Joanna Jedrzejczyk will never take anything for granted, whether it’s the UFC world championship belt, her superstar status in mixed martial arts, her spot on the historic UFC 205 card this Saturday, where she will defend that 115-pound title against Karolina Kowalkiewicz, or anything else, for that matter.
It’s a rare outlook from a rare athlete.
“I could be a happy person because I have done so much in my life,” Jedrzejczyk said shortly after being honored with Kowalkiewicz at the Polish Consulate in Midtown on Thursday. “The decisions, the moves, the life - it's amazing and I'm enjoying every day of my life as a human being and as an athlete. I could fight for free, like I was doing for 10 years.”
Maybe coming up the hard way has everything to do with her appreciative attitude towards everything she’s earned over the years. In talking about that road to Madison Square Garden, she recalls her pre-MMA days, when she was an elite Muay Thai fighter in her native Olsztyn, not exactly a lucrative proposition.
I was fighting for minus two thousand dollars ... I had to fly to Thailand, for the Muay Thai world championships to represent my country." --Joanna Jedrzejczyk
“I was fighting for minus two thousand dollars,” she said. “For example, I had to fly to Thailand, for the Muay Thai world championships to represent my country.”
Those trips wound up costing Jedrzejczyk money, but she was determined that one day, the right door would open and she would then bash it down with an elbow or knee. And like her fellow UFC world champion Conor McGregor, she wasn’t afraid to verbalize those hopes and dreams.
“I don't know if you saw the movie about Conor, when he was saying (a long time ago) that in a few years he wants to be a millionaire,” Jedrzejczyk said. “Ten years ago, I was talking to my brother-in-law – at the time he was my twin sister's boyfriend and he's been around us for a long time, since we were teenagers – and I said the same thing. I said, ‘I promise to you guys that one day I will buy you cars, because I don't care about money.’ For me, God, my family and my country are important for me. I'm happy that I'm making money right now, but I want to make my family and my friends’ lives easier. Money is not the reason I am in this business. I am a professional athlete. I used to do this for free. I told him one day I will become a big star and I don't know how to do this. All I knew was how to work hard, and my parents taught me that.”
Jedrzejczyk’s parents also taught her lessons that have paid off as she went from an unknown making her UFC debut in relative obscurity against Juliana Lima in July of 2014 to “Joanna Champion,” one of the sport’s most popular fighters, not to mention one of its pound-for-pound best.
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“I would not be here without my family,” she said. “My parents, we were not poor but we were not rich. My parents taught me how to make money, how to respect money, and how to respect the work, and respect other people and different religions, different cultures. I'm thankful to them because they gave me the right love. It was not about the gifts or the places; it was all about love and the right things. This is who I am. Now I'm 29 – I'm 18 (laughs) – and I'm getting smarter and I learn every day. And I want to help people and I want to help kids to believe in themselves and get to the top. Don't be afraid. It doesn't matter if you're African, American, Indian or Asian or Polish – you can be whoever you want to be.”
Joanna Jedrzejczyk chose to be a fighter, and once she made that decision, she had an army of family and friends behind her, which pushed her to work even harder. Eventually, it all clicked – in the Octagon, with the fans, with the media, and everywhere else. Yet even as things get bigger and bigger, she has not lost sight on what’s important.
“I'm professional,” she said. “If you talk to my coaches, they will tell you. People sometimes think that champions are rude, they sleep on money or it's all about the hype and the sponsorship. It's not, believe me. Every day when I walk to the gym, I keep my eyes open, I keep my head down, I'm very humble and I'm a hard worker. I like to challenge myself, I like to learn every day and I respect everyone because I want to be a better person. I promise myself that the next day I must be a better person first and then the best athlete in the world. I'm trained to work hard. Tomorrow, I have to come back and do this better. That's why I'm the best in the world. Of course, MMA is a beautiful sport but a very brutal sport. We win, we learn, we lose because the KO or submission can finish the fight and anything can happen. But I'm ready for that and before every fight, I visualize my victory.”
She’s favored to pick up her 13th victory on Saturday, though Kowalkiewicz will be bringing the heat from the time the Octagon gate shuts. That’s fine with Jedrzejczyk, who has trained for this moment. And at this point in her career, she has found the peace in the midst of chaos that she needs to be even more deadly on fight night.
“On the day of the fight, I switch,” Jedrzejczyk said. “I was very surprised before my last fight with Claudia Gadelha because I was not stressed out and I didn't feel any pressure. I was so calm. I was like, 'What's wrong with you, Joanna?' (laughs) But I felt great, I put on a great performance, I was strong physically and mentally and I was like, 'Now it's time for the show, let's go.' I bumped my hands before I walked out, and it was good. So I can conquer the emotions, I can deal with it, and I like that because I can be one hundred percent in the moment of the fight. So I switch – I'm a killer.”