Female MMA Fighter of the Year 2016: Joanna Jędrzejczyk

Numerous female mixed martial artists make a strong case for being 2016’s “Fighter of the Year”, but UFC Strawweight Champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk deserves the honor, as she’s done a tremendous amount for women’s MMA, the UFC, and the 115 lbs. division throughout 2016.

It takes a talented, one-in-a-million individual to reach the pinnacle of any MMA division, in the UFC or Bellator. The grueling requirements of training and preparing to face world-class opponents, in coordination with media obligations and the sensational pressure of fight night, are enough to overwhelm most everyone. Thus, those select few fighters who can dominate their weight class and then find a way to balance all the requirements and commitments of the championship are truly remarkable.

Among these already-unique champions, those able to sell, legitimize, and draw interest to an entire division are, objectively speaking, the “best of the best”. In 2016, that’s just what UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk was able to do, and as such, she’s the female MMA fighter of the year.

 

A Division’s Infancy

On December 12, 2014, Rose Namajunas and Carla Esparza, two skillful strawweights, battled for the inaugural UFC strawweight title; both women had competed on the twentieth season of The Ultimate Fighter, beating other top-level martial artists to earn a shot at the belt. Esparza’s elite wrestling was the difference in this contest, as she continually took Namajunas down, and ultimately, locked-up a third-round rear-naked choke for the victory.

Carla Esparza is a capable and marketable athlete—perfect for promotion and building the strawweight class—but the UFC’s probable plans to push her as the face of 115 lbs. were halted later in 2015, as Poland-native Joanna Jędrzejczyk defeated her via second-round TKO. The takedowns that had previously led Esparza to success failed her against the sprawl-and-brawler Jędrzejczyk, as she continually halted efforts to drag the fight to the canvas while landing thunderous strikes not often seen in women’s bantamweight, let alone a smaller division!

At this moment, it’s likely that the UFC brass temporarily rethought their strawweight master plan, as the champion didn’t speak English particularly well, wasn’t known to many fans, and to be sure, boasted a last name that few were able to pronounce, let alone remember.

The UFC strawweight division was in its infancy, and given the struggle of men’s flyweight, and the long period of time it took men’s bantamweight, featherweight, and lightweight to catch on, explosive growth didn’t seem likely under the new champion.

 

Positivity, Dominance, and Uniqueness

Joanna Jędrzejczyk  —now commonly referred to simply as Joanna Champion to make things easier on fans— proved the doubters wrong in the final stretch of 2015 by convincingly defeating formidable title challenger Valérie Létourneau via unanimous decision. This performance demonstrated that Joanna was ready for a big jump in platform and marketing push, and thus, the UFC placed her in a TUF 23 coaching role and rematch opposite Cláudia Gadelha to get 2016 rolling.

Gadelha and Jędrzejczyk first fought in December 2014, in each of their first UFC fights. In this grueling and closely contested match, Joanna did enough to convince two of the cageside judges that she deserved the “W”, and accordingly, she was awarded the split-decision victory. The nature of her victory and the contest that preceded it prompted many fans to voice their desire to see a rematch.

The UFC capitalized on this point by marketing Joanna and Claudia into coaching roles, from where they would, like so many others, sink or swim. Whether their season would end up like Josh Koscheck and Georges St. Pierre’s (a talent-filled and fun-to-watch prelude to an anticipated fight) or Shane Carwin and Roy Nelson’s (which was pretty much the exact opposite of the former) remained to be seen. The only thing certain at the outset was that being an interesting person and talented fighter didn’t guarantee a successful TUF season, for coaches.

To the surprise of many, Joanna Jędrzejczyk didn’t just succeed in her coaching role, but excelled in it. Claudia Gadelha kept pace as well, but Joanna, seemingly understanding that the main reach of TUF for new fans is its drama, played the light-hearted villain role perfectly. In carefully striking a balance between mean and attention-grabbing, Jedrzejczyk maximized the appeal behind TUF 23—something which in turn helped to draw attention to the women’s strawweight class. Furthermore, Joanna was positive, unique, and uplifting in her presentation and demeanor. These points might not appear to make any difference, but in reality, they cannot be understated; simply going through the motions after twenty-plus seasons of the same reality show won’t cut it.

