With her coach stroking her cheek, Joanna Jedrzejczyk finally cried.
They thought it was just the two of them in the locker room, far away from the crowd. Jedrzejczyk just put her head in her hands and let it all come out -- the years of grueling training and the burden of her native Poland on her shoulders lifted, she was overwhelmed, not knowing UFC cameras remained transfixed on her. The credits might have been rolling, but Jedrzejczyk's tears stole the show at UFC 185 this past weekend.
"I still cry now -- the weight was so heavy. I have many Muay Thai titles, kickboxing titles, but UFC is the biggest title of my life," Jedrzejczyk said.
On Twitter, she told her 25,700 followers: "I'm going to take my belt back to Europe and show everyone. I'm just so happy."
Jedrzejczyk, 27, (pronounced Yed-zhey-chik) became the UFC's first Polish champion and just the third European champion after legend Bas Rutten and current UFC heavyweight Andrei Arlovski. She did it by thoroughly dominating women's strawweight (115 pounds) champion Carla Esparza during a second-round TKO.
Esparza had earned the title by winning "The Ultimate Fighter" Season 20 tournament. And before that, Esparza had been the highest-ranked strawweight in the all-women's MMA promotion, Invicta.
However, against Jedrzejczyk, Esparza looked like an amateur. Jedrzejczyk's striking was sharp and accurate, but it was her takedown defense against Esparza, an accomplished wrestler, that stood out. Jedrzejczyk stuffed Esparza's takedowns, wore her out and beat her up. "She's a killer, man," UFC president Dana White said afterward. "I like people who try to finish you. I've been on the Joanna bandwagon since day one. Coming into this fight, the thing for her was her takedown defense. And boy, did she tune up her takedown defense. She's a beast."
With UFC Fight Night (headlined by Gabriel Gonzaga-Mirko Cro Cop 2) in Krakow, Poland, on April 11, Jedrzejczyk will ride a tidal wave of popularity into her home country; she will return a conquering hero.
Her win also represents a bigger agenda item for the UFC, which has made no mystery of its goal to expand the organization's footprint worldwide. Eastern Europe would be a nice box to check off, and Jedrzejczyk could help. Along with the cresting popularity of Ireland's Conor McGregor, the UFC has a big opportunity in Europe right now.
That's why buzz immediately fired up about bringing back Jedrzejczyk for that April card. White quickly stated that he's not ready to let the new champion fight in her native country, and Jedrzejczyk said that she actually prefers fighting in America.
"I'm happy the UFC is going to be in Poland. It's a big deal," Jedrzejczyk said. "But I like fighting in the U.S. When I was living in Poland, I was always dreaming about coming to America, fighting in America. So I would like to fight most of the time in the U.S."
Born to be champion
Jedrzejczyk has taken an unorthodox road to the championship.
She started training in martial arts 12 years ago, eventually capturing four kickboxing titles, then multiple European and world championships in Muay Thai over the next 10 years.
But when she couldn't find any opponents who would fight her, Jedrzejczyk's coaches persuaded her to start MMA. In 2012, she made her MMA debut, which began an eight-fight win streak heading into UFC 185. And while she says she's "not sure what will happen when I get back to Poland," she knows the spotlight will be on her. "Sure, I know my coaches said the media will be waiting for me at the airport, but I am an athlete, I want to win," Jedrzejczyk said. "But I don't want to be a superstar. Not too many people knew who I was, because I didn't fight on Poland's biggest show. So they don't know me. But most important is my training and getting ready for big fights."
She might be doing that for a while. The women's strawweight division remains relatively new, and the depth is still building. Considering her pedigree (she's trained with world-class kickboxers Ernesto Hoost and Paul Slowinski, and elite Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor Robert Drysdale) and how badly she demolished Esparza, there isn't a fighter who could compete with Jedrzejczyk's stand-up skills right now. If Esparza was the division's best grappler, who's next?
"The division is getting better, and we will get bigger fights," Jedrzejczyk said.
One potential opponent: Scotland's Joanne Calderwood, who is 9-0 and scheduled to fight on the Krakow card. Calderwood was known as arguably the best striker on the cast of TUF Season 20 and is ranked No. 6 in the world. Should she defeat Maryna Moroz (5-0), it could set up a potential matchup with Jedrzejczyk. That fight could happen in Scotland or Poland, another geography win for the UFC.
Where did Jedrzejczyk come from?
At 5-foot-6 and 125 pounds, Jedrzejczyk enters the cage fully confident in her striking. At the news conference leading up to UFC 185, she was blunt. "I'm going to be a champion," she said. "It's going to be my third fight in the UFC, and I'm going to be the champion. You're going to see."
But there was no arrogance -- just pure confidence. Polite and engaging, she'll let off a nervous giggle if she doesn't understand a question or feels bashful from praise. When Jedrzejczyk says she will dominate, she says it as a fact, not bragging.
Her biggest doubts about joining the UFC concerned the weight class, not how she'd do. Originally offered a spot in TUF Season 20, she declined because she didn't think she could make 115 -- she had always fought at 125 -- on such short notice. She's now comfortable with the weight drop, and on Saturday night she looked dominant enough to win a $50,000 bonus from the UFC for "performance of the night."
That money could end up going toward her sneaker habit. An admitted Air Jordans addict, she'll take a pair of those kicks over high heels any day. "I'm 'Miss Sporty.' I like to be comfortable. I like to wear good jeans, good kicks. Jordans are the best. LeBron James, too," Jedrzejczyk said. "But they are hard to get in Poland."
But rest assured, she's got some and may be adding more if she holds on to the belt the way she won it. And, as often mentioned with UFC star Ronda Rousey, Jedrzejczyk could play a pivotal role in bringing in young women fighters, too.
"Ronda is the best ever. I am happy to be part of what she started," Jedrzejczyk said. "More and more girls will try MMA because of Ronda. Maybe now they will try because of me, too."
Don't expect to see her in the next "Expendables" movie, though. Jedrzejczyk trains at Arrachion Gym in Poland and plans on staying there. Arrachion is in a building originally designed as a stable block for military horses and named after the ancient Olympic pankration champion.
And maybe she can get her hands on more of those LeBron James kicks, too.