UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk envisions all-time greatness.
As a lifelong devotee to combat sports, Jedrzejczyk feels her time spent cracking shins, fists, elbows and knees to pads is now beginning to pay off inside the UFC Octagon. She found muay thai as a teenager, first taking up the sport as a hobby but quickly realizing it was something much more than that.
"It was my hobby, my passion, and after six months of training, I started to compete, then I knew I wanted to do it for the rest of my life, that I want to be a fighter," Jedrzejczyk told Bleacher Report. "I like to compete. I always want to work hard and show to everyone that I am the best. I like the good part of the sport, the sport side of the fighting."
While few inside the realm of MMA recognized the budding Polish star as a legitimate threat prior to her breakout championship performance against Carla Esparza at UFC 185, her preparation already took root, and now we are all witnesses to its germination.
"People don't know how much work you have to do before the fight, so it's not like you're getting the title shot for free, you know?" Jedrzejczyk said. "I did my job before when I was starting with muay thai and MMA. Step by step, you're going for the bigger trophy. I’m the real champion. I didn't get it for free, and on Saturday, I'm going to stay the champion."
Her second-round knockout victory in that fight against Esparza left MMA fans and critics wondering just how far Jedrzejczyk's muay thai skills could carry her inside the cage.
Her hands looked as sharp, quick and powerful as any female competitor's in the division's history. And now she will need to build on that near-perfect performance Saturday in Berlin, Germany, where she will face Jessica Penne in her first title defense at UFC Fight Night 69.
Jedrzejczyk recognizes the magnitude of this moment, but she refuses to get caught up in the hype. There is no pressure in something she loves to do.
"No pressure. It's my hobby. I know I am a professional athlete, and I know there will be one day when I say 'Stop,' you know? It's a fight," Jedrzejczyk said. "Anything can happen in the Octagon, so of course, we all want to win, but I know it's a sport, so one punch can make you lose. I know about that, but there's no pressure. I'm enjoying fighting. I like it so much."
Before her fight against Esparza, Jedrzejczyk launched some unintentional psychological warfare that seemed to faze the former champ before the fight even began. At weigh-ins, Jedrzejczyk presented Esparza with a cookie—an act of kindness or a jab at Esparza's Cookie Monster nickname?—and the Polish striker exuded confidence in every media event and interview before the fight.
She was not scared, and she let Esparza know. However, she says, she was not trying to get in Esparza's head at all. She was just calling it like she saw it, and Esparza couldn't handle the truth.
"I was not acting. It was natural, that's all," Jedrzejczyk said. "I broke her mentally, but I didn't want to do it. She wasn't ready for me. It's my life, it's my job, you know? I must be hungry. I must be 100 percent in my preparations and in the fight.
"Last time when I was looking at the pictures from when I beat Carla, I couldn't recognize myself, you know? I'm an easygoing person, but not in the fight!"
Now, Penne must deal with Jedrzejczyk's laser focus. As the UFC strawweight champion, Jedrzejczyk said she's become even more devoted to her training and to her pre-fight preparations. If she was good before, she will be great Saturday.
Beyond that, she might even become a legend, following in the footsteps of UFC women's bantamweight champion and UFC superstar Ronda Rousey.
"Rousey's great. She's an amazing person, the greatest fighter, and I wish that I'll be 'JJ,'" Jedrzejczyk said. "I'm going to be a Ronda Rousey in the strawweight division. They'll call me 'JJ' instead of 'RR.'"