HOW (& WHY) ROYAL BLOOD SPILLED OVER A ROSE
November 4, Madison Square Garden, UFC 217. On a night of regicidal chaos, a powerful and seemingly invincible queen fell. Joanna Jędrzejczyk was knocked to the ground, scrambling to recover in a turtled position. It wasn’t long before she found herself tapping to strikes as Big John McCarthy stepped in to save her.
The only champion in UFC strawweight history to defend her belt, and the greatest women’s MMA fighter of all time had been knocked flat and had to watch “Thug” Rose Namajunas strutting around the cage, the new champion, all while Daniel Cormier blissfully sounded off from the commentary desk — “Thug Roooose! Thug Roooose!”
For many, it was a moment that shook the world. For me, it only served to further illustrate the same point fighting analysts have been making for a long time: Styles. Make. Fights. For a long time, we have seen kickboxers and Muay Thai fighters cross over into mixed martial arts, yet we as an audience are always stunned when they are knocked out by someone with nowhere near the striking pedigree.
We saw Fedor Emelianenko shellac the K-1 legend Mirko Cro Cop, Junior Dos Santos knock out Mark Hunt with a wheel kick of all things and despite a losing effort, we saw Henrique Da Silva come dangerously close to knocking out Gökhan Saki thanks to his superior clinch game. Not to mention Alistair Overeem defeating all-time great Badr Hari in kickboxing and Jessica Penne, a mixed martial artist who could most generously be described as “middle of the road,” besting RENA in shootboxing.
How does this happen?
THERE ARE LEVELS TO THIS GAME
It’s the idea that there are levels of striking, as well as how pundits fundamentally misunderstand what this means.
K-1 Level striking was the meme of choice on the UFC and MMA forums for some time in the days of Cro Cop and Mark Hunt, the idea being that K-1 strikers were the best of the best, high-level kickboxers who could not be touched by anyone. At the time, it was assumed the level of striking in MMA was so low that there was no chance of any MMA fighter besting one of these top-tier strikers. The great irony here, of course, is that if you asked someone around 2011 who they thought the best striker in MMA was, the answer probably would have been Anderson Silva, a man who never competed in K-1 at all and was firmly an MMA fighter. How the times have changed.
The trouble with this idea was that it never really worked, in part because the quality of MMA striking was (and still is) greatly underrated, and partly because it failed to take into consideration how fighters’ individual characteristics would match up against another.
Joanna Jędrzejczyk was the highly touted female Muay Thai fighter with a Wikipedia kickboxing record of 27-3 (although given that she’s been recorded losing to three different woman, one of whom beat her three times, it’s inaccurate). She had made every challenger, many of which were legitimately great fighters, look bad. She sprawled and brawled her way through wrestlers and on the feet frequently enjoyed a sizable reach advantage that gave her the distance and extra time to react, jab and low kick her way to victory. She fought opponents who, while great, just were not up to her level of striking. They would plod in, get punched and kicked, and should they manage to get in close would find themselves slashed by elbows.
It truly seemed as though nobody in the division could take her on. The only other former Muay Thai fighter she fought was Karolina Kowalkiewicz, who despite her professional record seemed to make a lot of the same mistakes that pure MMA fighters made.
ENTER THUG ROSE
Despite many fans doubting her, there was plenty of reason to think that Rose was a legit threat to the title. She was almost as tall as Joanna and knew how to use every inch of that height. While she was once a taekwondo black belt who ironically liked to rush past kicking distance to fight up close, her recent training had transformed her into a patient, long distance striker.
For a fighter like Joanna, who lived and died off being just in range for the jab, a fighter of similar range to her who manages distance with a barrage of faked punched and feinted footsteps was going to give her trouble from the get go.
Joanna was deadly and had venom in her shots for sure, but much like a mongoose lures out a strike from a snake, Rose lured Joanna. She steps in, only to step back out again; she would fake a punch to draw the champion’s counter jab, only to slip it and return with a firm strike. Joanna found herself punching air, landing less than ten strikes in the three minutes and three seconds she was in the fight.
A knockdown came, and then another, and just like that Rose had won the title.
Joanna was the highly touted Muay Thai fighter yet in the end, it didn’t gain her the win. Rose might not have had the credentials of Joanna, but she certainly had the savvy.
THE WORST WEAKNESSES ARE ONES WE ALLOW
The moral of the story is that no one is to be underestimated. Much like Ronda Rousey before her, the fans were so caught up in the hype behind Joanna that many were unable to see the very real threat in front of her until they took that title away.
When discussing martial arts and martial artists, it’s important to understand that it is not the credentials or even the specific martial art that makes a fighter great, it is the individual style they bring. Despite being from two different striking backgrounds, Joanna Jędrzejczyk has more in common stylistically with Rose than she does her fellow Muay Thai fighter Karolina.
If professional muay thai fighters and kickboxers continue to cross over into MMA, then it’s important to realize that while they may be better at striking than most of the fighters they come across, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be an opponent who can give them one hell of an upset. Joanna is a great champion, the best representative Muay Thai has ever had in MMA, and is for my money the best female MMA fighter the sport has seen to this point, but she allowed something to get in the way on November 4 in MSG.
Ego got the best of Joanna at UFC 217. She underestimated the great ability of her opponent and it cost her everything.