UFC 248: Joanna Jedrzejczyk on the road to redemption as she looks to cement her legacy

When former UFC women's strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzeczyk looks back at the moment that forever altered her career -- if not her reputation -- she doesn't pull any punches regarding the impact. 

Just over two years ago, Jedrzejczyk (16-3) entered New York's Madison Square Garden one victory away from tying Ronda Rousey's record for most title defenses by a female fighter. She exited UFC 217, however, without her 115-pound title following a stunning first-round knockout loss to Rose Namajunas. 

"I have been in this business for 17 years. I am a six-time muay Thai world champion, five times European muay Thai champion. I carried the strawweight belt for more than two years," Jedrzecjzyk told CBS Sports on Monday in New York. "But there is a scar on my soul and my heart, and even after this win on Saturday, it is still going to be there."

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The 32-year-old Jedrzejczyk enters the co-main event of UFC 248 this weekend with a chance to become the first female fighter in the promotion's history to regain a title she once held. She'll need to get past the very dangerous Zhang Weili (20-1), a 30-year-old native of China who is making her first title defense and riding a 20-fight win streak, in order to do so. 

There's certainly little question as to how important a victory would be to Jedrzeczyk's career. In fact, Jedrzejczyk went as far as saying "it's going to be bigger than my whole fighting career" and would "cement my legacy." Whether or not she would do so amid the reception of a conquering hero from the T-Mobile Arena crowd and those watching from afar, however, remains up for debate. 

Once upon a time, Jedrzejczyk entered the promotion for her first fight against Namajunas in 2017 as a celebrated darling of the sport. Spunky and fun outside of the cage, the self-proclaimed "Boogie Woman" and "Joanna Champion" was a killer inside of it. She may not have been an overnight sensation comparable to Rousey, but she was closing in on her from a critical standpoint and was teasing the possibility of becoming a breakout star, especially in her native Poland where she was piling up endorsement deals. 

Everything seemed to change as the fight drew closer. Jedrzejczyk was labeled a bully for how ruthlessly she mocked Namajunas, going as far as insulting her opponent's family history with mental illness. The subsequent knockout loss, in which Jedrzejczyk admittedly endured the worst weight cut of her career, also led to the unraveling of the entire empire she built around her. 

An overhaul of her team followed, as did a breakup with her fiancee. What didn't follow, however, was success inside the cage. Jedrzejczyk went on to drop two of her next three fights including a competitive (and disputed) five-round decision against Namajunas in their rematch and an ill-advised move up to 125 pounds in a one-sided loss to former kickboxing rival Valentina Shevchenko in their vacant flyweight title bout. 

"Some people made a big mistake before I lost the belt," Jedrzejczyk said. "It's not my excuse because it's true. This is what I do. I'm real and I'm very honest. People are hurt because they hear all the time the same story from me, over and over. But this is the truth."

Jedrzejczyk was able to quiet talk of her being past her prime following the Shevchenko defeat with a performance against Michelle Waterson in October that saw a return of the in-cage swagger and crisp striking that was once her calling card.

"The time without the belt was actually OK [because] I found out more about myself as a human so I can be a better athlete," Jedrzejczyk said. "The focus I have and determination and motivation I feel is probably the best in my life. 

"Sometimes we have to lose something or lose some people to gain more. This is what happened in my personal life and my life as an athlete. I'm here happy and ready to rock and roll and take over the world again."

Subsequent title losses for both Namajunas and her successor Jessica Andrade in their first defenses also opened up an unlikely window for Jedrzejczyk to sneak back into the title picture.

But about that negative image. It's a topic Jedrzejczyk is somewhat defensive -- if not outright dismissive about -- when asked about the perceptions of her being a bully. 

"No, I don't do trash talking. Some people are like, 'Yes, you do.' No, I don't do it because I don't insult my opponents," Jedrzejczyk said. "Very often there are interviews or materials on the internet that are not true and very often people hear the rumor but it isn't true. This is life of a celebrity. I'm not a celebrity, I'm myself. I'm the same Joanna I was 10 or 15 years ago but people like gossip, they like reading news stories and adding new lines to it."

