At UFC 231, two of the best female strikers on the planet will face off for the vacant UFC flyweight title.
For some time now, Valentina Shevchenko has been seen as the heir-apparent at 125. Shevchenko has always been small for a bantamweight, and her succinct destruction of Priscilla Cachoeira in her first flyweight bout does suggest that she will be more aggressive and assertive against women her own size—though, of course, Cachoeira’s sole purpose in that fight was to be succinctly destroyed.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk, on the other hand, has accomplished more than Shevchenko down at strawweight – a division over which she reigned supreme for two and a half years – beating back five challengers in the process. She has struggled more, as well. The difficult cut to 115 seems to have compromised her jaw, to the extent that she was getting knocked down and hurt in fights well before the left hook of Rose Namajunas robbed of her senses (and her belt) in late 2017.
Jedrzejczyk and Shevchenko have a history. They fought three times under augmented Muay Thai rules over a decade ago, and Shevchenko won every time. How much or in what ways Jedrzejczyk has changed since remains to be seen, but there is no question that the Polish fighter has established herself as one of the best strikers in the sport of MMA in the intervening years.
Ahead of the long-awaited fourth showdown between these two, let’s take a few moments to appreciate some of the more subtle aspects of Jedrzejczyk’s kickboxing style. Both she and Shevchenko are masterful managers of space. Unlike Valentina, however, Joanna ‘Champion’ developed the style over the course of her MMA career, and has her own unique way of using distance.
Gathering and Building
The first thing to understand is that finding and feeling the distance in a fight is difficult. This is one of those truths which cannot be fully understood without at least some practical experience. No matter how well coordinated a person may think their hands and eyes to be, all it takes is one painful bop on the nose to change everything. Absorb an unexpected strike, and suddenly every forward step the opponent takes feels like an imminent threat, whether they are out of range or mere inches away. Get punched and a person will feel the need to counter, to back the aggressor off, but their first attempt will fall short by almost an entire foot, and their second will be smothered before any power can be generated.
A fighter’s effective range does not change, but their ability to measure and make use of that range is far more easily thrown off, and far more tactile than most realize. In short, a fighter cannot rely on their innate ability to time the opponent. The eyes are too easily deceived. Rather, they must teach themselves the range by feel.
Here, Jedrzejczyk pecks away with her jab, measuring the space between herself and Jessica Andrade.
1. Andrade comes forward, and Jedrzejczyk watches her, waiting for the right moment.
2. She chooses it well, stepping forward to meet Andrade with a jab, but Jessica parries it.
3. Joanna resets, and Andrade comes after her.
4. Same as before, she waits for Andrade to commit her weight forward, then steps into a long jab. Once again, Andrade parries.
5. But Joanna uses that parry against her. If she is close enough for her jab to be caught, she is close enough to sneak the right hand through after it.
Many fighters, upon having their jabs consistently parried, become frustrated. The jab isn’t landing, so it’s not working!
Strikers like Joanna Jedrzejczyk, on the other hand, learn to gauge success and failure differently for different techniques. The jab, being the most flexible tool in the boxing arsenal, is useful well beyond its ability to connect cleanly and cause damage. In this instance, simply touching the opponent – even the open palm of a successful parry – is enough to tell Jedrzejczyk that she is within striking distance. That sense of range will develop as the fight goes on, but for her immediate purposes, Joanna knows what straight punching range looks and feels like, and she knows that she will likely need a combination of some kind to bypass the first layer of Andrade’s defense.
Her second jab is more or less identical to the first, letting her feel the range once again, but this time it also serves as a distraction. Andrade parries the punch, unaware that she is giving Jedrzejczyk exactly what she wants. Note that Joanna’s jab does not reach full extension, even as Andrade catches close to her own face. Putting this information to use, not only does she turn her shoulders to get full extension on the follow-up cross, but she even leans forward a hair, ensuring that her strike will be enough to cover the distance Andrade has just given her.
The tricky thing about gathering data via touch is that it cannot be done in a vacuum. If a fighter touches the opponent, both get an opportunity to feel the range. Catching or parrying a jab, therefore, can work both ways—if you can touch me, I can touch you, and vice versa. In fact, I’ve written about Chad Mendes’ use of this tactic in the past, and no one would call Mendes a poor fighter. Even a cleanly landed strike can backfire; there’s no shortage of fighters whose only reliable tactic is to swing back every time they get hit.
Nonetheless, there is a reason that the slickest boxers out there learn to avoid the jabs of their opponents by slipping, dipping, or creating space. They catch or parry the punch only when necessary—and develop the habit of immediately jabbing back when they do so, lest the opponent make use of the information first. In a live fight, distance is not static, and range is not unchanging. It can be given, or taken away.
Learning from Mistakes
Jedrzejczyk gathers information with her jabs, but in truth, any punch can work this way—even one that misses. Below, she whiffs on a combination against Tecia Torres, and then does something about it.
