Joanna Jędrzejczyk fucking rules.
We could talk about the UFC strawweight champion’s five consecutive title defenses, each seemingly more dominant than the last, against an increasingly difficult level of competition; her silky smooth striking repertoire, the product of a lifetime as an elite kickboxer before she ever stepped into the cage for an MMA fight; the striking contrast between her generally sweet demeanor outside the Octagon and her shocking viciousness within those eight walls; or the sheer confidence of a long-reigning queenpin on top of her game, with the charisma to entrance every live audience she’s ever faced.
At the end of the day, though, Jędrzejczyk is compelling because she totally dismantles her opposition. There are levels to this, and the diminutive Pole—she stands 5-foot-6 and weighs in, if only for a moment, at 115 pounds—is at the very top. In fact, she is almost certainly the greatest female fighter of all time.
Jędrzejczyk is undefeated. Only one fight in her 14-0 career has been close, a split-decision win over Cláudia Gadelha back in December 2014. Jędrzejczyk left no doubt about who was the better fighter in their rematch last summer, working through a rough first and competitive second to firmly take over at the midpoint of the third round. In the six fights since that first bout with Gadelha, her last pillar-to-post competitive outing, Jędrzejczyk has combined to outland her opponents by a ridiculous margin of 971 to 328.
This is a level of dominance only one other fighter in the UFC, untouchable flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, can match. Can you even contemplate how hard it is to land three strikes for every one your opponent does? These are elite opponents, and Jędrzejczyk is dismantling them with ease.
The root of Jędrzejczyk’s success is her crisp striking game. It’s not an exaggeration to say she’s the most skilled stand-up fighter in the UFC; while there are other contenders—José Aldo, Conor McGregor, Edson Barboza, Valentina Shevchenko, and Cody Garbrandt among them—none of them have the combination of sheer versatility and technical soundness that Jędrzejczyk does.
The champion’s bag of tricks is seemingly limitless, and everything in it is essentially perfect. Her fundamentals are flawless from the ground up, with the sharpest footwork in the sport (aside from perhaps Aldo) allowing her to stick and move at range, pressure her opponent, or stand her ground in a close-range firefight with equal skill.
Jędrzejczyk can aggressively go after her opponent, as she did to Carla Esparza to win the title in a one-sided demolition back in March 2015 or to her first challenger Jessica Penne in a beating that grew hard to watch; she can keep herself close enough to respond to her opponent’s shots with smooth, perfectly timed and anticipated counter combinations, as she did to Valérie Létourneau and Karolina Kowalkiewicz; or she can work behind a tricky, piercing jab while keeping her feet moving to avoid an aggressive, pressuring opponent, as she did last weekend to Jéssica Andrade.
The UFC has an increasing number of great strikers, and a lot of them can do one of those things really well. Shevchenko, who fought Jędrzejczyk three times under Muay Thai rules, is a counterpuncher of exceptional skill; Barboza is a fantastic stick-and-move outside striker; Garbrandt excels in the pocket and does everything else pretty well in small doses.
The very best strikers in the UFC can do two of those things with great skill. McGregor pressures beautifully and throws the smoothest, hardest counters in the game; heavyweight champion Stipe Miočić is similar, with an aggressive pressure game and the ability to make his opponents pay with counters for having the temerity to throw at him; Aldo can dance through the cage behind his jab and tight footwork or stay in the pocket to bang it out with equal skill; and the inimitable Demetrious Johnson can pressure or stick and move equally well.
Nobody except Jędrzejczyk can do all three with an elite level of skill.
It’s not just that each of those things represents its own distinct skill set, a complex of fundamental tools—jabs and pivots for outside striking, head movement and timing in the pocket, anticipatory movement and attacking space for pressure—that allows the fighter to execute it effectively; each of those approaches also represents a different innate goal and even a different underlying personality type. The kind of fighter who’s comfortable sticking a jab in the opponent’s face and staying at long range isn’t the same person who wants to be in a phone booth dodging and slinging punches or methodically pressing the opponent to the fence or ropes to land flurries.
To be equally comfortable doing all three represents an abnegation of self, burying one’s instincts and desires in order to pursue the most effective way of winning the fight. When a fighter turns her or his back on what’s most comfortable (in terms of both skill and temperament) in favor of doing something uncomfortable but better suited to the task at hand, that’s a monumental victory of talent and will.
Against Andrade, Jędrzejczyk played matador against a dangerous bull for 25 minutes without once cracking and giving into the desire to just stand there and rip off combination after combination against an opponent who was there to be hit. That’s more than a win against a foe who, on paper, represented a stiff stylistic challenge; it was a triumph of Jędrzejczyk over herself, a victory of discipline over trained instinct.
If that weren’t enough, Jędrzejczyk beat Andrade and her previous 13 opponents with style and a vicious edge. The champion rattled the Brazilian’s jaw with slick head kicks, thrown as she slid backward out of range. She slashed Andrade’s face with elbows in the clinch and drove knee after knee into her midsection. Everything was clinical and measured, but thrown with the worst possible intentions, and at a pace that nobody else in MMA can match: She broke the record she already held for strikes landed in a title fight against Andrade.
That’s the essence of Jędrzejczyk’s game, a brilliant array of diverse violence delivered with the utmost skill and in overwhelming quantities.
There are other contenders than Jędrzejczyk for the title of greatest female fighter. The obvious ones are Cris Cyborg, the dominant featherweight who has nuked every opponent she’s faced since losing her debut in 2005, and international megastar Ronda Rousey. Cyborg has been limited by the available competition at 145 pounds, though—it’s not exactly a murderer’s row of talent—and Rousey’s opposition at 135 pounds likewise looks limited in hindsight. There simply weren’t better opponents available in a pair of thin weight classes.
The women’s strawweight division is still in its early years in the UFC, but it has already produced a deeper well of talent than bantamweight and featherweight combined. Gadelha alone is better than any fighter Rousey or Cyborg ever beat, and the 5-foot-1 Andrade was a successful bantamweight for years before making her big-time run against more size-appropriate opposition at 115 pounds.
The better argument for Jędrzejczyk as the greatest ever, though, focuses on her versatility, on her ability to suppress her instincts and do whatever’s necessary to win a fight while still maintaining the nasty edge that makes her so fearsome.
It’s easy to overstate Cyborg’s physicality while minimizing her technical skill, but she’s still basically an aggressive striker who walks her opponents down and blasts them until they go to sleep. Rousey added tools, but never showed any acumen for anything other than swarming her opponents with powerful punches and her devastating clinch game before hitting the mat.
Jędrzejczyk prefers to work on her feet, but she can operate in every dimension the sport demands. She can suppress her desire to just blow her opponent out of the water with combination after combination in favor of doing what works to win. (Cyborg has never had to do that during her dominant run, and win or lose, Rousey never tried.) That’s true greatness. Jędrzejczyk doesn’t have Rousey’s preternatural fight-ending ability or Cyborg’s physicality. She’s not an especially devastating puncher, and though quick, she’s not an overpowering athlete. Instead, her dominance is built on her incredible technical skills, her innate viciousness, a volume of offense sufficient to drown any opponent, and, most of all, her ability to fight the necessary fight regardless of her own preferences.
Whatever Jędrzejczyk accomplishes after this—whether it’s more title victories at strawweight or potentially a run at the 125-pound title when the UFC introduces it later this year—she’s already the greatest female fighter the sport has ever seen.