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Technique Talk: Jimmy Smith breaks down Rose Namajunas vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk 2

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Rose Namajunas rematches Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 223.

While much of the present discussion within the MMA community centers on the UFC 223’s revolving door of main events, the evening’s co-main event stands apart. Both bouts offer quality, but it is only the strawweight title contest that exists as a rematch between originally unwitting, but fervent rivals.

Ahead of Rose Namajunas and Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s second encounter, we wanted to understand the circumstances that lead to the result in their first fight and what to expect in the second meeting. In addition, there’s value in identifying the larger context of weight class and how it impacts this bout as well.

To do that, MMA Fighting spoke with UFC analyst Jimmy Smith. Smith theorizes about the cause of the first defeat, the nature of the Namajunas-Jedrzejczyk rivalry, and what happens next.

Full audio and partial transcript below:

Joanna Jedrzejczyk taking on Rose Namajunas. What do you make of their first fight? Some people predicted Rose would rise to the occasion, but that was an absolute dramatic blowout. Why did that happen?

Man, that’s a tough one. Well the thing is that, I think Jedrzejczyk just didn’t expect that kind of fight out of Namajunas. Namajunas was known more for a ground game, known more for her submission ability. She just didn’t expect that kind of fight, and Namajunas took it to her, put her on her heels early, and by the time she adjusted or even attempted to adjust, she was out.

The problem is there’s the fight you prepared for, then there’s the fight you get. That’s one of those examples, I think, of the champ, Jedrzejczyk, getting a different fight than she was prepared for. She wasn’t ready for this kind of Rose Namajunas.

You could say that’s an advantage moving forward, but psychologically the edge belongs to the champ, but I think it was a matter of, ‘I didn’t expect this kind of fighter tonight. I wasn’t ready for this kind of person,’ and before she could get to later rounds and maybe make those tactical adjustments, the fight was over. So she never had a chance to adjust properly.

Tactically does it make sense to try to go after Jedrzejczyk early? I spoke with Steven Wright, who has coached Johny Hendricks and a number of other fighters, and he has long followed Jedrzejczyk’s Muay Thai career, and he noted that she’s built to go the distance. You can’t exactly be crazy with her, but sort of driving against that ability of hers to prolong the fight, is that the best way to go forward?

I think so, 100 percent. Now, when you say going forward, you’re dealing with a rematch where she got blasted early. So, she’s gonna be, I think, more mentally prepared for that kind of fight, but I still think it’s the right way to go. I really do. When you talk about Jedrzejczyk, she throws outstanding combinations. Very tall, very rangy, she has that excellent power. But like you said, it’s a matter of her banking rounds, and that’s what she’s really great at.

Whenever you take on a fighter like that, get after them early, put them on the defensive, don’t let them throw that combination, because she’s dealing with your punch. I do think that, tactically, it’s a great way to go. It’s gonna be harder this time around.

Namajunas has a popular identity as a public figure, but it seems to me that folks don’t realize how young she is. Incredibly youthful, and so her game is in this position where it’s able to develop at a rapid rate. Between the two fights, for someone like Namajunas in her early to mid 20’s, how much improvement is actually possible?

A lot. When I’ve called fights with young fighters, I try to keep that in mind and always tell the fans, ‘Look, you may not get the same fighter two fights in a row.’ They’re developing so fast. It isn’t somebody like a GSP who’s been in the game forever, we know exactly what he does, we know his skillset.

When they’re that young, man, there are dramatic changes, dramatic improvements in between fights. I mean between one fight and another you have a totally different fighter, and that’s where Rose Namajunas could certainly be, and that’s what makes her so scary as a champion.

Do you think there’s anything special about the way those two match up? In other words, like Kowalkiewicz beat Namajunas, but Kowalkiewicz couldn’t beat Jedrzejczyk, and yet Namajunas beat Jedrzejczyk. Is there something unique about that pairing?

That’s a tough one because that last fight was so short. We really didn’t ... just like you, I was looking at the screen stunned. I just couldn’t believe what Namajunes was doing. Now, was it a great night, and she had a great fight, and she had a great performance, or is she an all-time great fighter? That’s the question we’re really asking ourselves at this point. Did Namajunas just have a great night that night or is this the new Namajunas?

