Just over five years ago, Joanna Jedrzejczyk began a UFC journey that took her to the heights of fame and success, and to the depths of losing three title fights and dealing with the trappings of wealth.
She joined the promotion without fanfare, quickly won the women’s strawweight title and rounded into one of the most dominant champions in MMA history. Jedrzejczyk’s five title defenses are second only to Ronda Rousey in the history of the UFC’s women’s divisions.
On Saturday, Jedrzejczyk is scheduled to face Michelle Waterson in the main event of UFC Tampa, in what could be a No. 1 contender fight for the strawweight title.
Jedrzejczyk, 32, lost the belt to Rose Namajunas in 2017 via first-round knockout, and then fell to Namajunas in the rematch, by unanimous decision, in April 2018. She is coming off her third career loss, a unanimous decision to Valentina Shevchenko, in a women’s flyweight title fight last December at UFC 231.
Much has changed for Jedrzejczyk (15-3) since her reign as champion. Before the fight with Waterson, ESPN caught up with the former titleholder to discuss her career, troubles in her personal life, her prospective path back to recapture the belt and much more.
Editor’s note: Some of the answers were edited for content and length.
ESPN: Do you feel like you’re back to having the right mindset for another run at the title?
Joanna Jedrzejczyk: After my victory over Michelle Waterson, I’m going for the belt. It doesn’t matter if this fight is going to be a week later. Or a month or two months. I’m going for the belt. Dana promised me that fight after [I beat] Tecia Torres, but then it was the superfight with Valentina Shevchenko.
After that fight, I took a break. I wanted to reset my body, physically, mentally, after working for so many years. I’m here — ready. More than ready. I’m in the best shape of my life and I’m going for that belt.
Your last fight was at flyweight (125-pound limit), and now you’re cutting back down to your old weight class, strawweight (115). How was the weight cut?
JJ: It’s been a while [since I’ve cut] to strawweight and I’m just getting older. We can’t do the weight cut the same time as last time. Our bodies are very smart. I’m not a natural strawweight. I got to the strawweight division five years ago after I signed with the UFC. It’s not natural for me, but I’m doing my best. I always fight two fights. One is before the fight. I’m gonna get there and take care of my business in so many different ways.
Can you reflect on what the last five years in the UFC have been like?
JJ: Since I was a little girl, I always dreamed about a trip to the [United States]. I had an uncle in the States at the time. When I had my first communion when I was 8 years old, he sent me a bike from the States. So, I was the girl in the hood [in Olsztyn, Poland] riding my bike from the States [laughs]. But I always visualized New York and I always dreamed about a trip to New York.
After so many years, I’ve lived here — I share my life between Poland and the States. That’s amazing. I want to tell this story to everybody, to everyone: keep on working hard, dream big. You’re gonna get there. If you’re disciplined enough, if you work hard enough, you’re gonna get there. I’m really humbled, because every day I’m like, ‘You’ve made it, girl. You’ve made it, girl.’ I’m thinking of applying for a green card. I’m thinking of buying an apartment or a house here [in Florida]. I’m building a brand-new house in Poland. Everyone knows I’m very close to my family, my hometown, my homeland. But the UFC, I love this place and it was life-changing for me.
How much would you say life has changed for you since you debuted in the UFC in July 2014? You have more than a million followers on Instagram, you’ve become somewhat of a celebrity.
JJ: I used to say “From zero to hero,” but that’s a little bit selfish. [Former UFC champion] Tyron Woodley says, “From nothing to something.” I made it from nothing to something. Even after I lost and some bad things [happened], I’m living my American dream, and everyone can. And I want to tell this story, to young kids and teenagers. My life could change because someone saw something in me, saw potential in me. What I love about the UFC, it doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or guy. It doesn’t matter what color skin, what religion you are, where you’re from, they give you the same money and they give you the same star. It’s up to you where you’re gonna be.
The last few years, the two losses to Rose Namajunas and the last to Valentina Shevchenko, how do you feel like that has impacted you? You were undefeated until then.
JJ: I remember three days before the [first] fight with Rose Namajunas, I was on a morning show in New York, “Live with Kelly and Ryan.” It was like, holy moly, that’s big, man. That’s big. I love doing media in Poland and I do lots of TV stuff, but here it was something big. After I left the studio — it was live and I almost choked Ryan [Seacrest, in a submission] — they called the UFC and said they want this girl to be back to the studio, because the hits [online] were pretty big.
