The Night of Female Champions: Can Joanna Steal Ronda's Thunder?
Artwork by Gian Galang
Ronda Rousey is headed to Australia and her respected marketability is about to be tested for all it is worth. Nineteen hours removed from the UFC's usual Las Vegas pay-per-view venue and in a land where MMA is consistently under heavy criticism through hatchet jobs in major newspapers, Rousey is tasked with filling Etihad stadium.
The pre-fight hype has been the usual. This is, apparently, Rousey's toughest test to date again. Ring Magazine featured the champ on their cover with the question “Is boxing next?” And amid a drought of meaningful fights the mixed martial arts press has been focused on Rousey's relationships with a lover accused of domestic violence and a coach accused of tax evasion. It has been a couple of years since she began being marketed as our Mike Tyson and started to appear next to him whenever possible, but now trouble is beginning to tail Rousey just as it swirled around the heavyweight boxing champion before his fall.
Ronda Rousey's opponent is already the subject of numerous exaggerations. When Bethe Correia stepped into the Octagon against Rousey she had somehow been turned from a gritty also-ran without a single notable win into a one-punch knockout artist in the space of a few weeks of advertising. And all without ever actually showing a knockout punch. With Holly Holm's credentials in the boxing ring and actual record of knockouts in MMA, she must seem like a marketers dream after Correia. Though anyone with an ounce of knowledge, or even the good sense to check a Wikipedia page before buying the fight, knows that those knockouts dropped off the moment Holm began fighting quality opponents.
What Holm does bring is experience, craft, and the knowledge of one of the best teams in mixed martial arts. Rousey, through her own ability, has succeeded in spite of her choice to train with the largely unheralded Edmond Tarverdyan. Holm has been crafted from a young age by her coach and mentor, Mike Winkeljohn at the most successful long standing gym in MMA. If anything should make you interested in this fight, it should be Holm's ability not as a scrapper, but as a disciplined, durable conduit for the instructions and strategies of her corner.
There has always been a tendency to pretend that because someone is winning now, they are perfect. It happened with Anderson Silva, B.J. Penn, Georges St. Pierre and it will happen with anyone who ever picks up a UFC strap and holds it for a couple of defencss. But they weren't perfect and neither is Rousey. Rousey's greatest flaw is in that boxing that she trains constantly. She hits well, and hard, and that is more than enough if opponents are already terrified of getting locked in a clinch with you. Her problem is in the craft. The movement of the feet.
The difference between the charge and the taking of space is key. Mike Tyson was accused of charging opponents but really what he did was crowd them until they threw a punch at him. They would miss his constantly bobbling head and then he would counter. His head was always working to evade while his feet were always working to engage.
A charge is a rapid advance on a straight line.
The problem with charging forwards is that it relies on speed and gives a fighter very little control to change direction. If you are bursting straight forwards and the opponent cuts an angle out to the left or right, you have an instant to react or you're busy moving past them like a bull past a matador. It is clumsy but most importantly it is labor intensive. Miss charges for a round and it doesn't matter if you're Joe Average or an endurance athlete, you are going to wear yourself out. That and even against lower tier opponents like Correia, the charging fighter will eat a ton of punches to the face. It is not a method which favors bout longevity. In a division of competent hitters it is an invitation to be knocked out.
There's been plenty of fighters in the men's divisions who charged straight forward time and again. Then the sport grew a bit and bull rushing stopped working. Fortunately, everyone that Rousey has fought, instead of circling out or flat out running away, has decided to try their hand at knocking her out. As soon as a fighter squares up to throw their power hand, whether they miss or land, they are in position to be tied up. And it has happened every single time.
Or it has worked out even worse, and they have wound up hurt from trading right hands.
Holly Holm has not been able to avoid every attempt to clinch made by her opponents, that's a lot to ask from anyone over the course of a fight, but her mobility in the cage can be impressive. In the boxing ring particularly, Holm relied on her excellent conditioning and constant movement to tire opponents out. Helped, of course, by almost never fighting outside of New Mexico and therefore always competing at elevation.
Holm's best bet at winning the fight? The way that Maurice Smith beat Mark Coleman all those years ago: let the charging grappler wear themselves out. Rousey in the second and third round against Miesha Tate was a far less mobile opponent than in the first round where she ran across the ring constantly. At that point her standing almost on a line in stance becomes a tremendous disadvantage against the low kicks Holm (and Maurice Smith) love.
Getting check hooked by Miesha Tate in the opening minute of round two.
One has to hope that Greg Jackson, who has never been opposed to upsetting the crowd by fighting smart, has told Holm to simply run and step off line for the opening minutes. Boxing craft will not show itself over trading right hands in the opening seconds and falling into a clinch, ringcraft shows as a fight becomes less of a brawl and more of a contest. Everything in this fight favors Holm if she can just avoid Rousey's early, wild rushes.
We examined Rousey's flaws and the methods fighters have historically exploited these flaws in others in Killing the Queen: Ronda Rousey.
The Rousey Bump
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of UFC 193 is the UFC's attempt to get eyes on Joanna Jedrzejczyk by booking her as the co-main event to Rousey. Rousey's bouts have been described as MMA lite, due to their short, one-sided, and relatively clean nature. A throw into an armbar, or a couple of punches will do the job against Rousey's panicking, overmatched opponents. Jedrzejczyk's fights, however, are a different kettle of fish.