That’s the thing about combat sports that’s so interesting, we’ve seen it over and over throughout combat sports history in boxing and everything. Some fighters have that great night where they’re just magical and they never, you know that Buster Douglas moment, they never have it again.

Other fighters, they have a great fight and that’s the new version of that fighter, and what I want to see, what you want to see, and what everyone wants to see is: Is Rose Namajunas really this good, or did she just have a great night that night? I think that’s a huge question that fans want answered, and that’s one of the intriguing things about this rematch is that we kind of knew how great Jedrzejczyk was. We already knew how great she was. We didn’t know Namajunas was that great. So, the question is, is she that great?

That’s a huge theme of this fight that I think is fascinating.

Was the fact that the stoppage came quick a bit of solace for Jedrzejczyk? It was quick, it was over, it was decisive. It’s bad, but it’s salvageable. Do you think she’s thinking that way in any capacity?

Really interesting to me is the mentality of this fight. It’s the mentality of the way Jedrzejczyk is seeing the rematch. She’s talked about she had bad nutrition before, the cut was much harder, I wasn’t physically all the way there, this fight was a fluke. She’s saying a lot of things where, I’m deadly serious, I always look for this, especially in a rematch, is what I call winner blaming.

‘Oh they didn’t fight me like they should have fought me. They fought, you know, they tried to wrestle, they didn’t want to strike with me.’ They blame the person who beat them for not fighting the right kind of fight, and it’s a mental way of not having to really face the loss.

Now, she’s not really doing that, but she is saying a lot of things that are around the fight that hurt her performance. Now, she could just be saying those things, but when she’s back in the gym with her coaches she’s going, ‘Look, look, I got caught with a left hook, I shouldn’t have gotten caught with, we need to tighten that up.’

But you always wonder how squarely a fighter is looking at a loss, you know what I mean? Are they looking at it, ‘Well it was quick and I just got caught, and it was fluke, I wasn’t on that night.’ Or is she going back to the gym and saying, ‘These are the tactical things I need to improve in order to beat Rose Namajunas.’

That’s the question that I can’t answer, that only the people in her camp can answer, that she could answer, but she probably wouldn’t tell you the truth. Is she making the tactical adjustments she needs to make? Because she’s, in many ways in the interviews she’s given, she’s kind of written off the loss. That can be a good thing, and that you said, you can mentally kind of go, ‘Ah, it was a fluke. I’m fine.’ But it can be a bad thing if you aren’t technically addressing your issues in the gym.

How would you best describe the maturation and the technical development of Rose Namajunas?

Well, leaps and bounds. I mean, she looked like different fighter against Jedrzejczyk, and what I liked about it, she’s always had the mental toughness, she’s always had the confidence. I think her willingness, and the timing on that left hook, her willingness to throw it and the timing were absolutely perfect. Her stand up looked phenomenal, the way she transitioned from the punching on the feet to the ground-and-pound, and it was really a sight to behold. Her maturation, her evolution was really stunning in that last fight.

If you go back to the previous performances where Jedrzejczyk had problems against Andrade, it was all that her offense was muted through wrestling. In other words, we thought here’s the known universe of vulnerabilities with Jedrzejczyk, and then Namajunas came in and slashed that to pieces. Is that part of the surprise?

One-hundred percent, and that’s what really got me is, you know me and just about everyone else thought that that would be the strategy for Rose, would be like, like Andrade, you could take down, try to smother her, get a submission game going, and it was I’m gonna stand and bang with her. She did it. She was successful. She got an early stoppage, which meant — and I mean early, I mean early in the fight, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was.

Jedrzejczyk never got a chance to the fighter she was seeing in front of her. I think she thought the same thing that everybody else thought, that I gotta watch the takedown, I have to look out for her wrestling, I gotta worry about the submission game. It didn’t occur to her that she was going to have to deal with a striker, and she ended up dealing with a heavy-handed, very technical striker who was extremely aggressive. She wasn’t ready for that kind of fight.

Is it a competitive disadvantage that Jedrzejczyk goes the distance because it allows someone like Namajunas, who not only is growing themselves at a younger age in their skillset, but you’ve got this mountain of available tape to watch, at least your coaches do, to get exactly all the tendencies down that can appear round by round, situation by situation, stance by stance, that you just give this person so much examination that they can have?