1. Jedrzejczyk stalks forward, ‘til she feels she is within a step of punching distance.
2. She tests the distance with a flicking jab. Torres parries with her right hand.
3. Immediately, Jedrzejczyk takes advantage of the range, firing off another jab.
4. And a right straight to cap off the combo. Torres spots the punch, however, and pulls straight back to get out of the way.
5. Keeping the pressure on, Jedrzejczyk marches forward to pursue her fleeing foe.
6. Having felt the distance a couple seconds ago, she needs only get to the same space as before—one step beyond jabbing range...
7. ...to know that she can land this push kick with stabbing authority.
Variety is the spice of life, as we all know. It is also the bane of Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s opponents. One of the former champ’s greatest assets is her ability to calmly and methodically attack every available target with every limb. Without her body work, Claudia Gadelha might have come back to take her title in their classic rematch. Without her leg kicks, Rose Namajunas may never have slowed down enough to let Joanna pick up two – almost three – rounds.
Kicks were actually absent from Jedrzejczyk’s MMA game for a few years. She landed somewhere in the ballpark of three dozen low kicks in her rematch with Claudia Gadelha, for example, but not a single one in their first meeting. The reason seems to have been as simple as avoiding easy takedowns: until Joanna’s wrestling and scrambling were up to snuff, she was not willing to give skilled grapplers the opportunity to grab onto a leg.
In the process, however, her style underwent a transition. Once an aggressive, kick-focused Muay Thai fighter, Jedrzejczyk began transforming into a rangy, out-boxer—a style better suited to the distance and pace of MMA, as well as the takedown threat. Once she became more confident in her ability to stuff and/or escape a well-timed takedown, her kicks started to return—the new style giving them new utility.
One of the great, blindingly obvious advantages of any kick is that the legs are a good bit longer than the arms. Teeps, push kicks, and front kicks may lack the speed and recover-ability of a jab, but when the jab refuses to connect, the reach comes in handy (footy?). Once the distance is gauged, even a very sound defensive movement can be turned against its user. In this sequence, Jedrzejczyk’s missed one-two informs her that A) Torres is keeping an eye out for the straight punches upstairs, and B) she is keeping herself just outside of jabbing range. As soon as Joanna gets back to the range where she might try another probing jab, it is a simple matter to stab Tecia in the gut with her foot, instead.
Distance as (Aggressive) Defense
Thus far, we have seen range being measured, and those measurements being put to immediate use. Jedrzejczyk’s sense of distance is not limited to the two or three seconds after she touches her opponent, however. The feeling develops over the course of the entire fight. The more chances Joanna is given to measure her foe, the easier it becomes for her to evade and fire back by intuition.
Take a look at this slick pull counter she used in her rematch with Rose Namajunas.
1. Jedrzejczyk squares off with Rose Namajunas, both women just outside of striking distance.
2. Joanna takes a probing step into the pocket, measuring the gap with a pawing jab.
3. Namajunas steps in to meet her, firing off her own jab. Joanna picks it off with a parry.
4. And pulls back without moving her feet, anticipating a follow-up strike.
5. Feeling the change of distance, and threatened by another flicking jab from Joanna, Rose pulls back, herself—but she has already closed the distance with her feet.
6. Jedrzejczyk’s follow-up right has no trouble crossing the abbreviated distance and cracking Namajunas on the temple.
7. Joanna slips the defensive jab that comes back at her.
The first thing to note about this exchange is Jedrzejczyk’s immediate sensitivity to range. As she steps forward, she does not need her jab to connect to know that Namajunas’ counter movement presents real danger. At this point, she has spent the previous 14 minutes and 40 seconds scoring (and absorbing) strikes, all the while building her feel for the distance of the fight. Thus, she is ready for a counter even before Namajunas begins to surge forward in frame 3. By frame 4, she has pulled her upper body back, maintaining space between herself and the right hand she knows may be coming next.
Recall the point about boxers and their catches and counter jabs. Jedrzejczyk picks off Rose’s lunging jab with her right hand, and immediately responds with her own lead. If she hasn’t done so already, Namajunas has no time to think about following her jab—she is hardly recovered from that long step into range when out pops a counter jab. Though Namajunas manages to get out of the way, she has already moved her feet into striking range. By merely leaning back, on the other hand, Jedrzejczyk has left her feet in range, as well. All she needs to do is shift her weight forward again, and Namajunas is right there to be hit.
At UFC 231, Joanna will have a steep mental hill to climb, knowing that her opponent has out-struck her three times in the past. As her style and skills have developed, however, Joanna’s striking has gained several degrees of subtlety it never possessed before. Valentina Shevchenko is a masterful manager of distance, in her own right, and a capable counter puncher. But Jedrzejczyk may be faster, and she certainly throws a lot more. It is undeniably a winning matchup for the greatest strawweight of all time.
All she needs is to know where she stands.
For more analysis of UFC 231, including Jedrzejczyk-Shevchenko and the main event between featherweight champ Max Holloway and Brian Ortega, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the original podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.