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Joanna Jedrzejczyk ran her spotless professional record to 12-0 after besting bitter archrival Claudia Gadelha in an arduous 25-minute affair on Friday at “The Ultimate Fighter 23” Finale. The Polish champion has had much more impressive finishes, but this might have been her most impressive victory to date. After spending much of the first two rounds on her back, Jedrzejczyk found herself in the unenviable position of being down two rounds to zip heading to the third.
Like any of the great competitors, she stared down a possible defeat and rose to the occasion. Turning up the heat on a quickly tiring foe, Jedrzejczyk picked up her pace and continued to whittle away at the considerable advantage Gadelha had built. As the challenger continued to try to close the distance and fight at close range, the champ kept her distance, peppering her with a curt jab as well as power shots that marked her up and dissipated whatever stamina Gadelha had left in reserve.
By the fourth frame, it was apparent that a dilapidated challenger had little left for her hated opponent, other than an unshaken resolve. With little to no energy left to pursue anything resembling a cogent offensive, Gadelha’s fate was sealed. All Jedrzejczyk had to do was keep her distance, remain upright and continue to pound her immobile antagonist until the final horn sounded.
It all seems so simple, right?
The fact that Jedrzejczyk was put through the grinder over the first 10 minutes and refused to wilt showed that indomitable will we’ve come to expect, but her ability to weather that brutal assault and still have the physical ability to mount her own attack was the disheartening dagger to which Gadelha just couldn’t muster a response. We always talk about the heart of a champion; what Jedrzejczyk did was the epitome of it.
Now, I have been slow to jump on the “Joanna Champion” bandwagon, not because I don’t think she’s a tremendous competitor but because I’ve seen this movie a time or two before. Let’s face it, the strawweight division is still really just playing itself out, and, like so many other weight classes before it, there’s a lot of sorting out still be done. Everyone is always looking to be the first to claim a fighter is the invincible one in his or her weight class; I was touting Cain Velasquez for years. None of us are immune, but I’d like to think I’ve learned my lesson.
I thought the fight was a tremendous example of what this sport has to offer. It showed how physically and mentally tough you have to be to compete at the top levels of MMA. Add in the dramatic momentum swing and the intense rivalry, and it’s not hard to understand why this sport can be so compelling when it’s at its best.
The fight also showcased two extremely talented and dedicated female fighters. I have taken some heat over the years for not being a blind supporter of women’s MMA. To be totally honest, I’ve thought quite a bit of it to be fascicle at times.
Much of the time, especially in the early days of my many years of covering the sport, a women’s fight was little more than a setup for a better-trained and much more experienced fighter to beat up an overmatched opponent. The first woman’s fight I covered live was a bout between Lisa Bjornstad and Sopphia Cardoza at an International Fighting Championship event in central California. Bjornstad was 3-0 at that point and looked like a killer, while Cardoza looked like the promoter found her at the blackjack table outside the venue.
It was a slaughter that lasted only 87 seconds but left an indelible mark on me. It was not unlike men’s MMA in the earliest days when skilled fighters were often matched up with relative novices. Though the marked difference in ability usually made for one-sided beatings that left the crowd frothing, it left a lot to be desired when it came to real sport.
Fast forward to the first few years of women’s MMA at the upper levels of the sport, and there was still a tinge of the spectacle. Watching Cristiane Justino put an unrequited shellacking on Jan Finney in Strikeforce in 2010 didn’t make me think things were progressing as much as perhaps others had. I argued with my good buddy and women’s MMA pioneer and advocate Julie Kedzie about how far the women still had to go before they were more of a finished product than a sideshow.
The fighters that have flocked to the sport since women made their way to the Ultimate Fighting Championship have continued to raise the level of competitiveness. Now there are two divisions that are rounding out themselves and a third -- flyweight -- that should be on its way shortly. MMA has become the first combat sport to actually move past women as a carnival act and put them on equal footing with their male counterparts.
It wasn’t like this happened overnight, and this fight between Jedrzejczyk and Gadelha will be immortalized in bronze somewhere as the point in which women finally arrived. There were women, like Bjornstad in 2000, who always could fight. Now, in 2016, we have a whole generation of women’s fighters who populate the sport and provide the opportunity for their sisters in arms to author the highly competitive fights for which we all desire and hunger.
The evolution of women’s MMA is a success story, one about which the sport should be immensely proud.
Sherdog.com Executive Editor Greg Savage can be reached by email or via Twitter @TheSavageTruth.