When Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Claudia Gadelha squared off as undefeated prospects for the first time in December of 2014, it was seen as a fight to keep an eye on. Both women were undefeated, both were coming off the steam of their first UFC wins, and both were seen as potential title contenders in the newly minted 115 pound division, but now with the rematch only a few days away, their first fight has taken on an additional level of importance.
While the first fight is officially recorded as a split decision win for Joanna Champion, it was not without controversy. Between the eye-pokes, headbutts, punches being thrown after the final bell sounded and the referee had stepped between the two and separated the fighters, it is amazing that the fight had any time at all to fit in the extra controversy of a close decision. Many MMA media outlets scored the fight for Gadelha, and while I will not place my own opinion in to this article on who won the fight, the scoring discrepancies basically came down to the second round, where Joanna successfully fended off takedown attempts against the cage and landed effective strikes out in the open for the first 4 minutes of the round, only to be taken down, get back up and be taken down again in the last minute, albeit without taking much damage. The opinion of who won the first fight falls on whether you count stuffing takedowns against the fence as the intangible that is ‘effective defense’ from the defender or as the ever difficult to define scoring criteria’s that are ‘aggression’ and ‘octagon control’ on behalf of the initiator. Should a takedown count in your favour if you don’t actually take a person down? If you can spend a round struggling against the fence but you have your opponent between you and it, when they obviously don’t want to be there, does that mean you are winning because you are happier there than them?
Regardless of how you view their first fight, it is undeniable that these women are two of the most talented fighters in their division, they are both at the top of their games, and they both genuinely hate each other. All of that thrown in with a controversial decision in their first fight leads us to where we are now: The Rematch.
During their first bout, Claudia Gadelha demonstrated why she is such a difficult opponent to deal with in a women’s division that often see’s fighters succeed as one dimensional specialists (See the pure wrestler Carla Esparza or the Muay Thai combination fighter that is Joanna Champion) and that is that Gadelha is rounded enough to make her a difficult fight anywhere. As a product of the famous Nova Unaio gym, Gadelha possesses her own special brand of striking that serves to set up her transitions to her true strength, her multiple world title winning Brazilian Jujitsu game.
An interesting note on Gadelha’s striking is that even though she comes from the Nova Unaio camp, one of the very best Muay Thai camps in MMA today, she very rarely utilizes leg kicks. Looking much more like her other training partner Hacran Dias as opposed to her better known compatriots like Renan Barao and José Aldo, Gadelha stands heavy on her front leg and primarily utilizes boxing as her means of offence. As a striker she has a few tricks that are rarities in the Womens divisions where the striking is notably less polished, the most notable of which are her dipping jab, the left hook and her awareness of distance.
While most people in MMA know how to throw a jab, considerably less of them are adept -enough to understand where they should and where they should not. You need only look at Michael Bisping getting knocked unconscious by Dan Henderson while trying to jab moving backwards to see this. Gadelha utilizes a varied jab known as a dipping jab, where she ducks her head low off the centre line and behind her shoulder as she jabs, meaning that in a jab off with an opponent who keeps their head on the centre line, Claudia often lands her shot as her opponents sails over her shoulder. She rarely follows up her jab, as the dipping jab takes her head out of position and places her right hand further away from her opponent than it would normally be, but what it does is provide her with a tool to force her opponents to entertain the idea that they are in a striking match.
She has a strong right hand, and she will actively throw the overhand in answer to her opponents jabs, which has led to her catching people as they look to step in behind a lazy jab, as Jessica Aguilar did. That alone is important, counter punchers are rare enough in Womens MMA, but she also possesses a sharp left hook that is her true counter punch. Because so many people throw power shots with their right hands, a left hook is a counter that almost always enters through an opening left by other fighters, especially in Womens MMA, where knockout power is rare and fighters carry their hands a little looser (more on that later). As a result of this Gadelha catches a lot of fighters clean as they finish throwing their own combination, and she is very good at recognizing when she has the space to throw her right hand cross counter as her opponent steps in and when she can throw the shorter, sharper left hook at the end of her opponents combination.
She also constantly looks to lock up a double collar tie and throw knees when she lands a punch, Fabricio Werdum style. It is very easy to get caught up in swinging matches and Gadelha does an excellent job at varying her attacks to suit her distance, throwing punches when she has space, locking in the collar tie and kneeing when she is too close, and elongating that knee into a body kick when her opponents start to slip away from the clinch.
