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After plans for the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s debut in San Francisco fell through, UFC Fight Night 161 on Saturday instead heads to Tampa, Florida, with a perfectly fine lineup of fights. The card may be a bit overstuffed with 14 bouts, but on the plus side, nearly every match looks to provide solid entertainment. There is a little bit of everything, from a fun brawl between Max Griffin and Alex Morono to grappler’s delight showcase featuring Kron Gracie and Mackenzie Dern. To top it all off, the Joanna Jedrzejczyk-Michelle Waterson winner could emerge as the No. 1 contender for current women’s strawweight champion Weili Zhang. No one fight puts this over the top, but there will be something worth talking about the following day.
On to the UFC Fight Night “Jedrzejczyk vs. Waterson” preview:
Women’s StrawweightsJoanna Jedrzejczyk (15-3) vs. Michelle Waterson (17-6)
ODDS: Jedrzejczyk (-400), Waterson (+325)
It has taken longer than expected, but Jedrzejczyk might finally be on the path to regaining her strawweight crown. It feels like a distant memory, but it was less than two years ago that Jedrzejczyk was one of the most dominant champions in the sport. The UFC’s strawweight division was built on her back, as Jedrzejczyk racked up win after win against every top contender available, sometimes getting controlled but never truly getting tested. Along the way, “Joanna Champion” went from hardcore favorite to minor star and looked set to break through as one of the sport’s signature fighters heading into UFC 217, where she was set to defend her title at Madison Square Garden against Rose Namajunas. “Thug Rose” was essentially the last challenger left before Jedrzejczyk seemed set to ply her trade at flyweight, and the champion was unsurprisingly a huge betting favorite given the inconsistent nature of Namajunas’ career. That made it all the more shocking when Namajunas ended Jedrzejczyk’s reign in a little more than three minutes, blowing through the champion’s defenses and earning a sudden stoppage. Since then, Jedrzejczyk has remained prominent but not particularly successful, albeit against a strong slate of competition. A rematch with Namajunas proved the knockout may have been a bit of a fluke, but “Thug Rose” managed to win a 25-minute war on the scorecards. After a rebound win over Tecia Torres, Jedrzejczyk did eventually make that move to flyweight, only to get stifled by the strength of Valentina Shevchenko. Given that she has constantly been relevant since her 2014 UFC debut, it has been surprising that Jedrzejczyk has been completely off the radar during this calendar year. There was not even much talk of her return until this fight with Waterson came together. With Namajunas losing her title to Jessica Andrade and Andrade subsequently dropping the belt to Zhang, Jedrzejczyk has a path back to the top of the heap at 115 pounds, and a win over Waterson is the next step.
Waterson’s rise through the strawweight ranks has been a pleasant surprise. She figured to be an entertaining attraction upon her UFC debut, but there was some question about how well “The Karate Hottie” could hang. She was an obvious choice to get a promotional push, but as a natural atomweight, her lack of size figured to give her a clear ceiling in terms of contention. A slow start to her UFC tenure did not figure to help things, either. After she had a surprisingly tough time getting a win over Angela Magana, injuries kept Waterson out of action for the next year and a half -- until she returned with a win over Paige VanZant. From there, Waterson appeared to hit that ceiling in a rough 2017 campaign. Namajunas’ length ate her alive, and Torres relied on her strength and wrestling to grind out a clear win. Since then, Waterson has suddenly put things together. She is now leaning on her karate background and relative speed advantage more than ever, focusing on a darting range striking game that forces her opponents to chase. Occasionally, Waterson can break out some solid wrestling. She still cannot compete with the true powerhouses of the division, but she is surprisingly strong for her small frame and can take things to the mat against a solid swath of competition. It has not always been pretty, but Waterson’s career has as much momentum as it ever has after three straight wins, capped by a dominant performance over Karolina Kowalkiewicz in March. Jedrzejczyk is a tough challenge, but if Waterson could pull this off at any time in her career, the time is now.
Waterson has made a habit of defying expectations in recent years, but on paper, this fight looks to be all Jedrzejczyk. As her career has gone on, Jedrzejczyk has moved from being a violent buzzsaw to a range kickboxer, and thus far, only two opponents have managed to cause her issues. Namajunas’ ability to match Jedrzejczyk from range gave her fits, and Shevchenko caused similar issues with her size and ability to take things to the mat. If Jedrzejczyk has a particularly large size advantage, her fights have been all one-way traffic. Andrade had her moments but got picked apart while constantly charging forward, and while Torres had a more varied attack, she either found herself getting beaten up in the clinch or on the end of Jedrzejczyk’s punches over the course of their fight. Waterson can probably fare a bit better than that due to her own dedication from range, as she is likelier to constantly be on the move and render Jedrzejczyk ineffective than throw herself into danger. For all Waterson’s improvements in terms of fighting while moving, Jedrzejczyk should still be able to crack her every time the two are close enough to exchange. On the feet, the former champion has the tools and disposition to take advantage of Waterson’s ability to be countered, and the latter’s wrestling likely will not have much success against the Pole’s stout defenses in that department. Even this more patient version of Jedrzejczyk should be able to pour on the damage through attrition if this takes place as a kickboxing contest. The pick is Jedrzejczyk via third-round stoppage.
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