So big. So big. Whenever I talk to fighters about that, you know, fighter meetings and stuff like that, I talk about the availability of tape. You have years and years and years of five-round fights. You know everything this person is gonna do. They’ve shown what they do when they’re under duress. They show what they do when they’re dealing with a grappler. They show what they’re doing when they’re dealing with a striker.

There’s no situation in which you haven’t seen this person perform. You can break it down step by step. I think that is a huge advantage for a fighter is to take on somebody who’s, A, been through a lot of rounds, and B, had a long career. You can see everything they’ve done, the way they react to everything, it’s easy to ...

Not easy, but you can certainly game plan for them a lot easier than a fighter that is, A, just getting started in their career, or B, hasn’t been in a lot of situations and rounds. Huge advantage.

Would you say there was anything in Namajunas’s library that could have at least, in part, foretold what had happened against Jedrzejczyk? When you look at her fights and you try to go back and pick up the pieces, it couldn’t have just sprung out of nothing, right?

Man, it’s hard for me to think of one. I certainly can’t. Nothing springs of nowhere out, it springs out of the gym. It springs out of the practice we don’t get to see, which is the hard part, but I remember looking at a lot of Rose Namajunas’ fights before that and there just wasn’t really a performance like that. There wasn’t anything I could see. The other example used before, there was a great quote about Buster Douglas, is that he’s never looked that good before, and he’s never looked that good since.

In other words, nothing before that performance that made you think this guy was gonna do that. I’m not comparing them in terms of longevity, but that ability of that fight kind of leaping out of nowhere, I don’t remember a performance before that that stands out that I thought, ‘Oh, okay.’

Like I said, the seeds would have been planted there. There really wasn’t anything like that.

On the one hand you have men’s lightweight, I would humbly submit to you is the best division in all of MMA, but certainly on the men’s side of the game. Then on the women’s side, I would also submit to you that women’s strawweight is probably your best for action. Do you share my enthusiasm for those weight classes?

I completely agree. I completely agree with you. I think lightweight division has traditionally been, as far as men’s MMA, the best, the best, one of the best, consistently. I mean throughout MMA history. I don’t think now is any exception when you look at the talent level at 155, it’s incredible, and 115, I think it’s a big step.

The next step in women’s MMA I think has taken place in that we had great standout fighters. We didn’t have great divisions. We had Cyborg, we had Ronda Rousey, before Gina Carano and it was a one woman show. It was, you tuned in to see this one fighter, not necessarily to see someone dethrone them or to see the division. That is changing. Women’s MMA is becoming a division, we’re talking about who could be the next challenger, who could be the next champion.

That was the next step, I think it was really necessary in the evolution of women’s mixed martial arts, was having divisions that were compelling, and I think 115 I the most compelling women’s division, and that step up is huge for women’s MMA. We’re not just talking about the champ, we’re talking about who the champ could face, and that evolution, unbelievably necessary.

Why is strawweight such a good weight class? Sweet spot in terms of body composition, speed, agility, strength?

Yeah, also they’re the right size. Just like men’s 155, 145, they’re small enough that you see a lot of techniques, but they’re powerful enough that they can knock each other out. When you look at the heavyweight division, you don’t see a lot of De La Riva Guard and this cool stuff, and a lot of mobility, because they’re just too big for that. You don’t want to pull deep half guard against a heavyweight, or against [Francis] Ngannou, you’re gonna pick your head up out of the third row.

You just see a lot of different techniques, but you still see excellent power, and I think 115 in women’s is, like you said, that sweet spot where they’re big enough that we see some excellent striking exchanges, but they’re small enough that we see a lot speed, we see a lot of angling, we see a lot of different techniques, we see a lot of mobility. It’s the female equivalent of like a 45/55, where guys like us who appreciate a lot of different aspects of MMA, you see all of those aspects.

When Cyborg fights her opponents at 145, it’s a slug fest. They stand and trade. It’s a lot of fun, but, you know, they stand and trade a lot. Those are big, strong women; 115, they’re strong, but they’re lean and they’re fast, and there’s a lot of mobility, there’s a lot of versatility, a lot of combinations. I think that’s what makes it so exciting. They can do everything.