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Listening to Joanna Jedrzejczyk, the former UFC strawweight champion, talking about her epic 2020 title challenge in Las Vegas against Zhang Weili, my thoughts drifted to the legendary golfer Tom Watson.
Only five golfers have won more major championships than the eight that Watson claimed. He won 80 tournaments around the world including 39 on the PGA Tour. But he was winless on the PGA Tour in 1974 when he carried the lead in the U.S. Open into the final round.
Watson shot 79 that day and finished fifth. It would have been, for most golfers, a disastrous day that could have ruined them forever.
For Watson, it was the turning point in his career and what helped make him a legend.
“I learned how to win,” Watson said much later in his career, “by losing and not liking it.”
And that’s pretty much where Jedrzejczyk finds herself heading into Saturday’s rematch with Zhang on the main card of UFC 275 in Singapore. She lost one of the greatest fights in UFC history and, with it, the opportunity to regain the UFC’s strawweight title.
But her performance was more than just good; it was great. And she realizes that she easily could have won that bout and changed both her career arc and the public perception of her.
Nothing negative came out of it in her mind, though. She sustained bumps and bruises that time has healed, but no major physical injuries and, more significantly, nothing that damaged her psyche or her belief in herself.
“I beat people for a living,” she told Yahoo Sports. “I beat people for money. Sometimes I get beat up and I get a few extra bruises, but it doesn’t impact me. It gives me extra strength, motivation. It shows me my mistakes. It showed me my mistakes I made in the first fight so I could fix that. And now I’m better, you know?
“I’ve been sharpening my tools, making some adjustments. So the second fight with Weili Zhang, I just need to be smarter and not make the same mistakes I did in the first fight. And no, there is no impact on me, physically or mentally.”
Jedrzejczyk is a highly accomplished striker and has been elite for her eight-year run in the UFC. She’s had her ups and downs and has lost five of her last seven bouts. But she’s never lost to a non-champion in her MMA career and believes that each loss was a learning moment which turned into a building block for future success.
Her greatness comes not because of her physical skills, which are considerable, but because of how she approaches the game.
Everything revolves around winning the title. When she’s champion, her only focus is on keeping the belt by any means necessary. When she’s in non-title fights, her point is to better position herself for a future title challenge.
She was filming a commercial for Puma when she made a telling comment about her approach to her work.
“They asked me what it mean to be the greatest,” she said. “I feel like greatest means not losing faith in yourself [no matter what] and this is who I have always been, forever.”
So Jedrzejczyk put the loss to Zhang aside very shortly after it occurred and has devoted her energy to reclaiming her throne. UFC president Dana White told Yahoo Sports that the Zhang-Jedrzejczyk winner will likely face new champion Carla Esparza next.
That’s where Jedrzejczyk has her focus and she likely wouldn’t have ended her 26-month sabbatical had she not been assured she’d fight for the title next with a win.
Like most fighters, she came from humble beginnings. In her early days as a fighter, she had to decide whether to hop a bus to go train or buy food. She was almost completely broke.
And fighters in the beginning have to humble themselves greatly. But she never once lost focus on why she put herself through what she did.
“You have to wipe the mat with your face, and people are not ready for this,” Jedrzejczyk said. “But somehow, we still love it, especially when you reach the [UFC]. I mean, when you reach the championship, when you get the championship belt, it’s like when you’ve made it to the league. ‘Hey, I made it to the league!’
“I’m hungry for the belt but it has a different meaning. … I’m hungry, but I know this one victory will be bigger than all of my victories [prior].”