will have the advantage in the experience department.
The co-main event at UFC 185 is set to be an experience unto itself. Not only will it serve as the first title defense of Esparza’s newly minted strawweight title, it will also see the challenger attempt to become the first MMA champion from the country of Poland.
And being her country’s first MMA world champion would mean the world to Jedrzejczyk.
“I’m happy, I know I have many people behind me,” she said. “And I going to win this fight for my people, for my country, for my family.”
And, hey, score one for the ladies, too, while you’re at it.
“They didn’t expect that it’s going to be ladies fighting [for a title]," she said. "They thought maybe it was going to be a heavyweight guy, or I don’t know who else. But they are happy, and I can feel how they are supporting. It’s big history, you know.”