Will the UFC’s first Polish champion be a boost for their European expansion?

Less than three years ago, on May 19, 2012, Joanna Jedrzejczyk made her professional debut at MMA Diva Fight Night SPA. Dressed in standard…

By: Karim Zidan | 8 years ago
Will the UFC’s first Polish champion be a boost for their European expansion?
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Less than three years ago, on May 19, 2012, Joanna Jedrzejczyk made her professional debut at MMA Diva Fight Night SPA. Dressed in standard white attire, she defeated Sylwia Juskiewicz by unanimous decision, thus beginning a remarkable journey that would see her crowned UFC champion eight fights later.

She usurped the title with such devastating force that it could give one the false impression that her entire path to the strawweight title came easy. However, it was a turbulent ride at times. The six-time world Muay Thai champion faced the likes of Russian MMA pioneer Julia Berezikova and English veteran Rosi Sexton before signing with the UFC – a testament to her rapid development. She was later dealt two tough opponents in Juliana Lima and Cláudia Gadelha, the latter of whom almost derailed Joanna’s title run had the split decision not gone her way.

Three months later, she erased all memory of that razor-thin win, and did so with a confidence and ferocious intensity that made her a near-overnight sensation. Only the third European champion in UFC history and the promotion’s first from Poland, Jedrzejczyk became an immediate beacon of hope for the UFC’s ongoing expansion into the European market.

Brimming with confidence, poise, and vicious Muay Thai, Jedrzejczyk is on the path to becoming the face of women’s MMA two divisions below Ronda Rousey.

“I am a confident person, and like I said, that I was going to do this, that I was going to be a new champion,” she said at the post-fight press conference, with the title inches in front of her on the table. “I’m here and I’ve got my baby.”

While her win was a remarkable achievement on an individual level, the ripple effects extend far beyond her own personal goals — across the world in Poland. Given her meteoric rise in the UFC, many believe that the now-conveniently nicknamed “Joanna Champion” could be the spark necessary to bring MMA forward in Poland.

“In March of 2014 I had the opportunity to call Joanna Jędrzejczyk’s fight with Karla Benitez at flyweight in an karting arena in one of Warsaw’s malls,” said renowned writer and KSW commentator Tomasz Marciniak. “I don’t think anybody even considered the fact that in one year she would be the UFC’s strawweight champion.”

Whether Joanna’s title win will spark a chain reaction of events that will eventually lead to the expansion of MMA as a sport in Poland is highly debatable. On one hand, this may provide the necessary momentum to attract new athletes and fans to the sport in Poland. Then again, it does not immediately guarantee the success of the UFC in Poland, as it is yet to become an established entity in that country.

“Jędrzejczyk’s title bid alone was probably the most important fight in the history of Polish MMA,” Marciniak added. “Her win might propel the sport into newfound relevance but there are caveats. Despite the strength of the local MMA scene here, the UFC remains a quantity known to only hardcore fans and insiders.”

While there are several scattered promotions all over Poland, the only one that has gained legitimate media attention from North American outlets has been Konfrontacja Sztuk Walki (KSW), which features stars such as Mamed Khalidov, strongman Mariusz Pudzianowski, and Karolina Kowalkiewicz.

Given KSW’s national broadcast deal, as well as the millions of viewers they draw in ratings, Polish MMA fans are certainly attuned to that promotion’s stars more than they would be with the UFC. Since the North American organization is yet to debut in Poland, it may be a while before their influence begins to spread to the average fan.

“For an average Joe in Poland, MMA is still largely seen through a KSW-tinted glass,” Marciniak explained. “This is the key aspect of Jędrzejczyk’s victory. We all know she has the personality to be a mainstream sports star but she won’t become one unless people can watch her fights. The real, lasting legacy of this fight will be built if it catapults UFC’s popularity along with Jędrzejczyk.”

Although UFC: Krakow is approximately six weeks away, the UFC still does not have a television deal in Poland, which could pose as a challenge when promoting a promising star like Joanna.

