Joanna Jedrzejczyk has not been UFC strawweight champion for nearly two years. She hasn’t even fought at 115 pounds in the past 15 months. But in an odd way, she remains the face of the weight class.
There is a timely irony in that statement, I know, given the prevailing narrative all week that Jedrzejczyk was having difficulty trimming down to the strawweight limit ahead of Saturday’s main event against Michelle Waterson at UFC Fight Night in Tampa, Florida.
But Jedrzejczyk (15-3) is not merely the longest-reigning champion in the division’s short history. The 32-year-old from Poland is the only champ who has had a reign of any significant length.
Saturday’s UFC Fight Night main event features two of the most popular women on the roster, with strawweights Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Michelle Waterson squaring off in Tampa, Florida. In the co-main event, Kron Gracie will look to go 2-0 in the Octagon when he faces veteran Cub Swanson.
UFC Fight Night: Joanna vs. Waterson
• Saturday, Tampa, Florida
• Prelims: ESPN+, 5 p.m. ET
• Main card: ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET
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Jedrzejczyk seized the crown in March 2015, barely three months after Carla Esparza had won Season 20 of “The Ultimate Fighter” to become the UFC’s inaugural titlist at 115 pounds. Jedrzejczyk’s one-sided TKO victory over Esparza set off a reign of terror during which “Joanna Champion” reeled off five title defenses, most of them dominant. It took a huge upset by Rose Namajunas in November 2017 to end her run.
Since then, the belt has been a hot potato. Namajunas managed one successful defense — in a rematch with Jedrzejczyk — before being violently dethroned by Jessica Andrade in May. And the first time the Brazilian put the strap on the line, in August, it was taken away in seconds by Zhang Weili.
Now Jedrzejczyk is vying for a shot at Zhang. So is Waterson (17-6), who comes in on a three-fight winning streak. The 33-year-old, who fights out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, doesn’t have the résumé Jedrzejczyk does, but she has momentum and the peace of mind of someone not haunted by the weigh-in scale. Neither woman is assured of a title fight with a victory Saturday, but each of them knows that an emphatic performance will bolster her case in a big way.
ESPN Stats & InformationBy the numbers
6: Consecutive fights in which Waterson has been an underdog. She’s +300 this time and is 3-2 in the previous five. Jedrzejczyk (-400) is the betting favorite for the eighth time in her past 10 fights. She’s 6-1 in the previous seven.
57.5: Percentage of significant strikes landed by Waterson in the UFC, the second-highest accuracy in strawweight history (minimum five fights and 350 attempts). No. 1 is Tatiana Suarez‘s 65.8%.
1,267: Significant strikes at strawweight for Jedrzejczyk, a UFC division record. She owns the four highest fight totals: 225 vs. Andrade in 2017, 220 vs. Valerie Letourneau in 2015, 176 vs. Claudia Gadelha in 2016 and 171 vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz in 2016.
82.8: Percentage of takedown attempts successfully defended by Jedrzejczyk at strawweight, the second-highest qualifying percentage (minimum five fights, 20 opponent attempts) in division history, behind Kowalkiewicz’s 83.7.
Source: ESPN Stats & Information research
A (sweet and crunchy) look backJoanna Jedrzejczyk, right, handed Carla “Cookie Monster” Esparza a cookie at weigh-ins, then made her crumble on fight night via second-round TKO, to become UFC strawweight champion in March 2015. Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesFive vs. five
Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s most recent results
Loss: Valentina Shevchenko (UD, Dec. 8, 2018)
Win: Tecia Torres (UD, July 28, 2018)
Loss: Rose Namajunas (UD, April 7, 2018)
Loss: Rose Namajunas (TKO1, Nov. 4, 2017)
Win: Jessica Andrade (UD, May 13, 2017)
Michelle Waterson’s most recent results
Win: Karolina Kowalkiewicz (UD, March 30, 2019)
Win: Felice Herrig (UD, Oct. 6, 2018)
Win: Cortney Casey (SD, April 14, 2018)
Loss: Tecia Torres (UD, Dec. 2, 2017)
Loss: Rose Namajunas (SUB2, April 15, 2017)
“I was going to wait for the title shot, but I didn’t want to wait longer to get a fight, so I decided to fight with Michelle Waterson. I think she’s a great opponent for my next fight. I call this fight a commercial fight. Michelle Waterson is very known in the States. She’s such a great athlete, with so much experience. She’s the former Invicta champion. She’s well-spoken, beautiful. People love her, fans love her. And I feel the same way. So let’s do it.” — Jedrzejczyk, speaking to ESPN about Waterson
The fight before the fight: A history of Jedrzejczyk staredowns
And the winner is …
All things being equal, this would be Jedrzejczyk’s fight. She’s a relentless force when she’s at her best. But is she now at her best? She has lost three of her past four, and even though those defeats came against champions (Namajunas twice and Valentina Shevchenko), Jedrzejczyk didn’t appear to have her mojo even in her lone victory in the past two and a half years, a decision win over Tecia Torres in July 2018. And this week she’s had to prepare for two opponents: Waterson and the weigh-in scale. Having to answer doubters all week can’t help one’s state of mind. Jedrzejczyk is a solid favorite, but if ever she were ripe for an upset, it’s now. Waterson by late-round submission.
Waiting in the wings
A champion waits in the wings for no one, but strawweight belt holder Zhang Weili will be an interested observer, and she won’t be alone among 115-pounders. Rose Namajunas and Tatiana Suarez would appear to be the running for the next title shot as well. How Saturday’s fight plays out could have an impact on the near future for all of these women.
What else to look for … beyond the main event
Swanson, Gracie and the experience gap
Swanson, 35, has had 36 fights in an 11-year career, with 17 of them coming in the UFC and another eight in the WEC, which was once the UFC’s sister organization for smaller weight classes under the Zuffa banner.
Factoring in those WEC outings, Swanson has pocketed eight Fight of the Night bonuses, plus two for Knockout of the Night.
On the other hand, while Swanson (25-11) has four submission wins in his career, the 31-year-old Gracie has finished all five of his fights via tapout.
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Back in the U.S.A.
The last time the Octagon was in the United States was Aug. 17, the night Stipe Miocic regained the heavyweight championship from Daniel Cormier in Anaheim, California. Feels like ages ago, doesn’t it?
Since that big night at the Honda Center, the UFC has held six events, all outside the country. Over the past eight weeks, the Octagon Traveling Show has visited Shenzhen, China (Jessica Andrade vs. Zhang Weili); Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Dustin Poirier); Vancouver, British Columbia (Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone vs. Justin Gaethje); Mexico City (Yair Rodriguez vs. Jeremy Stephens); Copenhagen, Denmark (Jack Hermansson vs. Jared Cannonier); and Melbourne, Australia (Robert Whittaker vs. Israel Adesanya).
If you see an eight-sided cage sunning itself on a Caribbean beach this winter, chalk it up to frequent flyer miles.
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