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For Joanna Jedrzejczyk, psyching opponents out is part of what psyches people up

Joanna Jedrzejczyk vs. Rose Namajunas Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

A day before UFC 193, when the ceremonial weigh-ins still doubled as the official weigh-ins, Ronda Rousey came a little unhinged when she faced off with Holly Holm. She made an aggressive approach from the scale, latched onto Holm’s right arm (which was just arriving at duke pose), and forced it toward her own chin, giving the effect of scuffle. At least from Rousey’s side of things. From Holm’s, it was different. She stood there with a stone-face, stoical, burning through Rousey as if she weren’t a global sensation at all, but a thing to be destroyed.

It was actually kind of awesome. And it became even more significant when the next night in Melbourne, Holm picked Rousey apart, taking down the game’s most cherished commodity with a headkick in the second round. It was only upon reflection that Rousey’s weigh-in moment came back in the form of a red flag. Perhaps she wasn’t trying to psyche out Holm at all, but — after carrying the burden of all that comes with being called invincible for so long — to psyche herself up. In any case, it didn’t work.

It’s not really fair, but UFC women’s strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk has been held up to Rousey a lot this week, in large part because she has a chance to tie Rousey’s record of consecutive title defenses (6) against Rose Namajunas tonight at UFC 217. There are some odd similarities to their comportments, though perhaps we’re squinting a bit to see them. The one thing that has been a constant is that each time Namajunas and Jedrzejczyk have come to stare into the abyss of each other’s eyes Joanna gets a little wild. It culminated at the press conference on Thursday when Jedrzejczyk extended her left arm full-length, so that the knuckle came to rest right at Namajunas’s nose. She leaned in to mash at Namajunas, who stood there unmoving, mouthing some soft nothing as if in a self-induced trance.

It’s (usually) impossible to read into what’s going on in the fight before the fight, but with Joanna nearing a historical marker and Namajunas trying to make the size of the moment more palpable and superficial, the question is a compelling one — just who in the hell is in whose head here? Is Namajunas’ cult-killer demeanor eating Jedrzejczyk up? Or is Joanna just being Joanna, an amped up fighter who’s never really been all that friendly in pre-fight interactions with the people she’s about to smash?

Only an exchange of punches will fill in these blanks, but it’s been an interesting dynamic between the two. And it’s a psyche out for more than just the two combatants. Namajunas, who was ironically being touted as the next Rousey when she emerged on The Ultimate Fighter 20, has no-sold herself in the emotional department, personalizing her moment for reasons that you can guess at. First of all, she has been in a title fight before against Carla Esparza when she was just 21 years old, and was overcome by the moment, the pressure of the stage, and the psychological undercurrents of so many expectations. Since then she has developed into a star at a different pace. When she'd shorn her hair ahead of her fight with Paige VanZant, she began to take on a level of seriousness that perhaps hadn’t been there hitherto. Was she shaving her head to avoid a beauty pageant? Or was she suddenly Hare Krishna?

Her demeanor since then has been a fascination, especially when you come to find out the words she was mouthing in those in-close moments with Jedrzejczyk is the lord’s prayer. That is equally unnerving and rad.

Still, the raddest fighter going on Saturday night is Jedrzejczyk, who has been uncommonly peeved by Namajunas in the build up to her sixth title defense. She cited Namajunas’ boyfriend Pat Barry calling her a “bitch” as an extra layer of motivation. She has been quick to point out Namajunas’ instability as a human being, a nerve if there ever was one given that Namajunas has been familiar with mental health issues through her family. She has deemed Namajunas incapable of being a champion, given the many media obligations and pressures. In short, she keeps trying to lie Namajunas down on a psych chair, and Namajunas keeps incanting prayers like Father Merrin getting to work on that hostile tenant that’s come to upset Regan MacNeil.

The fun thing is, the moment is big. For Jedrzejczyk, who is emerging as the best women’s fighter of all time, and for Namajunas, who has made a crusade of standing up for herself. Somewhere in these exchanges is the communication of intentions; tonight they will cross paths in the old way of settling things. All that psychology will be at last ventilated, for the flagpole is visible from the window, and somebody will unleash the kind of hell they have been envisioning on the other.

And we won’t know how much of this truly matters until we see who gets their hand raised.

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