Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Stands With a Fist: Joanna Jedrzejczyk and the Throne

Joanna Jedrzejczyk could be just what women’s MMA needs, as much as smelling salts or kick shields. She’s a potential star in the way that people who aren’t already fixated on her obliterating an opponent will react to. But here’s the thing: Jedrzejczyk is a killer. A bona-fide destructive force whose methods inside the Octagon are at odds with what needs to happen outside of it, to make what she does not only palatable, but desirable.

Of course, Ronda Rousey is the current overlord of this delicate discipline. Her face is everywhere, from million-dollar billboard spaces to Jimmy Kimmel Live! to the cover of boxing’s Bible. Even as she brutishly weaves limbs together, the people reading her Men’s Fitness workout tips will never, ever see the crippling aftermath of what Rousey does. By contrast, despite the fact that she’s the current, undefeated (10–0) UFC Women’s Strawweight champion, Jedrzejczyk still isn’t recognizable — by name or face — to the mainstream American sports-watching public. Hell, many within the very mixed martial arts industry that props her up can’t even pronounce her name correctly (it’s “yend-jay-chick,” by the way). The 28-year-old Polish kickboxer is trying to change all of that, working from outside the ring to inside.

While Jedrzejczyk isn’t a commercial star yet, she is as exciting an MMA fighter as exists today. Where Rousey, her most famous sporting counterpart, has turned her highlight reel into a Judo-throw-to-armbar tutorial, Jedrzejczyk is a firm-footed clobbering machine, considered by many to be the most cultured striker in the entire sport. She’s a six-time Muay Thai world champion who operates in battle with an uncommonly elevated level of relentlessness and accuracy. Her clinch is paralyzing, her knees organ-dislodging, and when one fist comes, the other is always right behind it.

Photo: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

As exciting as Jedrzejczyk is, the real fame won’t only come from knockouts, such as when she pounded veteran Jessica Penne into a Picasso with a vicious barrage of punches. Her next title defense takes place tomorrow at UFC 193 in Melbourne, Australia, where she will co-feature alongside Rousey. It’s evident that Jedrzejczyk has the talent required of a soon-to-be big-draw fighter, and that the UFC is situating her up for such a surge. But there’s more to becoming a star than a push from one direction, and Jedrzejczyk knows it.

So Jedrzejczyk currently asserts an alternative image over social media, one that says “come in for some coffee” more than it does “take cover.” Whether she’s appreciating her new Reebok swag, displaying her bizarre semi-obsession with Disney merchandise over breakfast, or giving a sneak-peek into her cheat day at In-N-Out, Jedrzejczyk seems to be enjoying her measure of fame and is insistent that we all come along for the ride. Though her Instagram feed can teeter on the edge of the ill-fated humblebrag, most of the time, it feels like an inclusive and genuine place. Jedrzejczyk is using the windows of social media to make those of us watching fall in love with her.

Photo: Esther Lin/MMA Fighting

Jedrzejczyk’s social behavior isn’t unlike many international combat sports athletes who’ve attempted to break into American pop culture before her. Manny Pacquiao spent the better part of the last decade market-rocketing from peppy Filipino bantamweight contender to the sport’s second-biggest draw. Then came Gennady Golovkin, a 33-year-old knockout artist from Kazakhstan who is comfortably and savagely campaigning for boxing’s “No. 1 Pound-for-Pound” slot.

Following his 2014 move from Germany to California, “GGG” learned English and began positioning himself as a media darling. He’s used his relationship with veteran Mexican trainer Abel Sanchez to specifically charm the Mexican and Mexican American demographics, which is working. His PPV debut last month against David Lemieux generated roughly 150,000 purchases.

The general idea — then and now — is that the only way American sports fans will buy into the respective journeys of these athletes is if they are relatable to the masses. The mistake in this line of thinking is the result of a misdiagnosis of sports fans, fight fans in particular. People who love boxing and MMA love violence. Period. The relatability angle can be real, but there’s nothing realer and more visceral than seeing a human get pummeled by another human for sport.

As intriguing as Jedrzejczyk’s methodical persona may or may not be, it remains artifice crafted to better frame what she actually does, which is destroy. Her extensive Muay Thai resume might exist as ink-on-paper, but couldn’t be any more tangible when transported to that chain-linked arena. She abuses her opponents with lightning-quick hand/elbow/foot/knee combos to the point of severe concussion or shattered facial bones, or both. Even if she didn’t employ an alluring, ready-made stylistic fragrance, she would still be spearheading, albeit behind Rousey, the dawn of women’s MMA — a sport, quite honestly, begging for more stars to reveal themselves. Jedrzejczyk goes into Saturday’s bout a staggering -1700 favorite over challenger Letourneau. While there’s little chance Jedrzejczyk steals the show from the even more heavily favored Rousey (-1888 favorite over Holly Holm) on Saturday, let’s just assume she’s got a Google alert set for if and when the Queen’s crown comes tumbling down.

(Updated closing odds: Jedrzejczyk -2000 vs Letourneau +900, Rousey -1600 vs Holm +900)