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Turning a Puncher into a Punching Bag: The Mastery of Joanna Jedrzejczyk

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Bloody Elbow’s Connor Ruebusch breaks down the flawless strategy and technique with which Joanna Jedrzejczyk dominated Jessica Andrade at UFC 211.

MMA: UFC 211-Jedrzejczyk vs Andrade Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In MMA, there are fights, and there are performances. Joanna Jedrzejczyk's fifth title defense may not have been the fight fans were hoping for, but it was a performance to be remembered. Jessica Andrade entered the Octagon having dominated three top-flight strawweights, her strength, power, and aggression making mincemeat of everyone before her. Over the course of five rounds, she showed impressive toughness, ironclad will, and superior conditioning. None of that was enough to take even a single round from Joanna Champion, the strawweight queen, and now quite clearly the greatest female fighter in the history of the sport.

To give Jedrzejczyk's performance the credit it deserves, you have to understand what Andrade brought to the table. You have to understand the ways in which she was a unique threat to the champion, and then look at the ways in which Jedrzejczyk, through unparalleled intelligence, craft, and discipline, took those threats away one by one, controlling every aspect of the fight and putting herself in position to deliver punishing blows.

Let's get into it.

THREAT #1
Aggressive Counters

Jessica Andrade is a pressure fighter. She comes forward relentlessly, and thrives when her opponent’s back is to the fence. Thus, Jedrzejczyk’s entire strategy was centered on the idea of neutralizing Andrade’s pressure. Unlike your typical swarmer, however, Andrade does not march forward behind a constant stream of punches. Instead, she prefers to use methodical pressure to force attacks out of her opponent, at which point she will parry or slip and then barrel forward with a counter combination, answering the initial strike with four, five, or eight of her own.

So step one for Jedrzejczyk was to deny Andrade the chance to counter. With three-and-a-half inches reach in her favor and a considerable speed advantage to boot, the solution was fairly simple.

1. At a safe distance, Jedrzejczyk (in black) lines the toes of her left foot up with the center of Andrade’s body.

2. Stepping in, her left arm extends, following that line right to Andrade’s face. The Brazilian parries the punch.

3. Jedrzejczyk springs back to safety.

4. Inching forward, the champion throws a quick feint, twisting her torso to suggest an attack from the right side.

5. Seeing Andrade react, she shifts forward.

6. And attacks from the left instead, clipping the inside of Andrade’s lead leg with a long inside low kick.

7. And immediately back to long range.

8. Once again, Jedrzejczyk bounces her way back to the fringes of her effective range, not content to let Andrade sit and think. Again she lines up her jab.

9. Another deep step, and this time she shoots the jab to Andrade’s belly, finding the mark.

10. And right back to a safe distance.

From the opening seconds of the bout, Jedrzejczyk made use of her length. She snapped away at the legs of Andrade, attacking the closest target with her longest weapons so that Andrade was never near enough to muster an immediate response, nor had enough time to do so. When Jedrzejczyk punched, she preferred long jabs, stepping in and turning her hips to make full use of her reach. Rather than throwing herself forward, she ended each jab on the ball of her lead foot, enabling her to spring quickly away just as soon as she had stepped forward. She committed to nothing so much that she could not leap away in a blink, never planting her feet in place and giving Andrade even a split-second opportunity to reach out and touch her.

But Jedrzejczyk would never be content with a victory based solely on taps and prods. As she stabbed away from long range, Joanna saw how the challenger became jumpy. Before long, Andrade started to bite on feints, throwing up her hands and ducking her head at the mere suggestion of a strike, knowing that the champion’s arms and legs could flick out quicker than any opponent she had ever faced. To the champion, every flinch was an opportunity, and it was not long before she started to capitalize. As the fight wore on and the reactions became more obvious, Jedrzejczyk started picking her spots, and, every so often, she began to turn some of those flicks into pistons, those whips into baseball bats.

1. Round four, and Jedrzejczyk is very comfortable with her timing and range. Note how close she stands to Andrade compared to the previous example.

2. Testing that range, the champ steps forward and dips her shoulders. Andrade pulls her head back and raises her hands.

3. Taking the easy target, Jedrzejczyk shifts her feet . . .

4. . . . and cracks Andrade with a solid outside low kick as she once again raises her hands and leans away.

5. No sooner does Jedrzejczyk’s kicking leg return to its original position than she throws another feint, taking a hard step forward and jutting her right hand toward Andrade’s face.

6. Winding up her hips, Jedrzejczyk throws out her left arm. Made cautious by the last feint, Andrade reacts badly to this one.