Then, I lost. I was like, I could tie Ronda Rousey’s record of six successful title defenses, but something happened. But you know what? I’ve grown more and I’ve shown that I don’t need the belt to be the champ. I felt like I had to open my eyes and realize that once you become successful there is more and more toxic people around you. There is more rats around you. It had to happen to me to see that I had to get away from these people. I paid the ultimate price. I lost the belt. It’s not about physically having a belt, it’s about the athlete’s feeling that you want to be the best and you always want to reach your goals and dreams. I always set my ambitions very high. You want to be the greatest athlete, but I realized that life is not about that. I was a little bit blind.
I don’t care if people doubt me or not. I always say, show me who is better than Ronda Rousey with six title defenses. Show me who is better than Joanna Jedrzejczyk with [five] successful title defenses. Of course, Amanda Nunes is now the GOAT of female MMA, but show me. People are like, I’m not the champ anymore. I’m like, OK, but these chicks can’t even defend the belt once or twice. Doubt me, hate on me, because I’m the best. But I don’t care about this anymore. I want to spread the love and share the good energy.
You said there were toxic people in your life? Can you explain?
JJ: I don’t want to talk again about the weight cut before the [first Namajunas] fight. But it killed me. It killed me, man. It killed me. I had my fight before the fight. At that time, HBO [Europe] was filming a documentary about me — actually it’s going to be released this year. They’ve been following me for two or three years. I kicked them out, because they wanted to record everything. Now, I’m like, f—. They should have been there recording and I can show the people.
I don’t care about this, if people want to believe me or not. But I had my fight the night before. I am a warrior and I took this fight and I wanted to give to my fans what they came for. And I don’t want to take anything from Rose. She was the champion, she’s a very good athlete, I respect her. We talk to each other now on social media, respect each other.
I was not a competitor that night. I couldn’t give Rose what she came for that night. I was a shadow of myself. I was probably in the best shape of my life, but that weight cut killed me. There are people who made mistakes and I had to pay the ultimate price. I don’t want to blame people, of course. It’s all on me. But after you lose the fight, people call you loser.
I found out who is who [in my life] after that. I found out there were people who were pushing away my family, who made me feel uncomfortable, who made me feel like not Joanna. I didn’t have my space. If you watch “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the movie about Queen, and I watched “Rocket Man” [the biopic on Elton John] and I see what happened. Maybe I wasn’t that popular and I’m never going to be, but somehow that happened to me. There were rats who were pushing away my family, my closest ones, my friends. They were trying to take advantage of me.
I was sick of these people. They would ask me 100 times one thing and I was like, OK, no problem. Now I know that I’m surrounded by good people and I keep my eyes very open, I keep my ears very open. I can hear more, see more and I know who I am. And I want to keep it. I want to keep it, because finally I know who I am.
I guess you could say that things were going so well that there was no reason to make changes and then after losing to Rose, it kind of made you realize some of the things going wrong?
JJ: Of course. This sport is such an individual sport. I went through some difficulties in my private life. The people close to me — family, friends, teammates, coaches — they know. There’s so many people who help me prepare for the fight, like my coaches, my teammates, my physical therapist, manager. At the end, it’s only me. I’m the only one who steps in the Octagon to face my opponent. My fears, I’m the only one dealing with all the emotions — the staredowns, the faceoffs and finally the fight. It’s only me.
But man, when you don’t have your private life going well, you’re not gonna be successful. It doesn’t matter if you’re an athlete, if you’re a businessman, if you’re a journalist. There’s always something in your head. I went through some difficulties with my ex-fiancé [Przemyslaw Buta] for almost two years. And I don’t want to blame him. But man, before every fight he caused me lots of problems.
I’ve cleared the path. Now, I can say I have a clear head and a clear heart. I can say, get as far as you can from the people who make you feel toxic. If your personal life isn’t going well, you’re not gonna reach the top and it took me a while to realize it. That’s the thing. Finally, I can go for it. I feel more motivated and I feel more fire and I want to train more than I used to. I was 16 and now I’m 32 — and I want to do more.