“The UFC still doesn’t have a deal with Polish TV and that is our biggest trouble,” said Maciej Szumowski, a journalist for SportoweFakty.pl and myMMA.pl. “They must change it soon; hopefully before the UFC event in Kraków.”

Joanna’s ascension to the strawweight title could provide incentive for both the UFC and their targeted television network to strike a much anticipated deal.  Now that the UFC appears to be the necessary motivation to put a marketing machine behind Poland and their new champion, it may not be too long before we determine the effects this has on Polish MMA, as well as the UFC. Based on the current upwards trend for the UFC in Poland, as well as how local journalists perceive the promotion’s new strawweight champion, the potential to sway viewers in their favour certainly exists.

“The truth is that Joanna’s win is the best advertisement for MMA in Poland and, of course, the UFC event in April,” said Jakub Madej, Editor in chief of myMMA.pl. “Poland needs someone like Joanna Jędrzejczyk.

“I think her title win is bigger than the first UFC event in Poland. I am also sure that it is bigger than Marcin Held’s Bellator tournament win or Marcin Tybura’s M-1 title win. Finally, everyone here will hear about mixed martial arts in good perspective; as an amazing sport and not simply entertainment for hooligans.”

Joanna’s win certainly has the potential to help MMA blossom and mature in Poland, but not everyone is convinced that she was the spark needed to bring the sport forward locally. Others have suggested that MMA has been consistently on the rise since 2009, when KSW took several significant steps to attract attention to the sport.

“Joanna Jędrzejczyk’s UFC title win will not start any kind of MMA revolution in Poland,” said Bartek Stachura, founder of lowking.pl. “Thousands of Poles won’t suddenly start MMA trainings in hopes to one day achieve what she has just achieved.

“The truth is that the MMA revolution in Poland already been started many years ago, back in December of 2009, when national superhero and world class strongman Mariusz Pudzianowski debuted in MMA under the KSW banner. He gathered millions of Poles in front of their TVs. That was a turning point and since then the market has been constantly growing.”

While Pudz’s debut in KSW was an apparent freak show attraction, it served the purpose of spreading MMA to a casual fanbase that would have previously never flipped the channel over to watch regulated violence. Over the next six years, the sport would flourish and millions would flock regularly to watch the local KSW events on television.

Through the incorporation of freak show fights, women’s MMA began to grow in Poland. This would later become a popular aspect of MMA for fans, so much so that WMMA fights would bring in equal or better ratings than their male counterparts on some occasions.

“WMMA is very popular in our country. At the most recent KSW event in Poznan, the feature fight between Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Kalindra Faria got the best TV rating for whole event — it was near 3 million people who watched it live on Polsat,” said Bartosz Sobczak, journalist for myMMA.pl. “We have some young, good looking and multi-talented ladies.”

Considering WMMA already has roots in Poland, Jedrzejczyk’s win is unlikely to much more than serve as extra motivation for other female combatants to follow their dreams. Izabela Badurek is set to make her UFC debut at the Krakow event next month; popular 2-0 flyweight Katarzyna Lubonska was recently signed by KSW, as was Lena Tkhorevska, and Invicta’s Kowalkiewicz will continue her upward trend as one of the top strawweights on the planet.

Jedrzejczyk’s championship win was one to remember, but it is unlikely to become a major turning point in the local market in Poland unless the UFC strikes while the iron is hot. A broadcast deal coupled with heavy marketing as was done with Conor McGregor could propel her into some form of mainstream appeal in Poland. Until then, the Polish MMA market will continue to churn out local talent on a regular basis, and will remain one of the hotbeds for prospects and impressive shows in Europe.

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About the author
Karim Zidan
Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is a investigative reporter and feature writer focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. He has written for BloodyElbow since 2014 and has served as an associate editor since 2016. He also writes for The New York Times and The Guardian. Karim has been invited to speak about his work at numerous universities, including Princeton, and was a panelist at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Oslo Freedom Forum. He also participated in the United Nations counter-terrorism conference in 2021. His reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov’s involvement in MMA, much of which was done for Bloody Elbow, has led to numerous award nominations, and was the basis of an award-winning HBO Real Sports documentary.

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