7. And so she is mid-flinch when Jedrzejczyk’s instep smashes into the side of her head.

Strategy is about optimization. In favoring long jabs and kicks, Jedrzejczyk wisely chose the safest weapons at her disposal. But Jedrzejczyk is not a safe fighter. She has a keen, tactical eye, and not one woman she has faced could say that the champion does not enjoy inflicting damage. Proving her discipline, however, Jedrzejczyk kept her violent instincts constrained within the rigid structure of her gameplan. She found ways to deliver brutal punishment without ever exposing herself to the counter combinations of the challenger. And the more punishment she dished out, the more effective her feints became.

It’s a vicious cycle—if you are Jessica Andrade.

THREAT #2
Swarming Combinations

Of course, the challenger would never agree to sit at range and eat stinging strikes all day. Sooner or later, Jedrzejczyk knew, she was going to commit to an attack. And as we have already noted, Andrade does not peck away with pot-shots; when she throws, she swarms, attacking body and head with equal prejudice and fearsome power.

What the champion picked up on, however, was the way in which the challenger tended to attack. As a pressure fighter, Andrade knows how to cut off the cage. And as Joanna circled, Jessica sidestepped along with her, always looking to place her stout frame between the champion and the center of the cage. Without the benefit of constant jabs and feints, however, Andrade struggled to hide her attacks from the champion’s keen eye. And when she did launch a combination, Joanna knew precisely what to do.

1. Jedrzejczyk circles to her right.

2. Andrade sidesteps to keep the champion in her sights.

3. As soon as Jedrzejczyk pauses, Andrade reaches out to cover her jab . . .

4. . . . and leaps forward with a wild left hook. The champion deflects the punch with a long guard.

5. And as Andrade barrels forward, Jedrzejczyk uses her left forearm to frame against the side of her head.

6. Pivoting to her right, Jedrzejczyk uses Andrade’s own momentum, shoving her into the fence.

7. The champion regains the center of the cage.

What Jedrzejczyk understood was that Andrade does not attack on diagonals. The pressure footwork is there, but the moment her hands start to fly, she is all straight lines. In a word, she can move side to side, or forward and back, but never both at once. As a result, her onslaughts, while dangerous, are predictable enough for the experienced striker. Like a freight train with no brakes, she barrels forward stuck to her rails—and all it takes to avoid her is the discipline to simply step off the tracks.

This was a product of more than just technical footwork. Jedrzejczyk used superb timing to execute her pivots at just the right moments, waiting for Andrade to commit to an attack before cutting tight angles and leaving the challenger to punch holes in the air. The composure and discipline this sort of evasion requires cannot be understated. In UFC 211’s main event, we saw how constant, unchanging lateral movement can become predictable, as Stipe Miocic timed Junior Dos Santos’ frantic sidestepping with devastating accuracy. Jedrzejczyk, on the other hand, repeatedly denied Andrade the opportunity to land by allowing her to attack. In fact, a closer look at the sequence above reveals that Jedrzejczyk actually invited Andrade into the pocket, momentarily halting her footwork when she realized that constant movement would not allow her to escape the fence.

The champion also used her reach to complement her evasive footwork. Note that when Andrade attacks, Joanna is quick to crossface her with an outstretched arm. Where the head goes, the body follows. By controlling Andrade’s head, Jedrzejczyk managed to use Andrade’s own inertia against her, denying her any chance of changing angles and continuing the attack.

THREAT #3
Punching Power

So Jedrzejczyk had the tools to pick Andrade apart without getting countered, and the footwork and timing necessary to evade the majority of her combinations. Even so, the champion knew that Andrade’s power would be a danger at every stage of the fight. As if to emphasize this point, the very first punch Andrade landed planted a swollen egg under the skin of Jedrzejczyk’s forehead. The hematoma was a grisly sight for spectators, but it served as a reminder to the champion that, no matter how perfectly she controlled distance, no matter how elegantly she navigated the cage, sooner or later the challenger would corner her and go to work.

Before UFC 211, it seemed that Andrade’s power might pose a considerable threat to Jedrzejczyk, who had been dropped by Claudia Gadelha and badly stunned by Karolina Kowalkiewicz in her last two fights, respectively. While Joanna had always been able to recover, Andrade was undeniably the hardest puncher she had ever faced. Worse, the style with which she was most comfortable would have given the challenger far too many opportunities.

Joanna comes from the Dutch school of kickboxing, and that style emphasizes aggression and combination striking in the pocket. In past fights, Jedrzejczyk has shown a tendency to meet her opponents’ attacks head on, planting her feet and unloading a three- or four-punch combination punctuated by a low kick. A half-dozen strikes thrown before she attempted to create any distance. To do so against Andrade, however, would mean standing right in the wheelhouse of an iron-chinned bruiser with real knockout power. In order to nullify the risk and put herself in a position to do damage, Jedrzejczyk had to leave the Netherlands behind, and take a stylistic trip to Thailand.

