UFC 248 saw one of the best fights in MMA history, when Joanna Jedrzejczyk faced Zhang Weili for the women’s straw weight championship. Now, they are due for a rematch at UFC 275. We spoke to Joanna about her preparations.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk has reached the summit of mixed martial arts. In 2015, she won the UFC straw weight championship, when she defeated Carla Esparza, who has recently regained the title in her rematch against Rose Namajunas. But the road to UFC gold goes back to Joanna’s youth. “Mixed martial arts chose me. It’s my mission. It was given to me, and I felt the call from early on.” She speaks about getting into martial arts after being a “puffy girl” who thought she was never going to be an athlete. To be an athlete one has to be healthy, and she speaks of eating unhealthy food and being generally unhealthy. Yet, she was very interested in martial arts. Her parents didn’t push her into the sport but allowed her to try all kinds of sports, and all kinds of skincare. Perhaps, she muses, she might have ended up trying other sports, but her parents were always supportive of her decisions. They gave her everything one could wish for from parents. Joanna had practiced basketball, but following a period of illness, she stopped training. Upon recovery, she started martial arts instead, and from the very first session she fell in love with it. She felt that she could see how she improved – it was never about beating other people and letting out frustration. Rather, she remembers the first session when she watched people training with her and how they were giving up on themselves. She knew she wanted to do more, push harder, and refuse to give up. This is why she fell in love with martial arts: it is all up to her: up to her to extend her limits, to get out of her comfort zone at every training session. She started twice a week, which became three and later four times a week. Today she trains 13 times a week. Her passion became her job, which has changed her life.
People always need heroes. Back in the day it was the gladiators, and we mixed martial artists are the gladiators of the 21st century.
TELLING A STORY THROUGH MMA
Speaking to teenagers and youths, the sport doesn’t make you merely physically, but also mentally strong. Big life struggles become easy, because you know what you can go through. Sport teaches you that you can break your own limits, that you can handle not only exercise, but life in general – and this is what she loves about martial arts. But why, I ask, does she think people ought to train martial arts specifically and why do so many watch the sport? Having been at the centre and reached the summit of the sport, I wonder if she has had time to reflect on these questions. “Of course. People always need heroes. Back in the day it was the gladiators, and we mixed martial artists are the gladiators of the 21st century. People have always needed this. The sweat, the tears, the blood and the fire. People are always hungry for competition, and I feel like martial arts tells a story. Not only about fighting. You see punches, you see a winner and a looser. But there is a story behind it, and I feel I have a chance to tell the story to people. My success has become a mainstream success for me, which people forget. When people watch my fights, they know I am one of the best, they know who I am. But they want to know my story: my hobbies, where I am from, what I like, my passions, how sensitive I am to certain things, what I am doing outside of the octagon. It’s not only about going to the gym and punching the bag or sparring. It is all about life in general. Actually, there is a film about UFC: Fighting for a Generation. It came out for the 25th anniversary of the UFC. It’s a beautiful film that tells the whole story of the UFC and the transformation of MMA. People got into MMA and the UFC through the fighters and the stories they tell every single day.”
The beautiful thing about the UFC is the respect and balance.
A part of the epic story of the UFC is Dana White’s comment in 2011 that women would “never” fight in the UFC. Merely four years later, Joanna stood in the octagon with the championship belt wrapped around her waist. Before her, Ronda Rousey had made great advances for women’s MMA and Carla Esparza held the UFC title which Joanna won. I ask Joanna if she experiences any differences between women’s and men’s MMA, having been a part of the story of the UFC and now boasting a following larger than many male athletes. “I don’t feel this anymore.” She thinks it no longer matters what gender you are, which religion you believe in, what colour your skin is. You deserve the same chance as any colleague in the organisation. “Back in the day, when I was competing in Muay Thai, kickboxing or boxing, I felt the difference. I was putting on the best fights at the events, but I was not getting paid enough, not getting the right exposure. In the UFC, like I said, it doesn’t matter who you are. Women and men sign the same contract, and it is up to you how you want to manage your career. I am a hard worker – inside and outside the gym. So somehow I have found a way to tell the story and show people who I am. I get so much from it: I give a lot, but also want to get as much out of it as I can. The beautiful thing about the UFC is the respect and balance.”
