The Ultimate Fighter
Joanna Jedrzejczyk spent 966 days as the UFC strawweight champion. She plans on starting a new reign this Saturday night by beating Zhang Weili. But there is more to life than championship belts, and it took a devastating loss outside the Octagon to remind her of that.
“Loving what you're doing in your life, that's the thing,” Jedrzejczyk said. “Some people, after the work is done, they like to go home and do nothing. I like to do things and I feel like I'm just better. I want to learn every day and evolve every day and I want to take as much as I can from every single day of my life. I lost my best friend three months ago; she lost her fight with cancer. She went to my fight in Tampa and she wanted to live so much and she didn't get this chance.”
Joanna and Karolina had been friends since the former champion was six years old. That Karolina got to see her friend defeat Michelle Waterson last October meant so much to a fighter who seemed lost in the wilderness at times since she lost her belt to Rose Namajunas in 2017. Jedrzejczyk always left no stone unturned in training, always showed up to fight, but the end results weren’t there.
“There is no bigger fight in our life than life,” she said, and after clearing up matters outside the Octagon, the “real” Joanna Jedrzejczyk was back against Waterson. And her best friend got to see it. And though Karolina passed away last November, her friend retained the lessons she learned.
Now she wants her belt back. Some wonder if the 32-year-old can climb the mountain again. She doesn’t have such doubts, and she welcomes those who have them because she’s heard it all before.
“There are tons of great athletes and great fighters; the UFC is the best organization in the world,” Jedrzejczyk said. “But the thing is that sometimes you're not the best competitor, maybe you're not the most talented, maybe you're not the most hard-working person in the gym, but you can still become the champ because it's all about what's inside you. It's all about this desire and how hard you believe in yourself. That's the point. There are people who when I started training, said, 'No, she's not gonna make it.' But I believed in myself so much and I did it. And I left these people behind me.”
That doesn’t mean the doubts never crept in as the Poland native made her way through the world of Muay Thai and then MMA. Was this a viable career? Would she be able to achieve everything she wanted to? This is someone who once spoke of making “minus two thousand dollars” for a Muay Thai fight. But after winning her first two UFC fights and getting the opportunity to face Carla Esparza for the strawweight title in March 2015, she knew she found her place.
“I feel like it was the spot for me to be,” Jedrzejczyk said. “Since I got the chance to represent UFC, I got the chance to fight for the belt for the first time five years ago in Dallas, and after I won, I felt like I belonged to this world, that I was born to do that. It was a sign from God that you have to do this. I was about to quit so many times. I was coming back and looking for even more motivation, but I found this after winning the belt and being the champ for such a long time. That's why I stood up and I'm still fighting.”
When a fighter and their championship become intertwined, it’s hard to let go when that belt isn’t there anymore. And few lived the champion’s life better than Jedrzejczyk, who successfully defended her title five times while handling everything else without skipping a beat.
“It's all about staying focused because when you become the champ, you have more and more stuff to do, more obligations, and some people, they don't know how to deal with it,” she said. “They just follow the group of people. But I feel like I was the champ for a reason, and I will do this for a second time.”
But when Namajunas took her crown, it was a shocker. Today, the past is the past. All that matters is Saturday night in Las Vegas, and Jedrzejczyk has got her groove back.
“This camp was different,” she said. “In this camp, I didn't take a break for six weeks. I did 13 training sessions every week for six weeks straight. After six weeks, I was broken physically and mentally because I pushed so hard. But I took one day off and I was back to the gym again. I'm very proud of myself.”
Jedrzejczyk pauses, then talks of her coaches at American Top Team – Mike Brown, Katel Kubis and Mikey Rod – and what they’ve told her as the UFC 248 co-main event approaches.
“They’re saying, ‘We haven't seen you like this; we knew you were a hard worker, and saw you in so many hard camps, but we haven't seen you train like this.’”
She pauses again.
“Now I have tears in my eyes because I gave everything,” said Jedrzejczyk, who wants that belt back, but not because it’s what’s expected of her or because it defines her. She has a different motivation.
“I need that belt, but in a little bit different way than I used to,” she said. “I will carry the belt different than I did. This is what I learned from the last two years and three months. I learned more about being a human and as an athlete, as well. It was a big lesson and I don't have to prove anything to anybody. It's not like I have to do this, it's not that I must do this. I want to do this. I want to be the champ. After I win the belt on Saturday, it will mean much more than all of my victories. This one victory will be sweeter than all the ones in the 17 years of my fighting career.”
So is she ready to start another 966 days?
“I'm more than ready.”
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