With her win at UFC 211 over Jessica Andrade, UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk not only tied Ronda Rousey’s record for consecutive title defenses, she also thrust herself into the conversation about whether she’s the best female fighter of all time.
Jedrzejczyk’s UFC run has been nothing short of exquisitely dominant. Undefeated in her career and through eight UFC bouts, Jedrzejczyk has disfigured the opposition and set an exceedingly high bar for fighting excellence. Pushed to the brink, she’s nevertheless persevered through stern challenges against tough stylistic matchups.
What, specifically, makes Jedrzejczyk so dominant? Why is she able to have so much success against such adversity?
To help better understand the method behind Jedrzejczyk’s madness, MMA Fighting spoke to former Team Takedown coach Steven Wright, who currently runs War Room MMA where he trains UFC fighters Johny Hendricks and Abdul Razak Al-Hassan. Wright, who has been observing Jedrzejczyk since her days as a competitor in Muay Thai prior to MMA, believes the root of her success lies in her unique style that blends Dutch traditionalism with her own adaptation of modern minimalism.
Partial transcript of our conversation below:
What kind of grade would you give Jedrzejczyk at UFC 211 based on what you saw and based on what kind of talent Jessica Andrade is as a striker?
I guess that would be the biggest point of emphasis. Andrade’s game plan is really simple. Andrade is not necessarily the most skilled fighter. She's the person that I would say she throws her offense, not that she lands clean or connects.
She was able to bully [Angela] Hill because Hill was so small and Hill played a right hand lead all the time. She's still able to exchange after the right hand comes through, whereas, if you finish with a jab or a step off it's a little harder to find your rhythm.
I thought that Andrade isn't the best striker in the world, she's more just such a physical specimen in the weight class. She's able to walk through people's offense and find her own. I thought that as far as what could be accomplished against that physicality, that style, I would definitely say around A-, A area for Jedrzejcyk. She had her figured out real early.
If you beat Andrade's left hook, you win and she was able to stay outside of it, and every time she set up. I tell my students if you want to beat someone who charges at you, get deep and go left and right. Get deep, then go left and right, so whenever the onslaught came she got out of there and then she was able to consistently score offense.
The work built on as the fight got deeper. A lot more offense was scored in rounds four, five, you know, three, four, five, than was scored in one, two, and I think that's what's so awesome.
If I had to ask you a very basic question, what makes Jedrzejczyk special?
Number one, the level of volume she throws and she lands in mixed martial arts. Her numbers are off the charts with how much she scores, so she's confident. Despite the fact that everybody tries to take her down, try to grind her out, try to put her on the cage, the number of offensive strikes that she throws and that she scores is the thing that I think I marvel about the most.
It's just something that at this level in her fight career, the fact that everybody's seen her have these down periods of time where it's with ... When Claudia [Gadelha], where Claudia was able to get ahold of her and take her down a couple rounds, and then you realize after round two and you saw how tired she was. The difficulty is how do you figure out how to do that for 25 minutes?
Because Jedrzejczyk can beat you up for 25 minutes and use against you your offensive attack of holding her on the ground and holding her on a cage for 25 minutes.
When you first saw her in Muay Thai, how long ago was that?
First time I saw her in Muay Thai, she was being trained by Ernesto Hoost and she was in a tournament, and a single fight in Japan. Her videos had popped up on my radar a couple of times. I still didn't “know her know her.” I knew of her at the time, and then I had the wonderful pleasure to be there when she won the title because Johny Hendricks beat Matt Brown that night. But I would say that was when I first got ahold of her. First heard about her through Ernesto Hoost, first saw her when she fought in Japan.
What kind of striker was she back then? I'm guessing Dutch style, or maybe more traditional Muay Thai. How did she compete back then?
Definitely she was still a combination and low kicker. It's always been a blend. She's never been one to just come out and single strike. She definitely wants to put the hands in combination. I'd definitely say that there is a Dutch-blend style there, but her clinch is solid. Not great, but solid, and she's got a good feel for throwing elbows in a Muay Thai fight, but she fought kickboxing.
