Joanna Champion's Striking Clinic

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

On a weekend overcast by Kimbo Slice versus Ken Shamrock: Undead Business, UFC women's straw-weight champion, Joanna Jedrzejczyk quietly dispatched her first title challenger on UFC Fight Pass.

From the opening round it was clear that Jessica Penne was going to struggle to get Jedrzejczyk down, and that her stand up was not at all suited to troubling the Polish Muay Thai dynamo. Personally, I found this bout to be much more interesting than Jedrzejczyk's bout with Carla Esparza, who gave up such a tremendous reach on the feet that she almost refused to engage there. At least Penne tried to strike, and that, in turn, allowed a more beautiful Jedrzejcyk to shine through.

Joanna Champion's Muay Thai pedigree has been prattled on about at great length in the media, but fighters with a ton of accolades in Muay Thai and kickboxing have often looked nothing like quality strikers in MMA. Often guys have excelled in the clinch and with long kicks in Muay Thai, and when they come to MMA and meet quality grapplers, they can't risk using either of those weapons. Look at Cheick Kongo—if you weren't constantly being given a list of his kickboxing accomplishments you wouldn't have a clue that he had those sort of qualifications.

I've got to say, I was pleasantly surprised by the response to this bout. A women's MMA bout, on at a weird time, on Fight Pass—I had no reason to believe that anyone would give a damn about this fight. On Monday morning I felt as though I had just finished listening to an obscure album, the kind where “you wouldn't like it”, but I woke up to an internet abuzz with opinion and an inbox full of requests for mine.

Joanna Champion isn't Cheick Kongo. She can box up a storm without her kicks. She showed a beautiful, lengthy jab—the kind which is often pushed to the sidelines in kickboxing due to the fear of placing the body on a line in a game of a hundred kicks. But more important was her textbook distancing. As hunched as Jedrzejczyk looks at points, her weight is very rarely in front of her hips—she stays right on top of her centre of gravity, and that is directly between her front foot and her back foot. This means that she can move forward and backwards with a quick burst out of nowhere. You'll see the same idea in full effect in bolt upright point karate fighters like the Machida brothers.

Notice Joanna showing that 'small, phasic movement' which Bruce Lee obsessed about. Always in position to hit with power or move again.

Whereas when Penne wanted to close the distance, her feet would be all over the place as she lunged after the elusive Pole.

Another development of Jedrzejczyk's which isn't applicable in kickboxing is the body jab. In MMA Jedrzejczyk has had tremendous success with it—particularly in drawing the opponent's attention down before dropping the bomb with her right straight over the top. In kickboxing, the body jab is almost worthless.

The right straight to the body is something I was ecstatic to see Jedrzejczyk bring to the fight. Not only is it the longest power punch to the body—though you can wind someone with a jab quite easily—it is an excellent means of setting up right hands to the head later in the fight. Here Joanna uses it as a hurting blow against a covering, squared up Penne.

If you're not near the ropes or fence, and you time it right and it act as an iron bar between the opponent and yourself. The moment it disappears, you know there's a good chance they'll step back in and that's when you crack them with a left hook or uppercut into right straight as Badr Hari famously did. It is, again, not so popular in kickboxing, though Hari excelled in its use. Recently he sent an over-matched young opponent through the ropes with one.

Another nice touch that wasn't visible against takedown artist, Carla Esparza, was Jedrzejczyk's non-committal low kick. Jedrzejczyk learned much of her craft from the great Ernesto Hoost, the man who wrote the book on the low kick, but Hoost's game was power kicking. He could time opponents stepping in and throw his full weight into the low kick to catch them when they couldn't pick their lead leg up. If he got tipped over afterwards, who cared?

Jedrzejczyk has to consider that a caught low kick, even perfectly landed, is bad news for her. Consequently she has opted for the Fedor Emelianenko kick, almost upwards and forwards more than it is about turning the hip over.  Come to think of it, Fedor Emelianenko also trained his kickboxing with the great Hoost, maybe this is something he is teaching to his MMA fighters.

Joanna Champion's elbows out of the clinch were the big damage strikes though, and she would use them to flurry into punches. These two-to-three range combinations which make use of multiple weapons really are one of the signs of a slick striker in mixed martial arts. Movement is always taking place under fire, so from one moment to the next the same strike almost certainly won't be the most appropriate any more. Carlos Condit's recent attraction to elbows has improved his striking game enormously where he used to be all about long kicks and loopy, often inaccurate punches.

Killing the Queen?

We're one title defense in, so it must be about time to start talking about an “unstoppable” champion. Flippancy aside, Jedrzejczyk has looked phenomenal. She's being likened to Chuck Liddell, and that is a pretty solid way to describe her.

I don't think I'll shock too many readers by saying that the women's divisions don't have too many fighters who are especially rounded fighters. You can write that off as sexism on my part if you want, but it's more likely to do with the fact that while the men's game has had glory and a reasonable amount of money (though still too little) in it for a while, the UFC didn't want anything to do with women until 2013.

In a division of specialists, Jedrzejczyk has been one of the first to truly blur the line. She's still a striker, no doubt, and easily the best in her division—but she's sprawling on the best grapplers in her weight class too. While she has an undoubtedly better technical striking game than Chuck Liddell, she games the same flaw in her competition. Can't take her down? You're stuck striking with her.

A beautiful lead leg front snap kick as Condit was trying to land the other week, a lovely body jab, and some very handsy takedown defense.

Now Liddell's problems came in two forms. The first were fighters who didn't want to take him down and would simply outstrike him—he wasn't one for taking people down and didn't do much with the takedowns when he got them. The second, bigger issue for Liddell was when he started to meet grapplers who would use grappling to set up striking and vice versa—not playing in one area of the game, but doing the whole mixed martial arts thing.

Quinton Jackson and Randy Couture (in their first bout) showed this amply. If your answer to every takedown attempt is to drop your hands and sprawl on it (and Jedrzejczyk is a very handsy fighter), you start to get caught out by faked shots into boxing combinations. And when dudes start laying hands on you in the boxing portion of the bout, your hands are occupied when they start ducking in for takedowns.

This isn't to accuse Jedrzejczyk of making rookie mistakes, though. Every fighter has habits, and every habit plays into particular counter strategies. Fighters who actively look to stand in front of takedowns and stuff them are forced to drop their hands when their opponent seems to be shooting. The most famous example of this being exploited is, of course, Mirko Cro Cop getting clocked by Kevin Randleman as the American shot, then faked to shoot again but instead leapt in with a left hook.

The meta in men's MMA seems to have progressed to favor takedown denial—use of footwork and lateral movement to neutralize opportunities to shoot, rather than allowing them and then fighting off the takedown. There are still some forward moving sprawl-and-brawlers around, including Anthony 'Rumble' Johnson, it's just not as prevalent as it once was. Jedrzejczyk isn't big on lateral movement though, and often gets pushed to the fence as a result—it would be interesting to see her driven to the fence by a fighter who can dirty box from this position, or to see a skilled wrestler like Carla Esparza, come in with a gameplan which focused on cage position rather than shooting out in the open (also something which has fallen out of favor in the men's game).

I know that my readers are smart enough to read all of that and realize that I am still whole-heartedly subscribing to Joanna Jedrzejczyk's stand up style. If you put her fluidity, shot selection, and variety into any fighter, of any sex and any weight, in all but a few cases you would improve them enormously. Indeed, every man in the game should be studying her set ups and recoveries from strikes, she's textbook.

I mocked the idea of calling Jedrzejczyk unstoppable this early on, but I'm certainly struggling to think of names in her division who are going to exploit the habits in her very, very effective game.


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