Gadelha’s biggest flaw on the feet lies in her heavy front foot, which is a necessary part of her boxing heavy attack. By keeping herself ready to attack with the left or right hand, Gadelha keeps her weight placed on her heavy front foot, which makes her extremely prone to low kicks. Her ability to check them has shown itself to be non-existent and what is worse, once she takes one she immediately begins to lift her leg up as soon as her opponent moves afterwards. This is an obvious tell that may end up costing her more than any other factor in her game when she fights Jedrzejczyk (more on that later).
As a top control player Gadelha is smothering, locking up a bodylock even when on the ground and looking to pass straight to mount, often stepping straight over her opponents guard. What is interesting is what she does afterwards. Rather than the methodical march to mount that ends when he arrives that you see from a Jacare or the forcing of an opponent to turn to back like Damien Maia, Gadelha is more than happy to let her opponent work themselves out of the bad positions she puts them in, never fighting too hard to keep mount or side control and instead looking to force her opponent to work from under her. Once they become tired, Gadelha will look to either trap an arm or flatten them out and wail away at her opponents face, but again this is all designed to make her opponent work, to force them to be in constant motion and too expend energy at a high rate. In the last round of their first fight, Gadelha did an excellent job of rag-dolling Joanna by taking her down and instead of looking to establish a dominant position just letting her get back to her feet, only to do it all over again.
Gadelha has long been criticized for her cardio, and it is often said that fighters tend to use the techniques that they find most troublesome to themselves. After all if a technique doesn’t bother you, why would you think it would bother someone else? You need only look at Jon Jones’ dislike of leg kicks to see that a fighter will always play to their own strengths, but doing so makes them a book of their own weaknesses, to be read by people who look for it. At some point in time Claudia Gadelha must have decided that she really disliked being made to work hard from the bottom, and decided to inflict that evil on her opponents. She uses her striking to clear her opponents mind of the expectation of a takedown and catches people by surprise late in the round. You almost never see Gadelha shoot a takedown with less than 2 minutes on the clock. As the round starts, her opponents think of nothing but her Jujitsu pedigree and not getting taken down: after a few minutes of eating jabs, hooks, overhands, knees and body kicks they soon forget that. This is when she shoots a takedown and she has used this to takedown very accomplished anti-wrestlers like Joanna with an ease that you would not expect. This ability to mix up her attack is what makes Gadelha such a unique threat in her division, especially to her next opponent: current champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk is one of those fighters who is so specialized that some people mistake it for being one dimensional. A Muay Thai World Champion, her talents obviously lie on the feet, but there are a lot of comparisons made between Joanna Champion and UFC Hall Of Famer Chuck Liddell, and they can be justified in the sense that neither of them are bad grapplers by any means, they simply choose to use their grappling in a strictly defensive capacity so as to allow them to strike. Much like Liddell did, Jedrzejczyk can be described as something of a ‘handsy’ fighter.
Rather than keep herself too far away to be shot on, like Mighty Mouse, or simply walking forward and slamming hips into head every time their opponent shoots like a Wanderlei Silva or a Mirko Cro Cop, Joanna has been known to carry her hands low so as to easily allow her to grab underhooks to fight off a takedown, and when she is taken down she ascribes heavily to Liddell’s philosophy that if you want to survive on the ground on the bottom you must be constantly moving, looking to improve your position and butt scoot to the fence and begin to fence walk back to the feet wherever possible.
This is not the only situation where Jedrzejczyk can be described as handsy, she often stiff arms her opponents away from her to break engagements, she likes to smother her opponents mouth with her palms in the clinch and cross face to create space to land short elbows (and if a few fingers happen to catch an eye, all the better
), and whenever she is forced to grapple she places a huge emphasis on controlling her opponents wrists, which severely limits the amount of damage done and the amount of submissions that can be attempted as she attempts to get back to standing. This alone marks her out as a contemporary of the Iceman, as he too used this ‘anti-wrestling’ not to avoid the grappling department all together, doing that would be virtually impossible in against the amount of high level grapplers in her division, but to mitigate the damage that can be done and to return to your area of strength as quickly as possible.
As a striker Jedrzejczyk has one of the best jabs in the business: it is long, sharp, has very little telegraph and she varies it to the head and the body. People who jab to the body in MMA are very rare, it isn’t a hurting shot, but what it does is get the opponent guessing, forces them to adjust to deal with it, or just keep taking it, all of which are good options for Jedrzejczyk. She has always been at her best throwing two shot combinations off her jab, either the basic 1-2 that sees her land her stinging right straight, a jab in to a chopping low kick which she used to such good affect against Valérie Létourneau, or her jab in to a stepping right hook, which plays perfectly off her low kick and often sees her catch opponents standing on one leg as they try to check the kick. She also has a mean straight right as a lead, she is very good at varying the tempo and catching people off guard with this punch as they walk towards her, but as a combination she mixes the straight right with the left hook to the body like few others who are active in the sport, let alone in her division.