Looking closer at the forthcoming bout, both Joanna and Zhang Weili are coming out of losses – for Joanna against Zhang by split decision in what has gone down in MMA history as one of the greatest fights of all time. How does one prepare psychologically for a comeback? “I feel like it’s a done deal. You can’t think about the loss. After every loss you get texts from people saying ‘you will come back stronger next time!’ That’s true, because you win or you learn as Conor McGregor has said so many times. This is the crazy thing about this sport: you can’t take second place. For me, especially when fighting for the best organisation in the world, both fighters are the winners, even if only one hand is raised that night. The thing is that the hard work is so many weeks before. The preparation is the hard part, the fight is the pleasure. It’s the time when all the hard work is done. You just go there and you shine, you show the people what you have been working for over so many weeks before. Of course it is easy to say one is a loser, but it’s not true. We both are always winners. You take a loss and can’t keep it in your mind. You make some adjustments and get better. Try not to make the same mistake, but it isn’t easy. Sometime we prepare and are in the best shape ever, but it’s not our night. We have to deal with the weight cut, which is part of our job, but it isn’t easy. Sometimes you are dehydrated, can get ill, you might not feel very well on the night of the fight. The night you have been preparing for. You are tired mentally and physically preparing for it. You know, this is the dark side of the sport, but it is also the beauty of the sport. The best man or woman will stand and win.”
How does she plan to win? She prepares for everything she says, and has no short cuts. Her entire life has been this way. When she watches athletes, she sees them training 50% and they still win. But on her part, she feels like she was born to be a fighter. Born to be the champion. She works so hard, up to the point of being tired mentally and physically. On the day we spoke, she skipped one class, but since the middle of January she has been hard at work training 13 sessions a week. She knows she will come back stronger and get a higher compensation. She will be in the best shape ever and ready for the fight. There is no hesitation in her replies, no doubt. Working as hard as she does, she is confident that she is ready for anything and everything. She is preparing for this particular fight, and even if they both have losses coming in to the octagon on June 11th, she knows they are the best in the world. One of them could be the next champion: the winner will likely get the title shot. Carla defeating Rose Namajunas in the recent UFC straw weight title bout showed that anything is possible, where Carla Esparza regained her title.
THE AGONY BEHIND THE SUCCESS
The story we see on social media and at the events tells a tale of success. But the road to victory is tough, and one that we are rarely privy to in its full agony. How does one stay motivated? Anyone who has stepped into a gym or a dojo knows that there are days when one feels at the brink of giving up. How does a world-class athlete stay on the path to success? “We all have our championships, in our personal championship levels. It doesn’t matter if you are professional or not. Of course, UFC is the best in the world. We are tested, there is an anti-doping agency. It’s a clean sport. It might not be the same in other organisations; you don’t know if it’s a clean athlete or not. But in the UFC it is stocked with so many great athletes. All organisations have their own championships and I respect it. Even if you are an amateur or if it is a hobby, it is what you do, what you strive for that matters. You are the world champion. Keep waking up every day thinking ‘I am the world champion, because I follow my dreams and I don’t give up.’ That is the championship, the most important championship in our life. Not to give up. It doesn’t matter how hard it is. How sick you are, how bad you are. It is important to keep on moving.”
Joanna adds that every day is hard. Every day carries a struggle. But we have to find happiness in those days. She says it is easy for her because she is a believer – she believes in God. “If anything bad happens to me, I think – ’OK God! You are putting me in this position, so probably I have the strength to deal with it. Let’s see what’s around the corner.’ This is who I am. Sometimes I sit and cry. I have no energy. But I think ‘let’s keep on moving!’ Our lives look perfect on Instagram and we pretend everything is super cool. But I’m telling you it’s not. We all have to deal with some trauma or struggle. It is important to be a happy person and keep on showing that you can change it. There is a creator above me, but I also create my life. I have all these tools, weapons, to create my life and to work on it. I am very happy that sport gave me this confidence. I am not arrogant and cocky as people often think. I am confident. I am confident because I know the work I put in. I know there are harder jobs than being a martial artist, but it is a 24 hour job. For the last months I have been training so hard every single day – two/three times a week. Sunday’s are my day of rest. Everything hurts after the work. But I know I will be resting soon. I am enjoying myself, I am not complaining. This is what makes me strong: I know that I don’t give up. Where there are hard moments, I don’t give up. Maybe I slow down, but I keep on moving as if it’s the last day of my life that I have to fight for.”Lyssna på det senaste avsnittet av Fighterpodden!