Of her 80-plus fights, I got to imagine 20 or 30 were kickboxing, so she has the flow and the understanding of distance still. I'd say that that would be something that I've seen consistently. The combo flow between the hands to the kicks. I think that it felt like the Dutch style, but just a little bit more movement. The Dutch can stay in the pocket a little bit more. She can use her legs.
You say her style is a little bit of a blend, is that a blend that you can say she came up with on her own? Is it common that guys, or fighters, will have predominantly one style and then a few things they pick up along the way?
I would say the movement part is what made it unique. If I were to give you an example, Robin Van Roosmalen is one of the better kickboxers in the world and he has a straight Dutch-style guy. When he is in the pocket, he is throwing combos and kicks nonstop and he wears you down with the level of volume and then he gets a stoppage. But he's not really a mover; you're not gonna see him in the center of the cage and then back to the cage, in the center of the ring, then back to the ropes. He's not a mover like that. You've got a guy who is gonna play right in the pocket.
Jedrzejczyk is someone who's always been able to get hers and then get out. I thought that one of the most telling moments of the fight with Andrade is Andrade landed her Sunday punch, if you will. She landed a big one very early in the fight, maybe a minute in, but because Jedrzejczyk had her feet under her, she ate it so well. Even though it caused the hematoma, and she just went back to work as if nothing happened. If that had happened to someone who was pure Dutch style, they would have just bit down and combo'd back right there. There would have been a lot more firefight in there. So, that's old-school Dutch. I say that because there's a lot of different styles in Holland. We've seen Lucien Corbin does it a lot different than the way Thom Harinck does it. I will say the way that Jedrzejczyk's movement is involved, it keeps her from being in as many exchanges. So, she picks the ones and she picks the moments that she wants and I think that that adds to the brilliance of how she has offensive success in MMA.
Is that self-awareness, to have that blended style?
Yeah, I would say so. Understanding of distance, understanding of what does she need to do to get on the scorecards? First and foremost, she's a person that puts away scorecards. Every round, she wants to win the round. If stoppage comes, awesome, but she's used to winning rounds.
She does a great job of eliminating opponents' offenses quantities like she did with Andrade. All she had to do with this one was make sure she got wide of the left hook after every exchange, and keep making Andrade chase her as she moved to the right. So she would always go low kick, move to the right, combo kick, move to the right, and Andrade, whose plan was clear, that she was going to wait for her to kick and then run at her with the punches, and then after those punches she would either get her to the cage or land something significant.
Joanna had the takedown defense, she had the get up, of course, most importantly, she was able to get up when taken down, and then she kept making Andrade miss over and over and over, and she'd have to restart. Every time you step off to the right and angle off, you've got to square up all over again. It's not something that you can tell to someone; they've got to go out there and go out and make it happen and that's kind of why she's still the champion that she is.
What kind of career did she have in Muay Thai or kickboxing, generally?
Really good. You and I talked before. Valentina Shevchenko is the most dynamic striker in MMA, period, I'd say. As far as overall credentials, she won in Muay Thai. She beat Jedrzejczyk at 125 [pounds]. Jedrzejczyk was always someone that placed really, really, high. I think she won 125 one year, 125 pounds around there. I can't remember exactly, but I'm pretty sure she did. But she didn't have the level of opposition some of the other really talented girls in the world got to face, but she faced really good opposition, just not great. She moved into Muay Thai as not one of the most notable names. Not like a Julie Kitchen moving in. Julie Kitchen had a huge name, Jedrzejczyk had a solid name.
Was she an obvious candidate for someone who could do well in MMA?
I would say no. She was what, .500, out of the gate? Didn't go as well. Figured it out, figured out her takedown defenses then figured out I've gotta just land big signal strikes, then play counters. I've seen every strike in the book from all my days fighting, I've gotta play counters. I can't play combination off kick, I can't play bullying people over with offense. So she just mastered the basics: 3-2s, jab-jab-cross, hook-cross, counters off of your offense. The difference with Jedrzejczyk, unlike some of the others who are limited in some of the strikes and just trying to be the best at the basics, she just combos. That's just something that I had to see it to believe it, I had to see work consistently at that level. And this is coming from a guy who went to Johny Hendricks and said, "Hey, I believe that you can win with combinations and kicks and be world champion."