Where Jedrzejczyk has seen herself run in to problems, literally, is when she opens up with more than two shots at a time. While her flurries against hurt opponents are a great point scorer, after all there is nothing like landing six or seven shots to an opponent without a return to convince a referee that the fight is over, when she opens up on an opponent that swings back, as Gadelha did, she can get caught with her hands low, between stances, and with her chin out. This is not a habit that she gets punished for very often but it can be one that a counter puncher like Gadelha may be able to exploit if she can draw it out.
For all her experience in Muay Thai, where head kicks are fast and frequent, it is not surprising that Jedrzejczyk doesn’t move her head off the center line very often. In fact she rarely moves her head side to side at all, preferring instead to hunch over her lead leg to provide a false sense of distance, then lean back as her opponent kicks for her head. This can cause issues against a body kicker like Gadelha, who I don’t ever recall seeing throw a head kick, and against Valérie Létourneau it saw her eat more than a few kicks to her body as she lent back and compressed her liver : not a good habit to have in this particular instance.
On the other side of the coin her Muay Thai background has lead to an innate understanding of kicking range, and she uses this to great effect by mixing front kicks in to her attack, letting her opponent get comfortable checking low kicks and blocking punches only to throw out a straight line front kick, catching them flush on the face. This happens way more in a Jedrzejczyk fight than is normal in an MMA fight, further solidifying her position as a woman who knows how and where to commit to linear kicks. She also knows that a kick on the break of a clinch has a good chance of catching her opponent unawares, and she tries to Chuck it up whenever a break happens.
Another less flattering way that Jedrzejczyk can be compared to Liddell is that they both did their best work against pure grapplers who couldn’t take them down, and were then forced in to a striking match where their deficiencies allowed Liddell and Joanna to shine, which provides tremendous results while building up both the idea that they are ‘untouchable’ strikers, who also look even more invincible because their takedown defense is so on point. A cautionary tale is therefore available for Jedrzejczyk in the story of Liddell’s first battle with Randy Couture. In a fight where everyone expected him to shoot for the takedown, Couture shocked everyone by lighting Liddell up on the feet, only to transition to the ground as soon as Liddell’s hands came up and he began to treat the fight as a kickboxing bout. Against Valérie Létourneau, a fellow striker, Jedrzejczyk’s hands were much higher than you would normally see, and she kicked with much more frequency than in her previous fights, and as a result she was taken down off a caught kick in the opening minutes. Carla Esparza is by comparison a much more accomplished wrestler than either Gadelha or Létourneau on paper, but her naked desire to shoot for takedowns saw her stuffed easily every time.
The key to defusing a handsy fighter is to play with their expectations. People who like to parry jabs and grab for underhooks benefit from the advantage of throwing their opponent off balance and mitigating danger before it arrives, but the disadvantage in that strategy is if you drop your hands to fend off a takedown and instead find yourself facing a right hand, you are no longer in a position to defend yourself. Recently in the boxing world, Canelo Alvarez spent the first few rounds patiently dropping his right hand to the body of Amir Khan, so in the 6th when he stepped in to throw a right to the head, Khan’s left hand was already dropping to his side to catch the body shot, and he was knocked out cold. The same thing happened to George’s St Pierre against Matt Serra, and the late Kevin Randleman famously knocked the terrifying striker Mirko Cro Cop out after shooting a failed takedown then coming in with a left hook, just like Fabricio Werdum used a failed takedown attempt to land a flying knee on Mark Hunt to take the interim title.
The point is that once you start mixing your strikes and your wrestling together, you become more effective at both. Stuffed takedown attempts that get your opponent thinking about takedowns open the door to land strikes, and spending the first few minutes of a round kickboxing a kickboxer allows opportunities for takedowns to present themselves that would not be there otherwise as the threat of the takedown fades into the background.
This fight is on paper as close as it has ever been. Joanna Jedrzejczyk is a gifted outfighter who excels against grapplers but struggles against fighters who mix up their game and who most importantly aren’t afraid of standing with her. Claudia Gadelha is a grappler who loves to make and opponent work but who also loves to work both on the feet and on the ground, trying to wear an opponent out before breaking them either on the feet or on the mat, but who struggles in both areas of the game if she cannot succeed in one: her takedowns play off her striking and vice versa.
This is a fight that will determine the course of the women’s 115 pound division, either we set up an epic trilogy match or we get to establish a clearly dominant champion: either way come fight night we are in for a treat.