After starring in a Saturday matinee, “The Texas Women’s Chainsaw Massacre,” and becoming a name who may in the future be the bane of future spelling bee participants, UFC’s strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk established herself as someone who should by all rights be one of the sport’s biggest stars.
Jedrzejczyk’s stand-up skills that turned Jessica Penne into a slasher movie victim appear light years ahead of the rest of her division. Her unique charm and charisma outside the cage look to be a godsend for the UFC in the European market.
The continent hadn’t produced a UFC champion since Tim Sylvia ended Andrei Arlovski’s heavyweight title run in 2006, a period before UFC had much of any exposure in that part of the world. When she won the championship, it was in a new and lighter weight division that was created for a reality show season and to give the company another few title matches annually to help fill almost weekly events.
Almost inherently, the more championships there are, the less they mean in a niche sport that thrives only when the casual fan that only knows the top names can be hyped into watching. By the looks of things, Jedrzejczyk is at best going to be remembered as the “other woman champion.”
So the question becomes if Jedrzejczyk (10-0) can become something other than the female version of Demetrious Johnson, a potential all-time great who is an albatross as a pay-per-view headliner? The fact Jedrzejczyk’s first title defense was put on Fight Pass in the United States tells you the company right now has no expectations of her to carry a big show on her own.
If more people saw her German bout, if nothing else, her appearances could be very viable television main events, or solid support for a strong main event pay-per-view. She is highly unlikely to be the next Rousey, but she can be a female Donald Cerrone, a personality who is a genuine star, an exciting and a potential bonus machine that is looked forward to as strong card support in every appearance.
Her stand-up destruction of Penne over three rounds was a marked contrast to the main event Bellator presented the night before, the “Age in the Cage” showdown between Kimbo Slice, an underground cult figure of a decade ago, and Ken Shamrock, one of the founding fathers of the sport, a decade before that.
Exactly what that fight was will be the subject of debate for years, but its success will be determined on Monday afternoon when the ratings come out. If it breaks all the Bellator records, as Scott Coker had predicted, then the public will have chosen to continue the current freak show fight direction made famous in Japan, for a No. 2 promotion that is desperate to break its brand into the mainstream. The most-watched event in Bellator history was a heavily maligned Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar fight. But as much as that fight was knocked, and it was not impressive, both were far more skilled than Slice ever came close to being, and both were more than a decade younger than Shamrock.
Whether it’s a wise idea or not, Ortiz is coming out of that fight challenging for Bellator’s light heavyweight title, so at least there was a direction out of that fight. Nobody, even for a split second, can entertain the idea of Slice parlaying his first round knockout win into the heavyweight title picture.
One would think this is the sad farewell to Shamrock, whose last true wins over championship level fighters were in 1995. The only idea that would feel like the slimmest chance that isn’t the case would be if the ratings were close to the Ortiz vs. Bonnar level, and Herschel Walker really wants to fight. If nothing else, that would at least be a match-up of two men near the same age, and be the first time Shamrock would have faced someone older than he is since 1996 and Dan Severn.
If Walker is going to fight, the freak show opponent that would make more sense is Slice, given that he at least won on Saturday. But that’s only if Slice was able to pull ratings on Friday. If he didn’t, the gig is up.
Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five stars of the two weekend events:
JOANNA JEDRZEJCZYK – The champion has what appears to be an obvious next destination against the winner of an Aug. 1 fight in Rio de Janeiro between former World Series of Fighting champion Jessica Aguilar (19-4) against Claudia Gadelha (12-1).
Many, if not most, felt Gadelha deserved the decision over Jedrzejczyk in their Dec. 13 fight that led to Jedrzejczyk getting her title win over Carla Esparza. There doesn’t appear to be a woman in the division capable of beating Jedrzejczyk standing. But Gadelha has proven she can win rounds off her with takedowns, and that she can survive her stand-up. Jedrzejczyk appears to have improved her takedown defense significantly since that fight, while Gadelha has battled back problems. It also could be that Penne and Esparza simply weren’t as good as Gadelha. Where Gadelha stands will be answered with the Aguilar fight.
MAKWAN AMIRKHANI – “Mr. Finland” (12-2) followed an eight-second knockout win in his UFC debut with a submission win in just 1:41 over Masio Fullen. That gave him 10 first-round wins in 14 pro fights. But while a series of quick victories are a good way to get instant attention, he’s yet to prove anything against even the level of competition that Erick Silva, who debuted in similar fashion, has done thus far.