I got to see a wrestler do that. She's a kickboxer who has to come in and worry about people taking her down and she just does awesome at getting herself back up, getting back to work. The jab does a lot of it, it's really where it starts, but from the jab down she's got everybody figured out. And I think that's why her Muay Thai works so well for kickboxing or for MMA.
Is her jab the best weapon that she has?
Her jab is the best weapon of any striker in all of mixed martial arts. I would say her jab is the best. I would say that the way it sets up is the best of all of them.
Generally speaking, what would you say makes a good jab?
So a good not just consistent jab is something that disrupts someone's offense, disrupts their movement, disrupts their decision making, makes them focus on it, makes them have to work through it. So if you were to say, "What's a great jab in mixed martial arts?" If I'm going against Ben Askren maybe he's not as confident, he's got to go to a different type of body lock. He's got to go to different type of double leg because he’s I keep popping him in the face with this thing.
If I'm going to go against someone who's a big hitter, like a Anthony Johnson; I know that he wants to counter over the top, I know that he wants to stop, I know that he wants to put earmuffs on. But while he's trying to find his setups, I keep putting something in his face, and I make him think, 'I've got to work through that stick before I can get to the body, before I can get to my heavy shots'.
Your jab scores consistently and disrupts the other person's offensive identity. That's what makes it significant.
There are some pretty decent jabs out there. Why would you say hers is better than her contemporaries?
The reason why I say hers is the best it puts the most numbers on the board, it eliminates their ability to counter. If somebody jabs that much at some period of time someone's going to dare to be great and try to counter a right hand over the top of it. The problem is, it's so precise and it disrupts them so ... it stops them in their steps so much, that if you go into a camp and you think that the way to beat her is to neglect the jab, and just focus on other tools, you're going to be wrong. Because she jabs, and if you try to low kick when she jabs, she'll full on low kick you right back. Like she's got everything is based off of that score. So you're already down every round on the scorecards fighting back, just by dealing with her jab.
And the way I would separate that from Jon Jones, Jon Jones will stick a jab, but then he'll always extend his hands and kind of grab and disrupt and kind of post on the head, and he does these other little things. You've got to deal with his length more than his jab. I think it's a huge difference.
BJ [Penn] back in the day, I thought he had a pretty good jab. I thought he put a lot of offense behind it. I think that there are good ones, but hers just consistently against every level of opposition, it has proven to score no matter what.
You said BJ has a good jab, who else would you say has a good jab? In MMA.
I'd say good jabs in MMA, when [Donald] Cerrone uses it. [Jorge] Masvidal, I think he plays the counter a little bit too much, but when he uses it, it comes out really, really well. Wonderboy plays the counter too much, but when he does stick it, it's a good stick because it's so accurate.
Also, [Neil] Magny. Magny's got a really good piston of a jab. He can score it on anybody. Even if they get by it, I think that he uses that jab extremely well. He scored it on us a few times. He scored it on [Kelvin] Gastelum with it. I'd say he's up there with top five guys with a jab.
Now whenever we talk about strikers in MMA everyone wants to talk about Conor McGregor. He uses a jab a little bit, doesn't he? But he uses it more as a range finder. He's setting up that left hand that eventually will spell someone's doom, but it's not, on it's own, always it's not doing a ton of work.
For sure. So I would definitely say Conor's jab serves the purpose of, one, it definitely gets him closer. It does the distance work, it hides his legs. The fight with Dustin Poirier's a perfect example. Really that fight with the spin kick and that usually the way he starts, that's just to get you moving backwards. But as soon as he gets you there, he's going to go jab 3-2, jab-jab-cross or big 1-2. That's what he plays moving forward.
He uses the jab outside of that. He uses it on the step back because he wants you to start firing. He wants you to throw because he's already in your head. So, you want to hit him as hard as possible and he just wants to hit you clean. He can play his counter game second with the jab. If he uses it more as a, "OK, I'm going to get a feel for where they are, then I'm going to step back. After I step back, they'll fall into my trap, and I'll play counter puncher afterwards.”