There is often talk about the women's divisions being ten years behind the men's ones. While Rousey is busy demonstrating that Royce Gracie, UFC 1 principle of “it's very hard to avoid a clinch”, Jedrzejczyk is at work styling herself as WMMA's Chuck Liddell. Though, her striking is considerably sharper than Liddell's even at his best.
A Muay Thai champion and a long time student of the great Ernesto Hoost, Jedrzejczyk came to MMA and quickly began demonstrating the value of Liddell's signature wall walk. When taken down she will scoot her back up along the fence, get a hand down, and begin to use the basic technical stand up motion to lift her hips out from underneath her opponents.
In recent bouts she has also developed an effective wrestling game out in the open. Stuffing takedowns from Carla Esparza like they were nothing and utilizing an up to then unseen weapon in the UFC, cross face elbows out of takedown defenses.
Where Ronda Rousey's charge towards the opponent is a lesson in wasted energy, Joanna Jedrzejczyk is a study in economy of motion. A quick, controlled movement in, and the same away. 'Joanna Champion' never finds herself overextended or flying over the top of an opponent as they duck in on her waist.
Compare that to the more Rousey-esque charges of her last opponent, Jessica Penne.
The difference isn't in the distance made. In fact, Penne is covering far more distance. The difference is in the control over that gap. Jedrzejczyk has a grasp of where she needs to be to spring in and connect, and from where she can simply slide backwards and avoid punishment. Just take a look at how striking range turns into a gulf just as Penne telegraphs a rush at the champion's lead leg.
Jedrzejczyk also demonstrates repeatedly the value of even slight movement to the side after throwing. The act of moving slightly off line to make an opponent turn not only prevents the champion from ending up on defense for extended periods, it also makes attempts to clinch her much more difficult without a great deal of fumbling around.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk is also a poster child for the idea of the low-high principle. Working the head and body and legs, up and down. I particularly enjoy her straight blows to the body, which are underused in MMA but have proven to be fantastic gateway punches for more damaging blows elsewhere by men like Alexander Gustafsson and Junior dos Santos.
The set ups are always in play for the champion and that is what makes her fights so enjoyable. Whether it is the body jab to the blistering right straight to the head which stunned Carla Espara, or the terrific pairing of right overhand and right uppercut against Claudia Gadelha.
An overhand against the guard and a crouch from Gadelha. Next time Joanna comes up the middle in an uppercut.
Jedrzejczyk enters UFC 193 as a ridiculously heavy favourite due to the seemingly showcase matchmaking of her bout. Valerie Letourneau wasn't really in line for a title shot, and is considered something of a gimme for the champion but it is worth remembering that Letourneau's only losses came to top ten fighters, two of which fight twenty pounds higher in weight. Letourneau also has a history of defying expectations, going in as the underdog in her last three victories.
Because of Jedrzejczyk's new found popularity and finishing ability, she has joined the ranks of the fighters who are 'unbeatable' to fans. Of course, that's far from true about any fighter and a good deal of Jedrzejczyk's challenge showed through in her bout with Gadelha. Jedrzejczyk is what I term a 'handsy' stuffer of takedowns. Rather than through footwork and denying the opportunity, she will drop her hands and fight off takedown attempts. Carrying her lead hand low not only gives her a far less telegraphed jab which shoots up through the opponent's blind angle, it also gives her a free underhook if the opponent dives in on a takedown attempt. So far, so Liddell.
The problems with Liddell faced will be the same ones that Jedrzejczyk will experience—with the strong wrestlers who like to throw heavy leather from clinches and in between or to set up takedown attempts. When Liddell was matched against pure grapplers, he looked incredible, sprawling on them and knocking them out with ease. The same has been true of Jedrzejczyk meeting Carla Esparza and Jessica Penne, fighters with nothing to offer on the feet. When Jedrzejczyk fought Gadelha however, Jedrzejczyk was cracked with a couple of good right hooks from Gadelha as she looked to stuff takedown attempts which didn't come. Gadelha is not a particularly adept striker, but her strong wrestling mixed with a good amount of punches is more than enough to trouble the straw-weight champion.
Furthermore, the act of breaking off and striking as the opponent wall walks, before dropping back in on takedowns has made that part of the game far less of an answer to all takedowns in the men's divisions. A terrific example of this is T.J. Dillashaw against Mike Easton. Finally, Jedrzejczyk has a habit of giving her opponents an arm triangle attempt when she gets up along the cage. This proved to be Cub Swanson's undoing against Ricardo Lamas.
The best thing that could happen this weekend is that the Ronda Rousey rub works. That the casual viewers drawn in by Rousey see the brilliance of Jedrzejczyk and she becomes, in some measure, a star in her own right. But you never know how these things work. The viewing public wasn't interested in Ronda Rousey until she was already down to Bethe Correia, and after that event the internet was full of people moaning about paying full price for a sub-minute fight. This could be the highest selling event of all time, or a confusing disappointment. Either way, there's always the hope of an upset to keep things interesting and a solid card of other fights.
See more of the Gian Galang's amazing art on his website.
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