(Note: This is part two of a two-part article. You can find part one right here.)Every sport has its special competitors--those athletes who go the extra mile to win, no matter the cost. In most sports, that means a willingness to push oneself to the limit and even, at times, skirt the rules. In combat sports things are a little different. Skirting the rules is still a key aspect of the most winningest fighters' careers, but the trait that sets the best apart from the rest isn't so much the willingness to hurt oneself in pursuit of victory, but the willingness to hurt others.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk has this quality. Yesterday, we broke down the methodical, almost cruel way that she forces her game on her opponents, using a combination of feints and a varied boxing attack to get through their defenses and break their wills.
Jedrzejczyk is more than a pressure fighter, however. Stylistically, she would be most accurately termed a boxer-puncher, a jack of all trades with enough confidence to lead, trade, and counter as needed. It is the latter that we will be looking at today--as an archetypal sprawl & brawler, Jedrzejczyk often needs to dial back her aggression and fight off of the back foot to keep from being taken down. When it comes to counter punching, she is no slouch.
Here, Jedrzejczyk drops the infinitely hittable and improbably tough Rosi Sexton with a perfectly timed counter right. Having already stuffed a handful of Sexton takedowns by this point in the fight, Jedrzejczyk knows that rushing forward into the pocket is an unwise course of action. Instead, she moves forward as she normally would, taking small steps into range and withdrawing every time that Sexton starts to intercept.
This back-and-forth movement happens three times: Joanna advancing, and retreating, advancing, and retreating. Each time, Sexton grows visibly more confident. Her first advance is nothing but a feint, as she jumps back out of range just as Jedrzejczyk does the same. The next step, in center cage, is a feint as well, but this time Sexton doesn't back up so far, and even flirts with some lateral movement right on the edge of Jedrzejczyk's range. Finally, she backs up, perhaps thinking to set a trap herself, and then marches forward with the beginning of a combination, finally committing to her own attack.
Of course, this is exactly the opening that Jedrzeczyk had been waiting for. Each backward step was an invitation for Sexton to advance, a trap baited with the impression of timidity. When Sexton finally bites, Jedrzejczyk completely changes tack, taking only a single step back before sitting down on a thunderbolt of a counter right hand that vaults over Sexton's jab and crashes into her jaw.
Sexton, for all that she needed her fights on the ground, was never much of a takedown artist, so Jedrzejczyk was free to take her time and use as much canvas as she needed to get the job done. Now that she's competing in the upper echelons of the UFC's newly stacked strawweight division, however, Joanna finds herself facing a different kind of grappler, a breed not only more determined but more capable of getting her to the ground. The counters are just as effective against these fighters, but now Jedrzejczyk needs a contingency plan for tenacious fighters who walk through her punches and try to tie her up. Now more than even Jedrzejczyk needs to understand the clinch. Fortunately, her well-rounded skillset doesn't end at mid-range.
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1. Jedrzejczyk backs up as Claudia Gadelha stalks her.
2. Gadelha feints, taking a hard step forward and lowering her base.
3. Jedrzejczyk bites, extending her left hand to judge the distance. When Gadelha doesn't run into her left, she doesn't commit, and keeps backing up and circling.
4. Having already reacted to one Gadelha feint, Jedrzejczyk decides to seize the initiative herself, and gives a feint of her own, flashing the left jab.
5. As Gadelha steps forward to counter, Jedrzejczyk is ready for her, meeting her with a short overhand right.
6. Now Jedrzejczyk steps back out of range, covering her retreat with a slapping left hook.
7. Gadelha responds with a hook of her own, looking to close the distance.
8. Jedrzejczyk doesn't let the Brazilian's miss go unpunished. She answers with a another counter right . . .
9. . . . and this time, as Gadelha once again chases her, Joanna steps out to her right instead of moving back.
10. As their bodies make contact, Jedrzejczyk places a hand on Gadelha's left tricep, pivots to her right, and shoves, switching positions with her opponent and putting her back to the center of the Octagon.
Angles like the one in Frames 9 and 10 above define Jedrzejczyk's clinch fighting. They are also the primary reason that Jedrzejczyk, a fighter who only began training for MMA less than three years ago, has proven so difficult to take down in her career, against an array of opponents who have wanted nothing more than to put her on her back. As her confidence in her already stalwart wrestling grows, she has started to use those same angles to land more of her devastating strikes.
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1. Back to the fence, Jedrzejczyk keeps her left elbow tight to her ribs and cups Lima's forearm (circled) to prevent the underhook.
2. Driving her own head into Lima's temple, Jedrzejczyk raises her left knee and clips Lima on the temple.
3. Using her head position and the distraction caused by her knee strike, she backs out to her left, loading her hips.
4. She skips into another knee, this one thrown to the solar plexus.
5. Joanna keeps her forehead in Lima's ear--when the Brazilian tries to turn into her to take away her angle, she unwittingly allows Jedrzejczyk to circle with her and escape the fence altogether.
6. Now Joanna pushes forward, pushing Lima toward the fence. She crossfaces with her left hand (circled) to create some space . . .
7. . . . and quickly fills that space with a slashing elbow to Lima's hairline.