The problem is, it's not just gossip. Jedrzejczyk brought on a whole new level of criticism after posting (and later deleting) a fight poster for UFC 248 on social media that saw her wearing a gas mask. The meme was met with xenophobic accusations against how Chinese people are perceived, especially within the current crisis of the coronavirus outbreak that has spread worldwide. 

Zhang took understandable objection and responded on Instagram by saying, "To make fun of tragedy is a true sign of ones character. People are dying -- someones father, someones mother, someones child. Say what you want about me if it makes you feel stronger but do not joke about what's happening here. I wish you good health until March 7th. I will see you soon."

Although Jedrzejczyk went on to apologize during an interview with ESPN, she hedged it just a bit by saying Zhang "got a little bit too emotional." Zhang has said she will use the slight as more motivation for the fight, which comes after she was forced to move her training camp three separate times on three different continents to outrun he spread of the illness. 

Asked about any lingering ill will between her and Zhang, Jedrzejczyk once again downplayed it by saying, "Not really, not really. She doesn't speak English." She went on to detail at length what she believes is simply a misunderstanding about her character and motivations. 

"I know who I am. I don't have to prove to people who I really am because I know who is Joanna Jedrzejczyk as a human and an athlete," she said. "I've been in this business for 17 years and there are people who are going to doubt me every day in my personal life, my business life and my sports life. I don't care. I'm living my best life and I'm doing the job. Whether with the belt or without the belt, I carry myself as a champ because I made it to where I am today. Show me another strawweight who is that decorated in the UFC. 

"They don't know me and they are trying to judge me but they don't know me. I don't really care because I know the messages that I get from my fans all over the world every single day. At the end of the day, I don't care about it. It's the fight game. This world is very aggressive and there are surprises but for me it's all closed and in a small box. There is violence but it's sports violence. You have to be aggressive because this is fighting. There is no time to play a game and there is no room for a game in martial arts. If someone is trying to tell me that I'm weak or I'm not going to win, I stand my ground."

Jedrzejczyk was also equally quick to dispel the idea that her and Namajunas are still feuding. Should Jedrzejczyk regain her title and Namajunas get past Andrade in their April rematch, it's only natural fans and critics would be clamoring for a third fight between them. 

"No, I'm good with Rose. We talk to each other and support each other -- not often, we are not friends -- but we are good and respect each other," Jedrzejczyk said. "I just wanted my belt. It's not like I want to face someone and I want revenge. It's not about revenge. The revenge is the best served cold so there is a time for everything."

Zhang captured the title last August on home soil with a shocking 42-second dismantling of an overly aggressive Andrade, whom Jedrzejczyk defeated by decision in their 2017 title bout. The former strawweight queen believes the fact that the title has changed hands three times since she last held it proves "that I was the champ for a reason." 

In order to win her belt back, however, Jedrzejczyk knows she is in for a tough test. While she respects Zhang's strength, musculature and potential advantage on the ground, Jedrzejczyk believes the difference will come down to experience. 

Zhang has just four UFC fights under her belt and has never fought past the third round. Jedrzejczyk, meanwhile, once held the title for 966 days and has gone the five-round championship distance six times. 

"I will have to be very smart in this fight and then use my weapons and tools like my reach, my distance, my footwork and my jab," Jedrzejczyk said. "There are so many aces in my pocket but let's not talk about it. I will show it on Saturday. 

"She hasn't faced someone like me. I have been through this five rounds for the belt so many times and my condition is always good. With every round, I do more. I figure out a way how to beat my opponents and I'm a warrior. I'm a real five-round fighter and the experience is on my side. I know she is 20-1 and most of her fights were in China but this is going to be my 14th fight in the UFC and 10 have been for the belt. I'm a real fighter and a real warrior so when I step into the Octagon, I'm a different monster." 

For the first time since she first won a UFC title in 2015 by blitzing Carla Esparza at UFC 185, Jedrzejczyk believes she has nothing to lose and none of the pressure. What will be most interesting to see is whether the goodwill and humility she once had can be regained along with her coveted title. 

CBS Sports Insider

Brian Campbell covers MMA, boxing and WWE. The Connecticut native joined CBS Sports in 2017 and has covered combat sports since 2010. He has written and hosted various podcasts and digital shows for ESPN... Full Bio

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