UFC Tampa: Late Twists Supersede Jędrzejczyk vs. Waterson

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Joanna Jedrzejczyk
Joanna Jedrzejczyk Credit: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

Joanna Jędrzejczyk’s weight cut stole headlines at UFC Tampa this week, but now she has to deliver against Michelle Waterson in a bout with major title implications.

If there was pressure before for Joanna Jędrzejczyk, it has certainly tripled going into UFC Tampa.  Wednesday’s turn of events put all eyes on the former strawweight champion and whether or not she would make the 116 pound limit (keep in mind, one pound allowance for non-title fights) by Friday morning.  In the end, Jędrzejczyk made weight but changed the conversation of the fight to whether or not her abilities are compromised, and whether she should even continue competing at strawweight after Saturday.  A victory, more importantly an impressive one, would erase much of that doubt.  Should she look any less than her old self, public concern and demand would likely push her back up to flyweight.

Jędrzejczyk’s career going into Saturday has two narratives.  The first is that the former long-time champion is returning to her old weight class with the intention of re-establishing herself at the top.  With five title defenses and a five year unbeaten streak, Jędrzejczyk carries the credentials to set up another shot at the belt with a victory.  The second narrative is another matter.  She has lost three of her last four fights, albeit to only elite competition in Rose Namajunas and Valentina Shevchenko.  But a fourth loss would be devastating considering her nearly year-long hiatus since her last outing at flyweight in December.

By comparison, Michelle Waterson has been on the verge of stardom for several years and Saturday sets up the chance to jump into the upper echelon of competition. Arguably, no other female fighter in the past several years has had more of a push.  Waterson was the subject of a whole documentary, Fight Mom, produced by LeBron James’ company Uninterrupted.  She was included in the 2017 ESPN Body Issue, and was also the subject of a feature piece for their monthly print magazine.  She’s appeared on several TV shows such as American Ninja Warrior, Fight Girls, and The Challenge.  Also, all of her UFC bouts except for one have been on either FOX or a pay-per-view.

This is what makes Saturday so critical.  Waterson had a year’s lay-off due to injury in 2016. She also dropped two straight after her breakout victory when she stopped Paige VanZant in a main event on FOX in 2016.  Despite currently riding a three fight win-streak, she was passed over for a title shot in August because, as UFC President Dana White put it, she was ranked too low.  Jędrzejczyk is exactly the type of high caliber opponent needed to push Waterson over the top.  With the new developments from fight week, a victory would be the final step to proving she is ready for the challenge of winning a UFC championship.

The strategy remains the same as always for Jędrzejczyk: use her jab and reach advantage to establish the distance and find openings to get in-and-out with blistering combinations.  The former champion has shown impressive takedown defense and ability to get back to her feet so she should be prepared for changing levels from Waterson.  The biggest intangible: the layoff.  This is Jędrzejczyk’s first fight since her flyweight bout against Valentina Shevchenko last December and it remains to be seen what changes, if any, she’s made to her game in the eleven months away.  Furthermore, if the weight cut was indeed exceedingly strenuous this week, the normally well-conditioned Polish striker could see herself struggling with her cardio and sharpness in the fight.

“The Karate Hottie” has 25 minutes to work and will have to execute a perfect game plan against Jędrzejczyk.  Waterson should look to clinch with Jędrzejczyk early and constantly look to push the fight to the ground.  Waterson will give up height and reach so she must be prepared to eat shots when closing the distance in the center of the Octagon.  Finally, being able to get in-and-out before Jędrzejczyk counters will be crucial to stopping the former champion from earning easy points in the striking exchanges.

The winner is widely considered to be the front-runner for new strawweight champion Weilli Zhang sometime in 2020.  Fellow top contender Tatiana Suarez has mentioned herself that she expects at least one more opponent before a title fight after coming off a neck injury.  Though a lot of speculation will surround Jędrzejczyk if she is victorious, in regards to her continuing to compete in the 115 pound division after stating that the cut has gotten more difficult over the years.

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