Single sentence summary:
David: The most violent battle between a deluge of consonants versus vowels this side of Reading Rainbow.
Phil: A crafty vet served up as the appetizer for the Rousey blood feast tries to make sure that everyone chokes
History lesson / introduction to the fighters
Phil: While TUF 21 was busy establishing who the first champion of the UFC was going to be, Joanna Jędrzejczyk was beating Juliana Lima and scraping past Claudia Gadelha. The Gadelha fight, in particular, was considered to be the one which would really determine who the best strawweight in the world was. I'm a little saddened that I got caught up in the hype and actually picked Esparza over Jędrzejczyk despite telling myself that I'd pick whoever won the Gadelha/JJ fight.
David: Esparza isn't a terrible fighter; awful gameplanning combined with terrible stylistic complications converged to make her look worse than she is. I don't know if I picked Esparza, but doing so wasn't a travesty of logic. Lately the real travesty has been watching opponents call Joanna names, and attacking her looks (silly mean girls). I mean, what exactly are you accomplishing by making a killing machine even more motivated? I realize there's a contradiction in terms somewhere, but whatever. The Gollum stuff is lame, and doesn't even make sense. Like that new Alice in Wonderland movie, we'd all be better off moving on and pretending it doesn't exist.
Phil: Valérie Létourneau has had an oddly elongated career. She has the number of fights of a prospect, yet they're spread out over two (three if you count the Gadelha fight) weight classes, and eight years. Since coming to the UFC and dropping to strawweight, she's reeled off two solid wins and looks greatly improved. Is it enough, though? Is this a Robbie Lawler story of the right weight class and ATT, or is she just being thrown at Joanna Champion as fodder? The odds probably tell the tale.
David: Well I think to Valerie's credit, it's a little of both. She's had the raw talent to turn it into something the UFC can sell. In this case, the UFC can sell a credible challenger. Whether or not that stretches the definition of ‘credible' is a distinction that has more to do with the state of the division. That Joanna gets to fight before Ronda Rousey just means Zuffa has a convenient excuse.
What are the stakes?
David: As high as most title fights, obviously. A loss would be devastating for Joanna Champion, as she's proven to be a very charismatic, warm personality with a highly entertaining style. The same can't be said of Létourneau, who probably still gets heckled for getting choked out by Roxanne Modaferri on TUF.
Phil: Putting this fight on the Rousey card was savvy matchmaking by Zuffa. While Gadelha was the obvious next choice as a challenger, they know they've got a ready-made audience which expects feminine destruction for this card. Joanna Champion is being set up to do exactly that. If she loses it'll be cataclysmic.
Where do they want it?
David: On the wing of StarFox in a Smash Brothers game obviously. Just like a side scroller, Joanna Jedrzejczyk vs. Valérie Létourneau will end up staying vertical because this is how Joanna rolls. Joanna does at least one thing I consider "next level" on the feet, which is her ability to shoot different bullets. A lot of fighters that can box may be dynamic, and versatile, but the mechanics of the punches themselves don't change; Jędrzejczyk avoids this trap, looping strikes to counter the earmuff defense, or streamlining them to pressure effectively and avoid getting hit by counters.
There's a moment in the Jessica Penne fight where Joanna has her hurt against the cage; instead of just winging random punches like a Double Dragon in cheat mode, she actually sifts a brutal jab through Penne's defense before reengaging. It doesn't do a lot of damage, but it sets the stage for the punches that do. Joanna is just a brilliant boxer by any standard or gender (and no this isn't to make any dumb-ass implications about a superfight between Joanna and Canelo or whatever stupid fantasies Dana White likes to provoke).
Phil: Much of the women's game at 135 is stuck a couple of evolutionary phases behind the men's- it's still clinch-heavy, single strike stuff without much in the way of effective distance control. The fascinating thing about Joanna is that her style has essentially bypassed an entire stage (the pot-shotting era typified by Anderson, GSP and Machida) and moved directly into the elite modern metagame, utilizing the mid-range, high volume, and the ability to use a single strike to pull an opponent's defenses out of the way to set them up for the next. In this manner, Jędrzejczyk is likely to use her piercing jab to pull Létourneau's high right hand out of the way for the left hook and the straight right.
David: If Valerie ends up fighting on the feet with Joanna, for better or worse, I think she'll be fine with that. Granted, there's a reason no one's giving her a chance, but still. I jest with the Modafferi loss, but one of the pleasant surprises in the UFC has been Ms. Létourneau's very steady improvement. She's always been reasonably talented. Hardcore fans are always quick to remind everyone she nearly knocked out Sarah Kaufman with a brutal switch kick early on in their careers.