No combinations in the pocket; instead, the Thai clinch.

1. Jedrzejczyk circles, looking for openings.

2. As Andrade squares up, Jedrzejczyk chops at her lead leg with an outside low kick.

3. Andrade attempts a counter. The champ posts with both hands on her shoulders in an attempt to create space . . .

4. . . . but as she retreats it becomes clear that Andrade is committed to the assault. Jedrzejczyk steps into her, hiding her chin behind her shoulders as she reaches for the head.

5. Using her height, Jedrzejczyk breaks Andrade’s posture with a strong double collar tie.

6. The challenger gets in a right hand to the body . . .

7. . . . but her momentum makes it easy for Jedrzejczyk to pull her into a gut-wrenching knee.

Jedrzejczyk has been a fantastic clinch fighter throughout her MMA career. The skillset evolved as an answer to wrestling. With most of her opponents desperately trying to take her down, Joanna needed a way to stuff shots and deliver punishment all at once, in the hopes of disincentivizing further takedown attempts. Against Andrade, however, the clinch was a failsafe, a position which would allow Jedrzejczyk to close the distance on her own terms whenever Andrade came too near to be evaded altogether. Rather than standing her ground and trading punches, or frantically skittering away when Andrade was already entering punching range, the champ tied the challenger up and gave her a compelling reason to fear the phonebooth.

Of course, one of Andrade’s greatest assets is her physical strength. Clinching with her meant tangling with an exceedingly powerful fighter, and Andrade was able to muscle through the first few clinch attempts, landing short punches at certain times, and lifting Jedrzejczyk into the air like a sack of Polish potatoes at others. Nonetheless, Jedrzejczyk wisely chose cuffing blows and ugly throws to full-powered combinations at mid range. And as the rounds went by, and she began reading the attacks before Andrade even knew what she was about to throw, the clinch exchanges became more and more one-sided, until finally they weren’t exchanges at all.

1. Jedrzejczyk tries to maintain her distance, but Andrade is advancing rapidly.

2. As Andrade moves forward, she plants her weight on her left leg, loading up on a hook.

3. Jedrzejczyk spots the danger, and slips under the punch, stepping into Andrade as she does so.

4. With a slight angle on the challenger, Jedrzejczyk reaches for Andrade’s neck . . .

5. . . . and continues to pivot, encircling Andrade in a head-arm clinch.

6. Stepping back for leverage, the champion pulls Andrade toward her, off-balancing her.

7. And as she releases her, Jedrzejczyk lands a slicing elbow to Andrade’s forehead as she struggles to right herself.

Thus, we have the final piece of a perfect strategy. Jedrzejczyk had the tools to keep Andrade at bay. She understood how to make the aggressive counter puncher flinch and hesitate, and she slowly worked more and more damaging strikes into the mix as Andrade’s confidence started to wilt, and her frustration started to grow. She had the clockwork timing to evade Andrade’s more predictable attacks, and the right weapons with which to punish Andrade whenever she did make it to the pocket. Every piece of this plan fitted together without a gap. It was not much of a fight; it was the finest performance of Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s career.

When Greg Jackson, MMA's preeminent gameplanner, comes up with a strategy, he thinks in terms of “nodes.” Every position is a node, every option offered by that position an “edge.” For Jackson, the key to effective gameplanning is determining which nodes favor his fighter, and which edges enhance their chances while mitigating the options of the opponent. Whether or not Mike Brown and the other members of Jedrzejczyk’s corner use this terminology, it is abundantly clear that they view gameplanning in much the same way.

It bears repeating: Jessica Andrade was not an easy opponent for Jedrzejczyk. As we have seen, she posed a number of threats the likes of which Jedrzejczyk had never before faced in the Octagon. She combined the power and aggression of Claudia Gadelha with the durability and stamina of Karolina Kowalkiewicz. Considering the fact that Gadelha took rounds one and two off the champion last summer, and Kowalkiewicz stunned her in the fourth round less than six months ago, it seemed that Andrade was poised to drag Jedrzejczyk into a hole that not even she, with incredible skill and legendary stamina, could escape.

To beat her, Jedrzejczyk had to battle her own instincts. She had to maintain perfect discipline for 25 minutes, all the while treading a narrow path between safety and attack. That she managed to do so while displaying the cleanest technique and sharpest timing of her career truly is a testament to her greatness. Joanna has been champion for over two years now, and defended her belt a total of six times, but never has she stopped improving, nor failed to adapt to whatever new challenger is placed before her.

No, Jessica Andrade was never an easy opponent—but watching this fight, you wouldn’t know it. That is the mastery of Joanna Jedrzejczyk.

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For in-depth analysis of all the highlights of UFC 211, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.