But when he's going forward he uses it as a, "Okay, double jab-cross. Where did it land? Okay, I was a little short. Next time I'll bring my feet a little bit more and get a little bit closer."
His jab definitely serves the role of closing the distance and he's a long guy. He's a deceivingly long guy. There are people who are taller than him that aren't as long as he is. He does a good of using the paw jab and the straight up stick to get himself closer.
We saw Jedrzjeczyk use the jab against Andrade. We saw her use her movement in this fight and her ring savvy. But I want to talk about offensive weapons. Like things that cause pain to another person. What else does she have?
The biggest thing is how she sets up is the low kick. The low kick for me was the reason why she scores with another offensive layer. When she comes out, she scores. She's already scoring low kicks. Do you notice that, I want to say it was in round three is the first time that we started to see it. But after scoring so many unchecked low kicks - we already know Andrade, whose game plan wise was to charge at her after - the low kick had caused damage, she started to switch stances, but she tried to do the same thing game plan wise. So, it just messed up her movement of the way that she was attacking. And because the low kick work had definitely hurt her and slowed her down, now she needed to cover distance wrong foot forward and Jedrzejczyk saw it immediately and then [Andrade] ran right into right hands. As soon as she saw that she goes, "OK, now the timing's thrown off on her running at me. Now I'm scoring with the hands." So, before what was jab-cross, jab-jab, okay, 1-2-3 low kick, setup, step to the right and then score right hands because she's run into them. Now she can score bigger shots because she's charging at her because she doesn't want to get kicked as hard and she wants to try to hit her.
Andrade tried to hit her for all five rounds, but she kept running into more and more offense. And, I'm sure you noticed watching it on film, the right hand that landed in rounds three, four, five, were harder than the ones that landed in one, two. It's because the low kick did the damage and it kept her from ... changed the trajectory, if you will, the place where she started to really get her legs moving to run after her. And then it changed how she was able to feel confident in exchanges because she knew another low kick would hurt her.
Physically she has a good gas tank, but is there anything particularly noteworthy about her physical skill set?
You know what's crazy? I don't feel like she's a crazy athlete. From watching from the eye test, Rose [Namajunas] is quicker. But I just think, sometimes if you have the basics so mastered it just comes off so quick and so precise. And because she doesn't do a lot of flash, because she doesn't have these spin kicks or jump kicks or whatever, because she keeps it right down the pipe, she only knows throwing straight ... shots. But, she is deceivingly strong because if you look at what happened when Andrade got a hold of some of the other girls in the division. For example, I would've guessed Calderwood would be able to handle physical, the physicality a little bit better. Andrade got right in on the body and took her down.
I'd say my favorite thing that I've watched from her time, or her growth at ATT. I'd like to credit other coaches. I definitely credit them on this. Her adjustment to the takedown defense of ... she got picked up in the air, but she would extend the right hand and the right leg so that when she got down they were already in a scramble. She'd go heavy on the whizzer, Andrade kept going for big slams. She'd go heavy on the whizzer, she extended whatever hand was opposite that side and then just extended. So whenever they hit the ground, she'd push the shoulder down and then start to work herself back up and she was out of it.
She did not do that when she first started. She would just get taken down and then get all the way back up. And, so I definitely credit them as a coaching staff for adding that type of defense to her game. That also fatigued the powerful Andrade.
I'd still say Andrade is stronger than her, but that fatigued her and that kept some of the later takedowns away, made them harder. So, not a super standout athlete, but the way she used her technical skill and her ability to learn and grow in the area of takedown defense and get-up game, I think that makes her formidable as far as her strength is concerned.
How does Jedrzejczyk compare to Shevchenko. She does have some real athletic gifts. But from a technical standpoint, where are they similar/dissimilar?
