Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s performance this past Saturday night checked every box from someone looking for a title shot.
Jedrzejczyk (16-3), the former strawweight champion, won a clear decision over Michelle Waterson (17-7) in the main event UFC Tampa at the Amalie Arena. While not explicitly stated, the winner was hinted as first challenger to new champion Weili Zhang (20-1).
The fight reportedly was in jeopardy because of Jedrzejczyk had a weight-cutting issue and asked for a catchweight fight. But by fight day, it was a non-issue, and she made weight with a half-pound to spare on Friday morning. Then, she performed at a championship level on Saturday, going five hard rounds without issue.
Aside from brief periods in rounds three and five where Waterson got her back on the ground, Jedrzejczyk controlled the fight against her smaller opponent. Aside from one judge, who gave Waterson round three for her choke attempts, Jedrzejczyk won every round. She was charming and effective afterward in her in-ring interview and made it clear she wanted the next title shot. She also called Waterson, who was in tears after the loss, a future champion. It was definitely a feel-good moment for the sport, and one where both fighters came across like stars.
Jedrzejczyk, now 32, once controlled the division. She became its second champion in early 2015 and defended the title five times over the next two years and eight months before she ran into Rose Namajunas, who beat her and then beat her again in a title rematch.
Namajunas remains the only strawweight fighter who has beaten Jedrzejczyk.
Since Jedrzejczyk’s second loss to Namajunas, the title has changed hands twice, moving from Namajunas, to Jessica Andrade (who Jedrzejczyk defeated in a title defense), to Zhang.
It was once again a shame this performance was limited in visibility to the hardcore UFC fans watching on the ESPN+ streaming service. Fights where new title challengers arise are best seen by the widest number of viewers possible.
Jedrzejczyk dodged a bullet when she found out the foot she thought was broken during the fight was only swollen, meaning less down time.
She later pushed the idea of having the title match at National Stadium in Warsaw, Poland. In 2017, the Poland-based KSW promotion drew a sellout of 57,776 fans to that stadium, which is still the second largest real number for an MMA event on record. Whether she has the drawing power to pull off a stadium show is a question, and it would be a heavy risk because her drawing power has never been tested at that level. On the other hand, a successful stadium show would be a major feather in the Jedrzejczyk’s cap, and it would bolster the UFC strawweight championship’s prestige.
The division added a new star on Saturday in Amanda Ribas (8-1), who looked fast, strong and crisp handing former multi-time BJJ world champion Mackenzie Dern (7-1) her first MMA loss. Based on this fight, her second in the UFC, Ribas looked like she could be a potential title contender against name-level competition.
Zhang looks untouchable since she won the strawweight title. But there are two women who’d make for strong challengers right now in Jedrzejczyk and Namajunas.
Namajunas (8-4) looked like the division’s class president in outstriking Jedrzejczyk, who was thought by many to be the best striker in all of women’s MMA, in both fights. Namajunas actually looked even better standing in her defense against Andrade. But Andrade was able to slam her almost on her head at a terrible angle, a blow that knocked her out and ended her title run.
Since then, Namajunas hasn’t fought, and there’s a question if she’ll ever fight again. But given how both have looked in their recent standup battles, Namajunas vs. Zhang would be a classic championship fight. Plus, the powerhouse wrestlers in Tatiana Suarez (8-0) and Andrade (20-7) should also be considered in the title mix, and Zhang is untested against grapplers of that level.
Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for five stars of Saturday’s show.
JOANNA JEDRZEJCZYK – The Zhang title fight looks to be her next fight. But if by some chance Namajunas asks for a shot, she’ll deserve that chance. At that point Jedrzejczyk can either wait for the winner or face Suarez in a title eliminator if Suarez is recovered from her own neck issues.
MICHELLE WATERSON – Watching Saturday’s main event, it was notable how much size Waterson, who fought as an atomweight (105 pounds) in Invicta, is giving up against bigger strawweights.
Waterson has the skill to overcome the size against all but the top level fighters. She’s marketable and could make a championship run fighting women of her own size. That brings up the prospect of the UFC adding an atomweight division. At some point it will probably happen, but it may be after Waterson’s career is over.
As far as a next fight goes, Carla Esparza (15-6) or Suarez are good opponents, but Suarez is one of the physically stronger fighters in the division, and the size difference will present the same issue.
CUB SWANSON – Veteran UFC and WEC fighter Swanson (25-11) turned back Kron Gracie in a competitive fight. Swanson has been around so long and has fought almost everyone, but a good next first-time opponent would be Josh Emmett (15-2).
KRON GRACIE – MMA history dictates that having a Gracie, let alone the son of Rickson Gracie, is a big draw to fans. And what we’ve found so far with Kron Gracie is he can submit lower-level guys. But with Swanson, he had an opponent with far more striking experience and a competitive BJJ background. That was enough to neutralize his strength. We also found out Gracie can take a punch without backing down. And yet, the most intriguing next fight for him shouldn’t test his fistic prowess – give him Ryan Hall (8-1), who’s in his same weight class and has made a name with his own submission wizardry.
AMANDA RIBAS – Ribas came out of her win over Dern looking like she had real possibilities. Esparza, Marina Rodriguez (12-0-1) or former title contender Karolina Kowalkiewicz (12-5) are all potential next opponents.