Whenever a long-reigning UFC champion eventually falls, the biggest mystery is always how they will respond — even more so in the case of high-profile or previously unbeaten stars.
For some athletes, such as Conor McGregor, the comeback trail can be a difficult but ultimately successful process. For others, such as the infamous case of Ronda Rousey, one devastating night can mark the end of a height from which there is no return.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk is about to reach that crossroads on Saturday. The former strawweight queen meets UFC champion Rose Namajunas in a blockbuster rematch on April 7 at UFC 223, five months after Namajunas crashed Jedrzejczyk’s reign to a stunning halt with a first-round upset win in Madison Square Garden. Unlike Rousey, Jedrzejczyk has spoken candidly about her biggest career setback in advance of her return, even doing so just hours after her knockout loss to “Thug Rose” at UFC 217’s post-fight press conference.
Reflecting back on her road Monday on The MMA Hour, Jedrzejczyk admitted that the experience of losing helped to put certain things into perspective in her life.
“I have a new challenge and I’m very happy,” Jedrzejczyk said during an in-studio appearance. “There is no pressure on me. I’m never nervous about fight week, big fights, because the hard work is done so many weeks, days before the fight. I’m enjoying this, and I look at things differently. I used to say that I want to be undefeated, I wanted to retire undefeated. I don’t care about this anymore. I saw that I love my life more, and fighting is just part of my life. People wanted me to, like, be sad, cry, and hide after I lost. No.
“Guys, you have a job, I have a job to do. It’s part of my life. Soon I will stop fighting and I will do something else. I will be a mother, I will have some businesses, I will do some other stuff, and it’s just part of my life. I’m 100 percent in, but let’s not get crazy. That I lost, it’s not the end of the world. For other people it could be, but not for me.”
Jedrzejczyk, 30, admitted that she didn’t always used to feel this way.
Before her loss to Namajunas, when she was in the midst of a record-setting six-fight run as the UFC’s unbeaten strawweight champion, Jedrzejczyk spoke openly of retiring without tasting defeat. That was her sole focus in life — and the thought of losing was catastrophic.
“It’s real, and I was afraid of that,” Jedrzejczyk admitted. “And I didn’t know enough, but now I feel like, just deal with it, and I’m not afraid of losing. It’s not going to happen, but I’m not afraid of losing. I want people to see me as a human, that I was not only born for being at the top. I was born for that, but not only for this — I’m real, you can touch me. I’m real, I’m not created. [Dominick Cruz is a] perfect example [of how to deal with a loss].
“I want to dedicate this fight to people who have failed, and they don’t have the strength to rise,” Jedrzejczyk added. “I want to show to them that even if you fell from the highest [stage], you can rise, you can be back. Take you life in your hands, man. Go through every day and rise. It’s life. It’s life, that’s the thing.”
Jedrzejczyk said that she felt like her experience at UFC 217 reinvigorated her career. Her rise to the top of the strawweight rankings was dizzying, and eventually the exhaustive demands of her day-to-day as one of the UFC’s most in-demand champions took its toll. But now, she is more motivated than ever to carve out a legacy she can be proud of.
“The last fight made me more into it. I want to fight even longer,” Jedrzejczyk said.
“I love it. I think everything happens for a reason.”
Because of that shift in perspective, the lead-up to UFC 223 has been night-and-day different for Jedrzejczyk compared to the lead-up to UFC 217.
While conversation ahead of the first fight revolved heavily around the explosive bad blood between Jedrzejczyk and Namajunas, the two women have been much more reserved in their remarks ahead of the rematch. Namajunas has even refused to criticize Jedrzejczyk for attributing much of her poor performance at UFC 217 to a disastrous weight cut — a fact which Jedrzejczyk has appreciated greatly.
“I have even more respect for Rose than I had after the last press conference on the phone last week,” Jedrzejczyk said. “Someone asked her if she believes me that it was the weight cut, she said yes. Thank you for that, for understanding. We all are fighters. And they are weak, the people who are [criticizing] this — they are weak, because I didn’t give up. I took my job and I did my job. I was on weight on the day of the weigh-ins. I took this fight, even [when people were saying] I should go to the hospital, take an IV, or maybe even not fight. But I wanted to do this, for the people who came to the show and who purchased the pay-per-view.
“I wanted to give the people what they came for and what they were looking for, but it changed me. I pay more attention [now] to everything and every single person in my team. But I’m very happy that I’m surrounded by real people. I feel free.”
That being said, a fight is still a fight, and Jedrzejczyk vowed to right her past mistakes in Brooklyn on Saturday night at UFC 223 — even if she has to dig deep to do it.
“I don’t want to take anything from Rose, but this is what Mikey Brown said, a legend: It’s easy to win a short fight,” Jedrzejczyk said. “It’s nothing bad — people want to see KOs, submissions, short fights, explosive — but going through big wars, that’s the thing. What do you remember? My [favorite] fight is Robbie Lawler, Rory MacDonald. But that’s thing, I want to have a chance to show to people: I’m here for a reason, and I’m back for a reason.
“And I don’t know, I have so much respect for Rose, it’s going to be interesting if she can do this again, because I’m going to be 100 percent. She won the battle, but she’s not going to win the war. All the respect. Let’s have the best fight of this year, female fight of the year. What about this, Rose?”