By: Jesse Donathan
The main event of UFC 161 between Michelle Waterson and Joanna “Champion” Jedrzejczyk may not have proven to be a fight of the year candidate Saturday night, but it does serve as a great example of how pressure from above can come with little to no consideration or regard for the best interests or wellbeing of the athletes themselves. The combat sports industry only cares about dollars and cents, a fact which underscores the value and necessity for a fighter to have a good team and management in their corner. Jedrzejczyk dominated Waterson Saturday night, taking home a five-round unanimous decision victory, though one unfortunately marred by a weight controversy and the resulting speculative fallout that saw the Waterson camp reportedly pressured into accepting a catchweight bout.
In an October 10, 2019 MMAMania.com article titled, “Joanna Jedrzejczyk has a message for her weight-cutting critics: Stay quiet, you’re not important,” author Jesse Holland touched based on some of the highlights from Jedrzejczyk’s UFC Fight Night 161 open workout scrum with MMAFighting.com prior to her Saturday night showdown against Michelle Waterson (17-7, 3 KOs) in Tampa, Florida.
“There are always some troubles with the weight cut, there’s always some risk, Jedrzejczyk said. I know people are smart and think it’s that easy to, ‘Hey, go run for 10 hours or don’t eat,’ but it’s not like this, you know? So, people who are not important who don’t know a lot about it should just stay quiet and just wait until the end, the results,” writes MMAMania.com.
Photo Credit: UFC Twitter Account
The story of the week leading up to UFC Fight Night 161 was the controversy surrounding reports Jedrzejczyk had informed the UFC brass well ahead of time that she would not be able to make the 115-pound strawweight limit. As BoxingInsider.com previously reported, Waterson’s camp held their ground in insisting Jedrzejczyk make the 115-pound strawweight division limit (116-pounds), reportedly having received ultimatums from the UFC to either accept a catchweight against Jedrzejczyk or face Jessica Andrade at UFC 244. Thankfully, Jedrzejczyk (16-3, 4 KOs) made weight at Friday’s weigh-in, coming in at a reported 115.5-pounds.
“I’m trying to unpack Joanna not champion here,” said ESPN MMA analyst Chael Sonnen in his October 11, 2019 YouTube video titled, “Joanna not champion’s weight cut struggles….” According to Sonnen, “She calls the promotion and she says, ‘I can’t make weight.’ Now don’t forget, this is a feature fight with Michelle Waterson that has implications for top contender status, ultimately implications for title contender status in the division. She calls up three days early and says, ‘Hey, I can’t make weight.’”
“There is a certain amount of honor that comes with calling ahead of time, notifying the promotion, notifying the media and notifying your opponent, regardless of the deal that we had,” said Professor Sonnen in his classic reverse psychology critique of how the story unfolded. “I must tell you that I am going to break that deal,” said Sonnen, stepping into the role of the honorable Jedrzejczyk. Continuing, Sonnen went on to add, “So, instead of surprising you and dropping this in your lap, making you panic, making the commission panic, double-crossing my opponent who is going to go and get her weight off, I’m just going to tell you right up front I need a new deal, we got to make a new deal.”
“And, a couple of things here,” added the Bad Guy Inc. CEO. “First, is she going to get teased? Yeah. Was that unprofessional? Yeah. Does that beg question what the hell have you been doing this entire training camp that you can’t make weight? Yeah, it does,” said Sonnen who was no doubt roasting Jedrzejczyk in the face of a potentially disastrous situation for the UFC and ESPN should a last-second opponent substitution have taken place, or perhaps even worse yet, the main event itself cancelled altogether. Which was no doubt the genesis of reports surfacing from the mixed martial arts media of an ultimatum having been served up to the Waterson camp.
To give you an idea of how the actual fight went, by the 4th round the call must have come from upstairs for fight announcers Michael Bisping and guest coach Trevor Wittman to discuss the tremendous heart Waterson was displaying and to remind the audience both fighters were top level strikers despite the fact Waterson was bloodied and getting pieced up throughout the bout. As far as striking goes, Waterson was never really in the game throughout the duration of the match, her offensive mindset and killer instinct seemingly having taken a back seat to her team’s game planning and the realities of a five-round contest.
Michelle found it hard to navigate the distance with her taller, longer opponent as Waterson either looked to tie Jedrzejczyk up in the clinch along the fence or take her down throughout the five-round affair, which is a commendable strategy, but unfortunately one Waterson failed to capitalize on despite having her moments late in the third when she briefly took a standing Jedrzejczyk’s back, threatening with a rear naked choke before ultimately losing the position and submission not long before the end of the round.
Meeting the bell at the beginning of the fifth and final round, Jedrzejczyk’s right foot was badly swollen, her cornermen treating the injury with ice in between rounds, the result of repeated leg kick attacks from the Muay Thai specialist. Both fighters appeared well conditioned as the beginning of final five minutes began to count down, the two meeting in the center of the Octagon and embracing before Jedrzejczyk went back on the offensive. The two would tie up along the fence in the clinch for a meaningful period of time, with Bisping noting that Joanna had dominated Waterson thus far in the contest as the clock was winding down.
With just over two minutes left in the round, Waterson managed to briefly drag Jedrzejczyk to the mat before again taking a standing Jedrzejczyk’s back along the fence. Joanna eventually managed to peel Waterson off, receiving a thank you from Bisping in the process who had just finished explaining to the audience how to defend Waterson’s submission attempt, which coincidentally enough, Jedrzejczyk had just demonstrated beautifully. The round would come to a close with Jedrzejczyk on a bloodied Waterson’s back, the two warmly embracing each other after a hard fought 25-minute battle after the final bell rung.