But lately Létourneau has brought a nice, patient, counter striking game into the octagon; an improvement that has more or less caused her spotless 3-0 record in the UFC. With good movement, solid distance control, and a nice counter left hook (and pressure left jab: what Rogan called "an educated left hand"...one of the few times I'll agree with Rogan with no vapor strings attached), Létourneau isn't a walk in this estrogen octagon park. She has a nice inside leg kick that she'll want to return to on the fight if she wants to avoid getting splattered.
I don't expect any action on the ground. Létourneau has some offensive chops on the ground, and looks to pass aggressively, but I doubt this ends up being a factor. I'd argue that it's important to note only in the event of a scramble off a knockdown. Otherwise it's completely irrelevant. Joanna has incredibly stout takedown defense, and Létourneau has no real wrestling game to speak of.
Phil: Both of these fighters are quite dependent on the use of their hands. Not just in the boxing, obviously, but in the way they tend to block, parry and catch. Where Jędrzejczyk is a little more jab and hook-centric, Létourneau is a bit more focused on catch-and-pitch counters with her right hand, like the one which almost finished Moroz. I fully agree that Létourneau is much better than advertised, though. You can see flashes of real craft in her game, like a left body jab, straight right combo reminiscent of Frankie Edgar, or the ability to step a jab to her right and counter underneath it with the right uppercut. Her problem is that her defense has less layers to it than Jędrzejczyk 's, lacking as it does the champions pivots or subtle head movement. Joanna doesn't have fantastic head movement, but she does at least have some, unlike Létourneau, who is there to be hit if she isn't stepping out of the way or parrying.
Insight from past fights?
Phil: If we look at the Gadelha fight, we can see that while Joanna dealt easily with pure grapplers in Esparza and Penne, she could be gotten to by someone who constantly shifted their phases of offense. As erstwhile BE alum Jack Slack has mentioned, this is the weakness of her aggressive approach to takedown defense. It carries with it a bit more risk than the disengaging approach of, say, Jose Aldo, who will sometimes throw a single intercepting strike like an uppercut or a knee, but otherwise gets the hell out of there and resets from takedown attempts. Létourneau did a good job in controlling Moroz, but she didn't throw many takedown attempts. Attempting to engage Jędrzejczyk in solely the grappling or the striking phases is dangerous, and like Connor suggested for Holm, I think Létourneau needs to pull Joanna's hands out of the way by at least feinting takedowns.
David: Not only that, but Gadelha is completely underrated on the feet, and happens to be a monster there. I think people undersell how much of that fight was really a product of the exchanges on the feet. There's very little to actually imply about Létourneau's chances looking at her resume because her step forward in the UFC has coincided with some fairly random matchups. Moroz is too young, and Rakoczy was just (with all due respect) a complete waste of time.
Phil: This is the problem with strawweight in general. It's a grab bag of great, raw athletes and tough but athletically hopeless veterans, and then Gadelha and Joanna and a couple others. Hard to get meaningful insight when there's almost no baseline for how good everyone actually is.
David: Does Valerie get to bring the Knights of Ren with her? If so, maybe. Even then, I wouldn't bet on it. Joanna owns the kind of Jedi mind tricks you wouldn't see predicted by an overfed worm armed with only his space weed, pickled frogs, and a Rancor pit.
Phil: How does Joanna feel faced with someone she can't make culinary puns about? No cookie, no penne necklace. Can she possibly have the confidence she's had in her past two fights?
David: This is exactly the lopsided matchup it looks like. I don't like that the matchup conceals Létourneau's value to the division, because I think she's a solid presence for such a young talent pool, but this is exactly what it looks like; a showcase fight for Joanna so that she can hop on some of that Ronda Rousey residue so that Joe Rogan can one day call her an "event horizon of the space time continuum" or something. Joanna's gonna blast Valerie with dat boxing. Joanna Jedrzejzcyk by TKO, round 1.
Phil: I think Val's going to have some success, and will last longer than some might predict. In general, Jędrzejczyk 's style makes her an absolute nightmare for pure grapplers, but I think on the feet against someone with Létourneau's craft it'll take a bit for the champ's pace and better strike selection to pull away, at which point the fight's going to get ugly fast. Joanna Jędrzejczyk by TKO, round 4.