(Note: This is part one of a two-part article. You can find part two right here.)
Joanna Jedrzejczyk is unique among female fighters. This Saturday, she will become the first fighter to challenge strawweight champion Carla Esparza for her belt. Should she win, she will also become the first fighter of Polish descent to attain UFC gold. And, unless she takes a completely uncharacteristic approach to this historic effort, she will do so in uniquely aggressive fashion--an approach that separates her from the vast majority of female mixed martial artists.
Let's be clear: aggression is not lacking in women's MMA. In fact, plenty of female fighters tend toward an overabundance of aggression. What these fighters lack is training, combat experience, and the genuine ill will that comes along with those things. They lack effective aggression. When Jedrzejczyk throws a punch, she throws to hurt. Everything she does in the cage, she does with the intent to harm her opponent. The same competitive indifference that enabled Ronda Rousey to make a pretzel of Miesha Tate's arm allows Jedrzejczyk to bring the fight to her opponents, methodically pick away at their defenses and, ultimately, break them.
Sound scary? That's because it is. But for the fight fan there is a beauty to it as well. Jedrzejczyk's style is one of artful aggression--violence as carried out by a master craftsman. Today, in part one of this technical breakdown, we will explore the tactics that Jedrzejczyk uses to bait, trap, and tear her prey to shreds.
BAIT & SWITCH
Jedrzejczyk doesn't just stand out among the ranks of women's MMA, but MMA in general: according to FightMetric, Jedrzejczyk landed 47% of her total strikes to the body of Claudia Gadelha; against Juliana Lima, 45%. Jedrzejczyk's commitment to body strikes is, sadly, far from the MMA norm, and sets her apart as one of the most consistently dangerous strikers in the sport.
Coming forward, Jedrzejczyk throws decisive punches to the body, not relying on her power alone to hurt the opponent, but rather using each punch to set up the next and confuse the opponent. In this way, striking high and low, she keeps a tight grip on the initiative of the fight.
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1. Jedrzejczyk takes small steps into range.
2. She leads with a crisp jab to the body . . .
3. . . . and withdraws.
4. Repositioning herself in front of Lima, this time she feints the jab.
5. Jedrzejczyk pulls back expecting a counter.
6. But when one doesn't come she immediately feints again with her left hand, hiding a step that penetrates Lima's stance . . .
7. . . . and a straight right hand that pierces her guard.
8. And again, she resets, and repositions.
9. Another feint, this one only a subtle flash of the left hand.
10. Followed by another feint--Jedrzejczyk extends her right hand and draws both of Lima's forearms up high.
11. An easy opening for her left uppercut to the body.
When Jedrzejczyk can force the opponent to react to her, she is able to string together strikes and feints, using one threat to create the opening for anther, and so on and so forth. Even when she is forced momentarily onto the defensive, as in frame five above, she keeps herself in position to strike, never willingly ceding ground to her opponent.
You'll have to watch the GIF to get the full effect of this, but part of the reason for Jedrzejczyk's success in this realm is her broken rhythm. By mixing feints and strikes, she makes it very difficult for Lima to time her attacks. The sequence between frames four and seven, for example, sees Jedrzejczyk moving with an awkward blend of half-beats and full-beats. There's a feint and then, a half-beat later, an evasive pull. A full-beat after that, Joanna leads with another feint, this one followed by a right hand on the half-beat.
Because a feint takes less commitment than a fully executed strike, it leaves the fighter in position to follow up with a strike. Meanwhile the opponent, having bitten on the feint, can't keep up with the sudden speed with which the next movement comes, and gets hit by the real attack.
By stacking true and false attempts on top of one another, Jedrzejczyk essentially digs her opponent a hole from which she can never escape--as long as Jedrzejczyk keeps feinting and attacking, her opponent has no choice but to play catch-up, always struggling to predict Jedrzejczyk's next move rather than planning any moves of her own. Here, Joanna shows just how effective feints can be.
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1. With Lima's back to the fence, Jedrzejczyk feints a right hand.