The fact he lost a decision to unknown Adam Ward less than two years ago on the Finland circuit is a red flag about getting too excited. But Amirkhani does have the intangible of being able to be a star, particularly for the European market. He stood out both during his match, and after, on Saturday’s show as really the event’s second biggest star.
At this point, a couple of solid next tests look too be fighters right off Saturday’s show, in AKA’s Noad Lahat (9-1) and the debuting Arnold Allen (10-1). If he can get another quick win, it becomes a pattern. And what happens if he doesn’t win quick, would also answer a lot of questions as to whether he can be a player in the featherweight division.
KIMBO SLICE – Slice (5-2) at least won by knockout, but nobody can have any illusions where he stands. He’s 41, his takedown defense was atrocious, and he’s got nothing going for him past the point that at one point, he was setting television viewing records for the sport. But in a business that survives based on television revenue, that is one valuable credential.
One would have thought interest in him would wane when he was knocked out by Seth Petruzelli, but his fight with Roy Nelson in the Ultimate Fighter house, on tape delay, still holds the all-time MMA cable ratings record with more than six million viewers. Even with all his appeal, Slice washed out of UFC relatively quickly, and UFC isn’t in a habit of getting rid of business movers. So they bet on the idea they had gotten whatever they could out of him and there was no blood left from that turnip.
Five years later, Bellator gambled. The reality of Slice is that he has no chance at this point against any serious heavyweight. If he didn’t draw Saturday, there is no upside of bringing him back. If he did draw big, he’s coming back, and then the question becomes how do you use him?
It has to be a celebrity fight, and Bellator isn’t exactly filled with celebrity fighters. Short of pulling a Randy Couture out of retirement, it’s probably limited to Tito Ortiz, Bobby Lashley or Walker. Lashley is on a winning streak and probably should be tested next by a serious fighter, particularly since, at 39, if he ever wants to test himself, the time is now. Ortiz is going for the light heavyweight title in September, so won’t be available any time soon. Unless there’s a celebrity tough guy we don’t know of who wants to give MMA a try, there doesn’t appear to be a slew of viable options.
PATRICIO “PITBULL” FREIRE – Bellator’s featherweight champion, Freire (24-2) paced a night of come-from-behind wins. He appeared just about finished late in the first round of his title defense against Daniel Weichel. Many thought the ending of the round was ref John McCarthy calling the fight. Freire seemed on the verge of going down again when the second round started, until he delivered a counter left hook that flattened Weichel.
One would think next on his agenda would be a defense against Daniel Straus (23-6), who used a guillotine to beat an overmatched Henry Corrales earlier on the card. Freire has two wins over Straus in Bellator, a decision in 2011 and a submission on Jan. 16, the latter coming late in the fourth round of a fight Straus had been winning. It was one of the unheralded better television fights of this year, and seems like a natural direction with both winning on Bellator’s biggest event this year.
MICHAEL CHANDLER – Chandler (13-3) was Bellator’s franchise star two years ago during the Bjorn Rebney era, beating Eddie Alvarez in what most would call the greatest fight the company ever produced. But after losing controversial split decisions to Alvarez, and then Will Brooks, he followed with another loss to Brooks on Nov. 15 in a fight he didn’t look good in.
Chandler came across like a major star on Friday and was the most impressive fighter on the card. Fighting in St. Louis, the market he grew up and went to college in, he kicked off the live broadcast and couldn’t have looked more impressive. Chandler scored a knockdown, delivered a suplex nearly onto Campos’ head, and finished him with a choke in 2:17.
The problem here is Brooks beat him twice in 2014, and the second time was decisive. Marcin Held (21-3), with six wins in a row including a tournament win, should get the next shot at Brooks.
There is not a lot of depth in the division, but the next three guys on the Bellator ladder would appear to be Dave Jansen (20-3), who Brooks just retained his title against, Alexander Sarnavskiy (30-3) who Held just beat, or David Rickels (16-3), who faces John Alessio on June 26 in Mulvane, Kansas. But Chandler beat Rickels in a 2013 title defense in just 44 seconds.
If Rickels does win Friday, he’s the only one coming off a win. Jansen was not competitive with Brooks, and just faced him so I’d eliminate him. If Rickels loses, that would leave Sarnavskiy. The lack of depth in Bellator benefits Chandler, because with one more win, even against Brooks, he’s the best guy for the title shot.