This weekend, in beautiful Berlin, Germany, UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk will defend her title for the very first time. Her opponent in this premiere defence will be Jessica Penne, the owner a 12-2 record and some of the strongest grappling in the division. And while this strawweight title clash is certainly very different from the Alexander Gustafsson vs. Glover Teixera bout that was originally scheduled to headline the card, it may turn out to be the next step in the emergence of MMA’s newest star.
It’s no secret that in the wake of Georges St. Pierre’s retirement, Anderson Silva’s PED scandal, and Jon Jones’ legal woes, the UFC is experiencing something of a star-power drought. While the organization is still packed to the edges with tremendously talented fighters, outside of Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor, there does appear to be a momentary shortage of fighters who really move the needle. Enter Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
At 27-years-old, Jedrzejczyk is still a relatively green fighter. She’s yet to defend her belt, and while she’s competed in dozens of Muay Thai fights, her MMA record stands at a modest 9-0. That said, the Polish striker is already establishing her place amongst MMA’s biggest names.
Not surprisingly, Jedrzejczyk is a hero in her native Poland, and that Polish popularity seems to carry over the country’s borders into larger Europe—which is why she’s been entrusted with the headlining spot on this card in Berlin. But the champ is also carving out a real niche amongst North American fans.
Her fan-friendly fighting style is certainly a big reason for this. An aggressive and lightning-fast striker, she undoubtedly resides amongst the strawweight division’s most consistently exciting competitors. Look no further than her destruction of Carla Esparza and war with Claudia Gadelha for proof of this. The thing is, there are more ingredients in the recipe for MMA stardom than an exciting fighting style. And despite the brevity of her time in the limelight, Jedrzejczyk is already whisking those ingredients into the pot.
For one, she’s naturally telegenic. Now, that has a lot to do with her ability to speak English and her winning smile, but it also has a lot to do with the way she comports herself on camera and on the Internet. Think about it. She’s very active on social media, in Polish and English. She’s laughed off the frequent butcheries of the pronunciation of her surname. She’s been totally understanding in the face of incidents like the after-the-bell punch landed by Claudia Gadelha in their December bout. She’s been complimentary of all her opponents to date—of course, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t know how to troll when the time arises.
How could we forget, after all, the time she gave Carla “The Cookie Monster” Esparza a cookie at the weigh-ins for their March bout? At a glance, it was a kind, if somewhat bizarre gesture. On closer inspection, it was a sneaky jab at her opponent—the cookie was expired. And then, of course, there was the picture she recently posted to Twitter, which showed her ravenously devouring a bowl penne (the pasta) in advance of her Berlin bout with Penne (the fighter). These barbs are certainly a far cry from the vicious and verbose tirades of Chael Sonnen, or the witty attacks of Conor McGregor, but they are causing people to notice her.
People aren’t going to stop noticing her, either. Every time Jedrzejczyk defends her title, she’ll steal a little bit more of the MMA spotlight, not just by virtue of her dominance as a champ, but with the way she interacts with each of her subsequent challengers. Of course, there’s certainly a chance that she’ll lose her belt, to Penne or another challenger down the road. Look no further than Cain Velasquez for a reminder that no champ, no matter how dominant, is invincible. But if Jedrzejczyk can hang onto her belt, it’s possible that she could soon emerge as one of the UFC’s bigger draws, because she’s doing everything right.
Sure, such an outcome would be a little bit surprising. Jedrzejczyk would certainly be a break from the traditional mold for MMA stars. In the past, after all, the sport’s biggest draws have been muscle-bound monsters like Brock Lesnar and GSP. But just look at today’s needle-movers: just a few short years after Dana White’s claims that women would never fight in the UFC, Ronda Rousey is the sport’s biggest draw, with successful crossovers into Hollywood and pro wrestling to her name. Her popularity is rivaled only by that of a 26-year-old featherweight from Dublin. The recipe for superstardom in MMA is evolving, and though her reaching the heights of the aforementioned fighters is certainly a tall order, don’t be surprised if Joanna Jedrzejczyk becomes one of the sport’s big names over the coming years. She’s already well on her way.
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