When Michael Bisping won The Ultimate Fighter in 2006, he was just happy that he would never have to go back to the dead-end jobs that kept him afloat as he battled his way through the local mixed martial arts scene. Germaine de Randamie was a high-level kickboxer who had to start from zero as an MMA fighter, and Conor McGregor was collecting a welfare check just weeks before changing his life with his UFC debut win over Marcus Brimage. As for Poland’s Joanna Jedrzejczyk, she flirted with trying out for the national boxing team before seeing MMA as a viable option for a future where she didn’t have to basically pay to fight.
Four fighters, four diverse backgrounds and journeys, but one common denominator: They all currently hold world titles in the UFC, not just representing themselves, but Europe.
“It means a lot,” Jedrzejczyk said of the current Euro explosion at the top of the sport. “Back in the day there was just UFC champions from the United States and then so many of them from Brazil. So I’m very happy that there are more and more UFC champions from the old continent, from Europe. It means a lot to me. I was there, then Conor, then Bisping and now Germaine. So I’m very happy for all of us, two female and two male fighters. It’s amazing. I hope that Khabib (Nurmagomedov) is gonna win his fight (against Tony Ferguson), but it’s a very difficult fight. I have so much respect for both of them. But there are more and more opportunities coming for European fighters.”
If Russia’s Nurmagomedov beats Tony Ferguson in co-main event of UFC 209 next week in Las Vegas, that would make him the fifth fighter from Europe holding championship hardware at the moment, just one behind United States, which has six belts, and above Brazil, which has two. It’s a development that shows just how rapidly the sport has grown in the last few years, and a reminder that to succeed in the Octagon, you don’t need to have a passport from the U.S. or Brazil.
It wasn’t always that way though. From 1997, when the first UFC champion was crowned, until March of 2015, when Jedrzejczyk won the women’s strawweight crown, Bas Rutten and Andrei Arlovski were the only European fighters to take UFC titles. And when they did, MMA wasn’t even a thought for the future Joanna Champion, who assumed her future was going to be in the realm of Muay Thai, which she dominated. Unfortunately, there was no money in the sport for the Olsztyn native.
“I used to give up my money to fly to Thailand to represent my country when I was competing in amateur Muay Thai world championships,” she recalled. Eventually, she thought of a career in boxing, but by 2012, a young lady named Ronda Rousey was starting to get big fights and plenty of notoriety in the U.S., and Jedrzejczyk took notice.
“At that time, I even wanted to join the Polish national team in boxing and I thought that maybe I will get onto the national team and then the Olympic team and represent my country in boxing,” she said. “But then I was like, ‘Man, MMA is getting bigger and bigger and the female fighters are the superstars.’ I was looking at Ronda and the other female fighters and I was like, ‘Let’s do this. You became a five-time world Muay Thai champion, and probably you can do this in MMA as well.’ So it was my goal to get better and here I am. I became a UFC world champion.”
It wasn’t as easy as that sounded. Going from a striking background to a sport where striking was only one of the disciplines needed to succeed, Jedrzejczyk went through some growing pains, ones similar to those experienced by her European peers, all of whom had to pick up skills in wrestling and jiu-jitsu that were predominantly the realm of fighters from the U.S. and Brazil, respectively.
“In the beginning, it was difficult,” Jedrzejczyk admits. “I didn’t know that much about grappling, wrestling and jiu-jitsu at that time, so I got mad so many times. I got submitted so many times and I was used to being successful. I was crying sometimes, thinking I’m never going to learn this. But I said, ‘Calm down, there is no easy way. Just keep on training, keep on learning, be humble and stay passionate about this.’ And this is what I’m doing until now. I’m trying to be humble every day in the gym, I’m learning from everyone, and be a better fighter every day. The most difficult thing was putting it all together. Now, I can honestly say that I’m a complete MMA fighter.”
Jedrzejczyk won six pro MMA fights before getting the call to the UFC in 2014. By her third fight, she was a world champion, and today, she is a legit superstar with four successful title defenses under her belt. As for the rest of her fellow Euro champions, Ireland’s McGregor is whatever you call the level above superstar and the first fighter to hold two UFC championships simultaneously. England’s Bisping was the feel-good story of 2016 when he defeated Luke Rockhold for the middleweight title a decade after his Octagon debut. And the Netherlands’ de Randamie made her own history earlier this month when she defeated Holly Holm and became the first UFC women’s featherweight champion.
It’s a notable time in the history of mixed martial arts, and if there was ever an idea that if a fighter was from Europe, he or she couldn’t succeed in the Octagon, this Fab Four has shattered that notion.
“It means a lot for the people,” Jedrzejczyk said. “We are showing them that you can do this. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, you can do it. You can have your own dream and fight for the biggest MMA organization in the world, you can fight in the biggest MMA events and you can get to the next level. So this is good.”