I would definitely say you'll get the consistency and landing flash from Valentina. She can land spinning back kicks, she can land spinning back fists, spinning elbows. She can land that stuff. Whereas I don't think that's Jędrzejczyk's strength. If she throws elbows, she throws them in the clinch, like in the takedown defense. She'll be pushing away and then real quick she’ll rip an elbow and then get an underhook in. I think that that's something that you wouldn't so much see from Valentina. Valentina, once she gets to those spots because she was also master sport in judo. She's usually going to play power there.
And she's deceivingly strong for somebody who really should be fighting at 125. She’s strong enough to handle bigger bodies and I think that even surprised [Julianna] Pena with her stuff. Pena thought for sure, get ahold of her, put her on her back, I'm going to beat you up. And then she got there in those spots with her, she was super strong. So I would say, definitely, Jedrzejczyk doesn't bring those types of physical tools.
I should also say Valentina's crazy fast for somebody who's seen her in the gym. She's so much faster than people would imagine. When that shot lands, it's precise and it's the quickest thing that you've ever seen.
I definitely think that you're going to get more toward clean, consistent offense over a long period of time with Jędrzejczyk's style. Valentina, who can do that, she will definitely feel comfortable mixing the flash techniques in there extremely well: spinning back kicks, spinning back stuff, whatever. That would be the technical difference from them.
This leads us to a discussion of where Jedrzejczyk is and where she's headed. I don't know if there's anyone who can beat her, but I'm thinking about given the progress you've seen her make, is this the end of her evolution? Or, is she headed somewhere that you can see?
I think it's prime Jędrzejczyk. The prime of everybody is when, not necessarily the physical prime. For me prime is always been, the combination of when you know your fighting acumen and your physical abilities are their peak. I feel like we're seeing her in her prime.
I feel like the next few fights ... I believe that after Rose I do think that whoever wins the 125 title, I do think she's going to move up and challenge. I do want to see the development of the Cynthia Calvillo girl. She's got a lot of tools, especially in the grappling department, but I don't think she'll be around long enough to get the Jedrzejczyk fight. I think Jedrzejczyk has got the Rose fight, and then I think she's pretty much cleaned out the division at that point. She's done anything, everything to be accomplished there.
I see her moving up and challenging whoever wins The Ultimate Fighter. Even if we might be seeing the end of the tools that she uses - and I understand people on the “Joanna is boring” argument because any time every round looks the same, that's when people have trouble with, “Oh, this person's boring.”
Georges (St-Pierre) had that. Georges had that in the wrestling. He had all the tools: get the take down, stay on top, pass the half guard. They recover guard. Pass again. He kind of stayed in the same area. So I can see people struggling there.
But I really do believe that her future and her legacy will grow with the addition of the 125 weight class.
What kind of fighter is the kind that's going to beat her? What tools do you have to have to take that title from her, or what needs to be there to beat her?
First you just gotta be someone who's gotta keep her from being comfortable with the jab and the low kick. So, they've got to be so quick falling on the leg to try and take her down and they've got to be so slick with their movement or with their forward pressure that they don't run into the jab as much.
You're still going to get hit, you know. There's no such thing as over 25 minutes and not getting hit. They're still going to get hit in this effort, but they're going to have to have that. They're clearly going to have to be able to stand. You don't have to do it for 25 minutes, but you gotta do it for 15. You gotta be able to figure out how to get your wrestling and grappling into position where you can have a chance with her. I thought Claudia had it for 10 minutes. She just needs it for 15. That was the difference.
It's someone who's got the gas tank, which is why I mention Calvillo. All of her fights, you look at her amateur fights, she can just get on top and grind, just grind. She fought one of my girls and I was surprised at her ability to stay on top two whole rounds. Even if she's not scoring off strikes, she's got a lot of tools to hold onto people.
If you are long, can wrestle and avoid getting hit by the jab, and if you can put her on the cage, I think that's your best opportunity to have success. Don't necessarily have to hold her on the ground forever. That's just going to burn you out, but you can hold someone on the cage, pressing their body and you can still get offense there.
Those would be the spots that I would say, “You gotta win those areas” because she doesn't have the knockout power necessarily to get stoppages by beating people up. I think that people have that opportunity. You gotta figure out, how do I get 15 of this 25?