2. And then makes a subtle level change.
3. Another right hand feint.
4. At this point, Lima has twitched at every movement Jedrzejczyk has made, so she feels forced to throw something. She sticks out a jab, and Jedrzejczyk smoothly slides out of range.
5. Then smoothly returns with a feinted left . . .
6. . . . followed by a feinted right . . .
7. . . . followed by another left uppercut to the guts.
Again, Jedrzejczyk is able to stack so many feints so quickly because the movements are small and controlled. All it takes is a sharp twitch or a half-extended arm to draw a full defensive reaction from the opponent. Thus, Jedrzejczyk commits herself to nothing unecessary, while entire combinations play out threateningly in Lima's mind. And when Lima is finally forced to respond, Jedrzejczyk's effortless feints have left her balanced and ready to react without any hesitation.
Aside from the technical brilliance of this sequence, there is a mental game going on here too. For spectators with older siblings, there might be something worryingly familiar about Jedrzejczyk's actions, as if a flinch from Lima is every bit as satisfying as a clean strike. In fact, it reminds one of any number of cruel childhood games--"two hits for flinching," or "made you look," or "stop hitting yourself!"
Jedrzejczyk doesn't just specialize in striking efficiently; she specializes in convincing her opponents that there is nothing they can do about it. When she stands in front of Lima, fakes her out with five feints in a row, effortlessly evades her counter attempt, and then pounds her in the guts for even daring to try--how do you think that makes Lima feel? This is the secret of effective pressure. It's not just about cutting off the cage, or hitting the body, or landing strikes. It's about creating tests of mental fortitude, and forcing the opponent to fail them.
But of course, Jedrzejczyk isn't all feints. At the start of this article it was said that Jedrzejczyk succeeds because there is real, malicious intent behind her strikes, and that intent is essential. For feints to work, the opponent must believe the feints, and for the opponent to believe, they must be hurt. And once the opponent knows she can be hurt, it becomes all the simpler to hurt her again.
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1. Jedrzejczyk flashes a jab in the face of Claudia Gadelha . . .
2. . . . followed by a swinging overhand right. Gadelha blocks high with her left arm and pulls away.
3. Next Jedrzejczyk leads with a jab.
4. Now Gadelha tries to counter, and it's Jedrzejczyk's turn to back up, catching the swinging blow on her shoulder.
5. Initiating again, Jedrzejczyk throws a single jab, just to measure the distance and keep Gadelha from getting comfortable.
6. Stepping in again, she feints the jab--Gadelha covers up high once again.
7. Jedrzejczyk drives an uppercut up under Gadelha's high block just as the Brazilian starts to sit down on a counter.
This is what analysts mean when they talk about a fighter taking the opponent apart. With a mixture of feints and outright aggression, Jedrzejczyk dismantles Gadelha's defenses and gets her to drop herself chin-first onto a staggering blow. Through a series of calculated movements, she collects data on her target. The first attack gets Gadelha to think about the overhand right; her raised left elbow makes any sweeping punch from that hand a fruitless option, but leaves her open from below. Jedrzejczyk's second attack reveals that Gadelha is looking to counter with the right hand. Her third attack ensures that Gadelha doesn't have time to plan or think--if she countered the last attack automatically, she will do so again.
The final attack puts all of this evidence to use. The feint prompts Gadelha to counter. With the remaining threat of Jedrzejczyk's overhand right, she covers with her left arm and loads up with her own right. Neither of Gadelha's hands is in position to block, and her weight is moving downward as she prepares to punch. It's no surprise that she went down on this blow; it's a surprise that she managed to get back up.
That's all for today; tomorrow we will look at some of the other elements of Jedrzejczyk's game, namely her counter striking and the uninviting tangle of elbows and knees that is her clinch.
UPDATE: Part two is here!
For more fight analysis, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. Tomorrow's new episode explores the out-fighting game of Anthony Pettis, and the traits of the out-fighting style as a whole.