Jedrzejczyk prefers to use the fence to defend takedowns when she can, which helps her to keep her hips underneath her and work for grips and head position. The disadvantage of this approach is that, once her back hits the fence, there is little Joanna can do to stop her opponent from keeping her there. Most opponents, given the choice between striking with the Polish killer and pinning her against the fence, choose the latter, and that's where Jedrzejczyk's close-quarters angles come into play.
One must stay over the hips to stop a takedown, but the hips must be pulled back to deliver clinch knees. It has not yet become a reliably consistent part of her game, but more and more with every fight, Jedrzejczyk starts to turn once her back hits the fence. With her body angled to the side, she can scoot her hips back and create enough space for a powerful knee to the midsection.
Head position is a powerful component of this tactic. Without proper head position, Jedrzejczyk would be forced to go strength for strength with her opponents. By driving her forehead into her opponent's temple, cheek, or ear, she achieves a dominant angle--the same kind of angle that would grant one an advantage at range lends Jedrzejczyk the leverage necessary to outwrestle her opponents and put them in position to be struck. And the more that Jedrzejczyk damages her opponent in the clinch, the more she can convince her opponent not to end up there, effectively killing the prospect of the takedown altogether, and keeping the fight at range and on the feet--her wheelhouse.
Watch the deterrence in action in this sequence from Jedrzejczyk's bout with Juliana Lima.
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1. Lima dives in from longe range with a poorly disguised takedown attempt.
2. Jedrzejczyk immediately digs in a left underhook.
3. And turns herself to the right, using her underhook and head pressure for leverage as Lima gets back to her feet.
4. Jedrzejczyk attempts a knee that narrowly misses as Lima stands back up . . .
5. . . . and Lima takes advantage of the opportunity to start forcing Jedrzejczyk back toward the fence.
6. Unwilling to cede control, but having lost her underhook, Jedrzejczyk wrenches down on her right overhook and wheels around, whipping Lima into the fence instead of herself.
7. Once there, she abandons her underhook altogether, instead placing her palm over Lima's bicep and using her forehead to keep her pinned in place.
8. Once Lima is thoroughly controlled, Jedrzejczyk releases her head pressure and fills the space with a right hook to the chin before shoving off and regaining the center of the cage.
Just look at how quickly Jedrzejczyk looks to establish a strong wrestling position. Aside from the usual underhook, usually the first thing taught to an aspiring sprawl & brawler, she changes angles the moment that Lima starts to get in on her hips. Just as her upcoming opponent Carla Esparza changes angles mid-takedown to take her opponents off their feet, Jedrzejczyk changes angles to take away the wrestler's drive. Removing her hips from the path of the takedown, Jedrzejczyk immediately presses her advantage, turning her wrestling position into a striking one.
But there's something more to the way that Jedrzejczyk fights in close quarters. We've already alluded to the essential viciousness of her striking, but it goes beyond the wide array of legal techniques thrown with ill intent. Way beyond, in fact. Take a look.
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1. As against Lima, Jedrzejczyk cups Gadelha's forearm and uses head pressure to deny the underhook and turn her opponent into the fence.
2. The turn completed, she leans her full bodyweight into Gadelha, driving her forehead into the Brazilian's cheek.
3. Now Jedrzejczyk posts her left hand on Gadelha's face, simultaneously smothering her and raking her fingertips across Gadelha's eyes.
4. When the ref cautions her for her dirty tactics, Joanna resorts to something legal but no less vicious--a smashing forearm to Gadelha's eye socket.
5. And as she regains head position, who could fault her for another incidental swipe across the eyes?
There's no other way to call it--this is dirty fighting, plain and simple. Part of what sets Jedrzejczyk apart from her peers is the same thing that sets elite male fighters apart from theirs. That's right: great fighters are, with very few exceptions, dirty fighters. It's not that dirty fighting is what makes a fighter great, but rather the willingness to subvert the rules in order to more effectively hurt and ultimately defeat the opponent. Elite fighters go above and beyond, often right into the realm of deliberate fouls.
Jose Aldo has been grabbing fences and ropes since the beginning of his career. Just last year he hit Chad Mendes after the bell in the first round, dropping him and quite possibly dramatically altering the course of the fight as a result. Need another example? How about Anderson Silva, who cleverly kept Chael Sonnen in punching range by keeping a tight hold on his shorts. This is the same man, by the way, who greased himself at the start of nearly every championship fight, and who just recently popped for six million different steroids and other banned substances after a comeback win over Nick Diaz.
Don't get me wrong--I'm not advocating steroid use, or short-grabbing, or eye-poking. None of these things are legal, and for good reason. The point is this: Joanna Jedrzejczyk takes her fighting seriously. It's not just competition for her. It's really fighting, and in a fight you do anything it takes to win. Say what you will about the moral implications of this practice, but understand one thing: a fighter is made great by beating other great fighters, each long-time champion a barbarian king or queen atop a mountain of skulls. A fighter is made great by the quality of his wins, and great fighters win at all costs.
For more analysis, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching, now brought to you by Bloody Elbow! This week's episode breaks down the out-fighting games of Anthony Pettis and Carla Esparza, who defend their titles this Saturday at UFC 185.