With the story of UFC Fight Night 161 being Jedrzejczyk’s reported difficulty in making the 115-pound strawweight limit of 116 pounds, the fact she dominated the fight is unfortunately overshadowed by the controversy surrounding her weight and the reported ultimatums levied to the Waterson camp in accepting a catchweight bout. Jedrzejczyk was the bigger woman in the cage Saturday night, she had a height and reach advantage, her length posed significant problems for Waterson and Jedrzejczyk’s top level Muay Thai kickboxing was on full display for the world to see.
Yet, despite all of those advantages, unfortunately there were those who wanted to see Waterson concede even more ground to Jedrzejczyk in accepting a catchweight bout despite being dominated under the originally agreed upon terms. While this bout may not have been a fight of the year candidate, it does stand as perhaps one of the best examples of how pressure from above can come with absolutely no consideration for the best interests or well-being of the athletes themselves, underscoring the necessity and value of a good team and proper management in a fighters corner in a combat sports industry that only cares about dollars and cents.
By: Jesse Donathan
“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run. You never count your money, when you’re sittin’ at the table, there’ll be time enough for countin’, when the dealin’s done.” – “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers.
UFC Fight Night 161 is taking place on Saturday, October 12, 2019 at the Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida live on ESPN+ and will feature a scheduled women’s strawweight bout between Joanna Jedrzejczyk (15-3-0, 4 KOs) and “The Karate Hottie” Michelle Waterson (17-6-0, 3 KOs). The evenings co-main event will feature a featherweight showdown between mixed martial arts veteran Cub Swanson (25-11-0, 11 KOs) and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu prodigy Kron Gracie (5-0, 0 KOs). Kron is the son of legendary Brazilian Jiu-jitsu master Rickson Gracie, who of course is the brother of mixed martial arts legend Royce Gracie.
According to Ken Pishna of MMAWeekly.com, “Reports surfaced on Wednesday that Saturday’s UFC on ESPN+ 19 main event between former strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk and top contender Michelle Waterson was in danger of being canceled because of Jedrzejczyk struggling to make weight,” writes Pishna in his October 9, 2019 Yahoo Sports article titled, “Joanna Jedrzejczyk rebukes rumors of possible UFC Tampa main event cancellation.”
Citing an ESPN report by Ariel Helwani, the Yahoo Sports article went on to note that, “Multiple unnamed sources said that Jedrzejczyk informed UFC official(s) more than a week ago that she would be unable to make the 116-pound limit for the fight.” According to Pishna, “Waterson’s camp refused to accept a catchweight bout.”
“Did I miss something?” Jedrzejczyk told ESPN’s Brett Okamoto. “Was the weigh-in today? It’s Friday, right? Today is Wednesday. There’s nothing to be stressed about. I should be the one stressed, and I’m not,” said Jedrzejczyk.
Digging deeper into the equation, according to an October, 9, 2019 Andrew Whitelaw YouTube video titled, “Michelle Waterson REACTS to reports that Joanna Jedrzejczyk will MISS WEIGHT!” Whitelaw would interview Waterson in an attempt to get to the bottom of the UFC Fight Night 161 main event controversy. Referring back to the original ESPN report, Whitelaw asked Waterson for her take on the situation as it presently stands.
According to Waterson, “You know what, um, that is something that my management team is working on currently. It’s not something that I am focused on, I’m focused on fighting Joanna Saturday, that is my main focus and I hope that she is professional enough to make weight and put on a show for the people who came to watch.”
“We knew this was going to be hard for her to make the weight,” Waterson explained. “Coming from 125 after fighting Shevchenko, putting muscle on, and not just like, not just regular weight, actual muscle,” said Waterson. “And with the extent of how long it’s been since she’s fought, we knew it was going to be rough for her. But we figured if she wanted to have the advantage of being the bigger girl, that she would sacrifice and make the weight.”
Cutting right to the chase, Whitelaw asked Waterson point blank, “Would you fight her, if she can’t make the weight, would you fight her at a catch weight?”
“It depends,” said Waterson with a smile. “You know, like, I think that is the most frustrating part, because you know, her claim to the UFC is the strawweight queen. So, if you’re the strawweight queen, make strawweight weight,” a clever Waterson said with a laugh.
Interestingly, according to an October 9, 2019 Twitter social media post from TSN Sports UFC reporter Aaron Bronsteter, “Combate have updated the story and report that the UFC have given Michelle Waterson two choices: Face Joanna this weekend at a catchweight or face Jessica Andrade at UFC 244.”
In response to the Combate report, Showtime combat sports analyst Luke Thomas weighed in on the latest developments in the on-going saga with Jedrzejczyk’s alleged weight issues. “Imagine training for a particular fighter with specific skills and body type for weeks,” writes Thomas. And, “By no fault of your own, they come to you last minute & say ‘fight her heavy now or her opposite soon.’ This is one of those areas where fighters having less leverage than boxers is glaring,” opined Thomas.
With Waterson’s hand seemingly forced into a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation at UFC Fight Night 161, a glimpse of how promotions can ultimately make or break fighters is gleaned through questionable ultimatums and threats of unfavorable matchups should they not bow to the promotions demands.
While a cancelled main event would be disastrous for the Ultimate Fighting Championship and its affiliates, one cannot help but wonder if there was another way to approach this situation beyond ultimatums to athletes who have did absolutely nothing wrong in this equation beyond train to meet their contractual weight requirements.
If Joanna Jedrzejczyk has lost her strawweight queen crown, it should not be incumbent on Michelle Waterson to help her find it by conceding the size, strength and weight advantage to appease an opponent who did not walk the line. Michelle Waterson is playing with a stacked deck of cards with a free trip behind the woodshed as a consolation prize Saturday night. Unless Friday’s weigh-in yields a 116-pound strawweight limit Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Waterson’s knowledge of knowing when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, when to walk away and when to run is going to be tested.