Joanna Champion Eyes Rousey's Record, Flyweight Run Just as Strawweight Heats Up

Chad Dundas@@chaddundasMMA Lead WriterMay 10, 2017

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 12:  Joanna Jedrzejczyk of Poland prepares to enter the Octagon before facing Karolina Kowalkiewicz of Poland in their UFC women's strawweight championship fight during the UFC 205 event at Madison Square Garden on November 12, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

This has the potential to be a big year for Joanna Jedrzejczyk.      

As the Pole prepares to put her UFC strawweight title on the line against the streaking Jessica Andrade on Saturday at UFC 211 in Dallas, the many looming possibilities are simply too big to ignore.

During her 26 months as 115-pound champion, Jedrzejczyk has rapidly established herself as a darling of MMA's hardcore set. If the dominos fall correctly for her in 2017, it could be enough to launch the woman dubbed "Joanna Champion" even further into the stratosphere.

Or, at the least, into the UFC record books.

Jedrzejczyk needs just two more wins to tie Ronda Rousey's record of six consecutive title defenses.

It's a symbolic milestone, but given that Rousey is still the mark by which greatness is judged in women's MMA, it would be meaningful for Jedrzejczyk to tie and perhaps pass her as the UFC's greatest female champion.

Rousey still casts a long shadow. Could Jedrzejczyk pass her?
Rousey still casts a long shadow. Could Jedrzejczyk pass her?Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images
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In somewhat more concrete news, the UFC confirmed Tuesday—after one false start—it will add a women's flyweight class later this year with Season 26 of The Ultimate Fighter

This presents a perhaps even more tantalizing opportunity for Jedrzejczyk. In the past, she's talked openly about her desire to compete at 125 pounds, so it's at least possible she might follow in the footsteps of Conor McGregor as the second UFC fighter to simultaneously hold two titles in two different weight classes.

Rousey and McGregor? That's not bad company to be in for one of the organization's brightest developing stars.

It's equally difficult not to notice those future possibilities are beginning to take shape just as competition in Jedrzejczyk's own strawweight division is swiftly heating up.

Her last two title defenses—against Claudia Gadelha and Karolina Kowalkiewicz, respectively—were surprisingly competitive affairs. Now, the next two figure to offer the greatest challenges of Jedrzejczyk's 13-fight career.

Jedrzejczyk throws a spinning backfist at Kowalkiewicz during their fight.
Jedrzejczyk throws a spinning backfist at Kowalkiewicz during their fight.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Andrade has been impressive since dropping from bantamweight to strawweight last June. She's won three straight fights, including two stoppages, while showing off a hard-charging style that could feature the best aspects of Gadelha's grappling-based game plan while packing more power on the feet than Kowalkiewicz.

After watching both those bouts, Andrade thinks she has Jedrzejczyk figured out. One of the keys, she said, will be to pressure the champion as a way of disrupting her technical, pinpoint accurate kickboxing skills.

"Karolina was a girl that didn't back away from Joanna when she was getting pressured, which was something new," Andrade told Fox Sports' Damon Martin. "Pretty much everybody that fought her before, once Joanna put pressure, they would walk back. We noticed that she didn't do as well with other people that [wouldn't] back away from her."

Still, Jedrzejczyk is going off as the favorite here, according to OddsShark, and it's hard to doubt her. She's been so good since winning the title from Carla Esparza in March 2015 at UFC 185 that the smart money says she'll find a way to be successful against Andrade.

The two are already well-acquainted with each other. Jedrzejczyk quipped during a recent UFC-sponsored media lunch that she and the Brazilian used to train with each other on and off while both were making their way up the ranks.

Dare she say they used to be friends?

"Friends may be a bit too much—we were colleagues. Is that a good word?" Jedrzejczyk said, via MMA Fighting's Marc Raimondi. "[I know] that I can submit her and I can knock her out [in training]. But the fight is different. It was in the past. Jessica is a very dangerous opponent. She drops from 125. She's very strong in the strawweight division."

If she manages to get by Andrade, it's possible Jedrzejczyk has an even bigger fight waiting for her against perennial contender Rose Namajunas.

Namajunas is one of the few fighters at 115 pounds who could match Jedrzejczyk for popularity. She exited her appearance on Season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter riding a substantial wave of hype, and she appears at the height of her powers after a couple of slip-ups along the way.

Numajunas is waiting in the wings for the Jedrzejczyk-Andrade winner.
Numajunas is waiting in the wings for the Jedrzejczyk-Andrade winner.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Still just 24 years old, Namajunas' second-round submission win over Michelle Waterson at UFC Fight Night on April 15 appears to have her poised as the No. 1 contender in waiting.

If everything goes according to plan, a matchup between Namajunas and Jedrzejczyk later this year would stack up as the biggest strawweight attraction since the UFC started the division in 2014.

If the two fighters did a reasonably good job selling a rivalry and it could be billed as the event where Jedrzejczyk was out to tie Rousey's record, it could be a modest success for all involved.

From there, she might think about testing the waters at flyweight, once the UFC has its 125-pound class up and running.

And perhaps therein lies the rub for Jedrzejczyk this weekend. The Andrade fight smacks of one she needs to get through in order to have a chance to make those bigger opportunities come to fruition. It also smacks of a difficult matchup.

That's not always the most advantageous combination for a champion who could be on the cusp of bigger things. 

A defeat here might cost Jedrzejczyk more then her title. It could cost her the chance to join people like Rousey and McGregor in the annals of UFC history.

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