All of this hard promotional work paid off at the TUF 23 Finale, where Jedrejcyzk and Gadelha finally stepped into the cage. Their headlining rematch scored over one million live viewers—and notably, more than Demetrious Johnson’s TUF 24 Finale title defense against Tim Elliott (around one million, but a few thousand short of TUF 23), Urijah Faber and Conor McGregor’s TUF 22 Finale (883,000 viewers), ATT versus Blackzillians’ TUF 21 Finale (691,000 viewers), the strawweight debut season, TUF 20 (989,000 viewers), and even B.J. Penn and Frankie Edgar’s TUF 19 Finale (1,000,000 viewers).

After five challenging rounds, Joanna Jedrejcyzk had put on an incredible show and earned a unanimous-decision victory. The new viewers she attracted throughout the TUF episodic run culminated in a big way at the Finale, and just like that, strawweight had emerged as a viable bastion of female talent—perhaps even more so than women’s bantamweight. Additionally, this newfound popularity—and upward trajectory—boasted by Jedrejcyzk and the strawweight division made booking the next title fight on the year’s biggest card, UFC 205, a no-brainer.

UFC 205: The Turning Point

In the featured fight slot and along with two other high-profile title matches in Conor McGregor versus Eddie Alvarez and Tyron Woodley versus Stephen Thompson, Joanna Jedrejcyzk clashed with fellow Poland-native Karolina Kowalkiewicz. The build-up to this match, although not surpassing Conor McGregor’s antics in terms of media attention, further amplified anticipation from viewers. While they may not have hated each other, Jedrejcyzk and Kowalkiewicz certainly recognized that they were competing for the same thing, and furthermore, that a little bit of promotional effort on their end would go a long way.

Their actual fight also delivered. Karolina did what the vast majority of other competitors weren’t able to do: march forward, weather stiff blows, and keep pace with an elite striker and cardio machine in Jedrejcyzk. From her end, Joanna performed masterfully against a tough opponent and overcame serious adversity in the fourth period, when she was badly rocked. The official result of this one was a unanimous decision for Joanna Jedrejcyzk, but the truth is that the rapidly rising strawweight division was the real winner, for being part of such a huge fight card and promotional platform so quickly after its formation.

The effects of Jedrejcyzk-Kowalkiewicz on women’s MMA as a whole were both immediately massive and residual, as UFC 205 boasts the largest PPV sales of 2016, the largest gate in UFC and MMA history, and a place in the record books, if for no other reason than it marking the UFC’s long-awaited New York debut.

 

Choosing a single female mixed martial artist as the best of 2016 wasn’t an easy task. Amanda Nunes beat one of the sport’s pioneers, Miesha Tate, to capture the bantamweight crown, before dominating all-time great Ronda Rousey in just forty-eight seconds—like we’ve never seen! Additionally, Michelle Waterson successfully returned to the Octagon after eighteen months away and submitted an elite opponent, Paige VanZant, in the very first round. As just one more example, Alexis Dufresne bested women’s MMA legend Marloes Coenen via first-round submission. Before this, Coenen had lost just three times in six years—twice to Cris Cyborg and once to Miesha Tate.

But quietly, consistently, and carefully, Joanna Jedrejcyzk made herself into a likable and exciting star, and in the process, she legitimized the strawweight division. Through the use of a well-calculated out-of-cage personality and professional demeanor, as well as remarkable in-cage victories, Jedrejcyzk did more for women’s MMA than anyone has since Ronda Rousey burst onto the scene.

The proof is apparent in a number of different forms, but for those skeptical readers who aren’t yet sold, try and remember how long it took men’s flyweight, bantamweight, featherweight, and lightweight to catch on with a mainstream audience, in comparison to strawweight.

That’s why Joanna Jedrejcyzk is the 2016 female MMA fighter of the year: she created a marketable and appreciated division in just two years as champion. Nobody else has ever done so, and it doesn’t look like anyone else will in the near future, either.

Be sure to stay up-to-date with the latest women’s MMA and boxing news here at Athena Sports Net!

Max King