The strawweight division was turned on it’s axis last November when Rose Namajunas ended Joanna Jędrzejczyk’s reign. At UFC 223, they run it back for the belt again.
The UFC strawweight division is due for its most critical bout in years as two of the most dynamic names at 115-pounds battle for the world championship. Joanna Jędrzejczyk reigned supreme for two years and super fights were next on her agenda following last November. Rose Namajunas was a dynamic contender who had suffered setbacks in key moments during her UFC run, coming up short for the world title, a number one contender bout and a subsequent long lay-off. So when Namajunas needed just minutes to take the throne, the division took a very sharp turn.
Jędrzejczyk had a very clear path last November: Overcome Namajunas, break Ronda Rousey’s record in her following bout, then move up to flyweight to claim the title after having swept the strawweight division. It took “Thug Rose” less than five minutes to end her reign and change plans completely. Now, her legacy is on the line as she challenges for her old title against Namajunas.
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The fact that she lost to a fighter of Namajunas’ caliber would not have been as dramatic without the circumstances leading up to the bout. The now infamous images of Jędrzejczyk intimidating the silent Namajunas compounded the loss as the storyline of the moment became how the Polish striker’s mind games turned on her.
Leading up to the bout, Jędrzejczyk had dismantled the most dangerous contenders in the division in Claudia Gadelha, Jessica Andrade, Karolina Kowalkiewicz and others. Now with the impending rematch, talk has turned to her struggles with her weight cut leading up to the bout. As told on the MMA Hour, Jędrzejczyk claims her work with the Perfecting Athletes nutrition team contributed to her poor performance. Per their regiment, Jędrzejczyk says that on the last day of her weight cut she had to cut 15 pounds in 14 hours. She complained of numbness in her legs but avoided requesting an IV out of fear of the bout being canceled.
Of course, new champion Rose Namajunas feels that it will all make zero difference in the rematch. The pacing of her career has made it feel as if she came out of obscurity. Following her loss in a title bout at the conclusion of The Ultimate Fighter she faced Angela Hill in a preliminary bout that went unnoticed. She would reel off two high profile victories afterward, defeating Paige VanZant and Tecia Torres.
A title shot was expected, but she instead ended up in a bout with Karolina Kowalkiewicz. Namajunas was heavily favored but instead struggled to deal with the knees in the clinch from the then unknown Polish contender. Namajunas would be out of action for nine months following, becoming nearly forgotten as the division continued. When she returned, she stopped fan favorite Michelle Waterson to set up the bout with Jędrzejczyk.
Namajunas stayed calm in the face of the Polish champion, unresponsive to the numerous public taunts dealt in her direction. It all came to a head at the weigh-ins where Jędrzejczyk verbally went off one final time while Namajunas silently recited the Lord’s Prayer on-stage.
Both women at their best, it was expected that the bout would be a tightly contested contest. Instead, “Thug” outstruck the champion with ease, finding a home for her counters and not allowing the Polish striker to establish her range and timing. She would drop Jędrzejczyk once on the feet before following it up with the finishing sequence moments later to claim the belt.
In the months since, Namajunas has become one of the most popular fighters in the UFC. In the aftermath, she has been vocal about bringing awareness mental health and using the platform of UFC champion to spread positivity. But this still leaves her with the business of defending the title against the long-time champion.
The big question, how will the fight different? Most obviously there is a clearly different demeanor coming from Jędrzejczyk in the form of less mind games publicly. Stylistically, the bout does not look to carry major differences. The Polish challenger will look to establish her range and look to get in and out with surgically precise strikes. If she is successful in avoiding the counters of Namajunas, then she figures to be able to run away with the decision or even possibly set up a finish if the champion gets reckless in attempting to catch her.
For Namajunas, she should go into the bout abundantly confident to do exactly the opposite. “Thug” should look to strike first or counter Jędrzejczyk as she attempts to get inside. Regardless of any significance given to the challenger’s statements about her weight cut, the fact remains Namajunas was able to land cleanly and efficiently very early in the bout to win the title. Jędrzejczyk may feel different physically going into the rematch, the champion still executed a perfect game plan for countering her foe.
For Namajunas, stardom could well be on the horizon. As one of the youngest world champions on the roster, she would be in the prime of her career as she looks to continue her reign. For Jędrzejczyk, the bout is critical to her legacy. She was on the brink of a virtual sweep of the most competitive women’s division in the UFC. If she moves up to flyweight as expected, she will continue to be followed by questions about strawweight unless she is able to get the win back from Namajunas on Saturday. The division could be sent in one of two directions when the night is over, and it’s too close to predict which way it will end.