History will be made at UFC Fight Night Berlin.
On June 20, A European will defend a UFC title in front of a European crowd for the first time since records began. Reigning women’s strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk contests the strap against Jessica Penne, marking the Polish sensation’s first outing since she dethroned Carla Esparza in a one-sided title fight at UFC 185 that shocked the world.
Jedrzejczyk hadn’t read the script that night at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. According to the bookmakers, she was the plucky underdog travelling to the States to offer Esparza a routine first title defence.
True, her CV in Muay Thai – where she won six championships in a decade-long career between the ropes - marked her out as a dangerous opponent. However, most pundits believed that the American’s impressive wrestling game would negate the Pole’s punching prowess.
That hypothesis was thrown out of the window from the midway point of the very first round. Jedrzejczyk repeatedly stuffed Esparza’s takedown attempts and began unloading a series of stinging right hands that had the champion reeling.
In the second stanza Esparza wilted under a furious flurry of punches that gave the referee no choice but to intervene. He waved the fight off and Jedrzejczyk vaulted the cage to salute the small band of travelling supporters from Eastern Europe.
The list of her achievements was lengthy. She was the new strawweight champion, the first female European champion and she was the first Pole to hold UFC gold.
According to Jedrzejczyk, it represents a culture shift in Mixed Martial Arts. She believes that the American – both North and South - dominance of UFC titles is coming to an end. According to the Olsztyn native, the next wave of champions will be from Europe.
“European fighters are complete MMA fighters,” she said. “We are not just focused on wrestling or grappling or jiu-jitsu. We are doing all kind of things: striking, boxing, Muay Thai. That’s why we will become the best fighters in the world. Most of the time, the American fighters are focused on just wrestling or just one part of the preparation. This is the mistake Carla made.”
The win over Esparza saw her join two illustrious names from Europe to have the distinction of holding a UFC championship. Prior to Jedrzejczyk, only the iconic Bas Rutten and Andrei Arlovski had tasted title glory in the Octagon.
Jedrzejczyk recognises the significance of this feat. But she believes there will be further names added to that list in the near future.
“I hope Conor McGregor will soon join this list,” she said. “And Khabib [Nurmagomedov]. He can be a champion in the future. There will definitely be more European champions.”
By her own admission it took Jedrzejczyk a full two weeks before the enormity of her achievement settled in. Since then she’s had to adapt quickly to life in the spotlight in her homeland. She was greeted by a huge crowd at the airport upon her return from Texas and she is a regular face on national television, as well as a topic commanding plenty of column inches in the country’s newspapers and magazines.
“The media are talking about me. I was a busy person before my title fight and now I’m very busy. But I’m happy,” she said.
Jedrzejczyk is fiercely proud of flying the flag for both her continent and her country. The honour of being Poland’s inaugural UFC champion is a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly.
“I get more attention from everybody, not just from young people watching MMA,” she said. “I feel that I am important for them. I want to represent my city, my country and I want to represent Europe as well.”
She could be forgiven if this newfound fame outside of the Octagon had affected her focus on honing her craft as a prizefighter. However, she looks to female superstar Ronda Rousey for inspiration on how to deal with all the pressures of being a UFC titleholder. Rousey, a pioneer of the female fight game and now a global superstar, has managed to juggle the glitz and glamour of Hollywood whilst still reigning supreme over her weight class.
“I think Ronda is simply the best,” Jedrzejczyk said. “She’s very big mentally. It is very hard mentally to get into the national team then get into the Olympic team and then win the medal. It’s amazing. I think she did great job for female MMA in the world. Nobody can be better than Ronda Rousey. Honestly, Ronda is the greatest. I just want to shake her hand.”
Like Rousey, Jedrzejczyk is determined to dominate her division. That starts on June 20 in Berlin. Jessica Penne is a highly-respected jiu-jitsu technician with seven submission wins to her name. The champion isn’t underestimating her opponent, but expects to wow the crowd again with her spectacular striking skills.
“I have lots of respect her, she’s got lots of experience,” she said. “But she must be ready for me and I don’t know that she can be. We’re going to play my game in the Octagon.”
UFC Fight Night Berlin takes place at the O2 World on Saturday, June 20. To book your tickets, click here.