- in In Pictures
Joanna Jedrzejczyk had just returned to her locker room after a brutal fight with Zhang Weili at UFC 248.
Jedrzejczyk had fought to the finish in what was, according to UFC president Dana White, “one of the best” contests in MMA history.
The Polish fighter knew her face was disfigured. She just didn’t realise just how much until she looked in the mirror.
“I was like ‘holy moly’,” she told BBC Sport. “I looked like a zombie.”
‘JJ’ had a gruesome swelling on her forehead. One of her eyes had swollen shut. She had suffered a huge haematoma.
Her twin sister had to help her take a shower before the fighter, 32, spent the night in a Las Vegas hospital.
“One day I’ll post pictures of how I looked,” she said. “It was so funny; some people didn’t even recognise me.”
Thankfully she can laugh about it now; the result still hurts, though.
Already considered an MMA great, Jedrzejczyk aimed to regain the strawweight title on 7 March from Weili, who was making her first defence after becoming China’s first UFC champion.
Weili’s right eye closed up early, then Jedrzejczyk’s forehead started swelling in the third round. The swollen section got so big that her physio was afraid it would burst. “It could’ve scarred half my face,” said Jedrzejczyk.
“It was so painful. For a split-second, I questioned if I should stop, but I was still going forward.”
The pair traded blows for five rounds. In 25 minutes they exchanged 351 significant strikes – the third-most in UFC history. Jedrzejczyk threw more, 186 in fact – the most ever in a UFC defeat – as Weili clinched a split decision.
Despite the swelling, the Pole didn’t suffer any permanent damage – but for a “broken heart and a scar on my soul”.
Within two days, the swelling had gone. At one point, the bruising almost covered her entire face – but within three weeks that had cleared too.
“I knew I’d heal,” Jedrzejczyk said. “I was more mad at myself because I wanted to have a few nice days in Vegas with my friends and family! But this is the price we pay. I’ve been doing this for 17 years so I know the game.”
Jedrzejczyk’s path to UFC began when she tried kick-boxing to lose weight and “fell in love” with it, becoming a multiple Muay Thai world champion before switching to MMA in 2012.
“I love to challenge myself,” she said. “Limits are only in our heads, and every day I was working on the edge. Every day I faced my fears.
“MMA’s violent, but it’s not just about smashing people. For me, it’s about the sport, the competition, the respect.”
Taking care of herself – and her future – means a lot to Jedrzejczyk. If the mood takes her, she’ll wear a dress and high heels for UFC events.
“I’m an athlete but I’m a woman too and I want to look like one,” she said. “This sport can change your body and your mind, and it’s a big thing for women. I’m happy the UFC take good care of us because in the future I want to be a mum and a businesswoman.”
One look at her Instagram – which lists her sponsorship deals – tells you she’s already business savvy, but she hopes to study for an MBA and own a coffee shop. During the lockdown, she has started Spanish and piano lessons.
“There is life outside the gym,” she added. “My biggest opponent is time because there are only 24 hours in the day and I have so many things going on.
“I’m just trying to live my best life. In or out of the cage, with or without the belt, I carry myself as a champ and work on my legacy, every single day.”
She’s also caught up with James Arthur. The British singer-songwriter spotted her name while doing an Instagram Live and gave her a shout-out, saying she’s “one of my favourite sportspeople on the planet”.
They’ve kept in touch since Jedrzejczyk messaged Arthur to say the walk-out song for her fight with Michelle Waterson last October would be ‘Back from the Edge’, the title track of his 2016 album.
“I love his lyrics and how he is, he’s a great guy,” she said. “We support each other. It took a long journey to be where he is. Music and sport are the same, and if you want to be, say, an actor, a lawyer or a surgeon – you need to believe in yourself and work hard.”
That song choice was apt. Jedrzejczyk had lost three of her previous four fights. But victory over Waterson and her performance against Weili means her UFC legacy hasn’t been written just yet.
“It showed that I’m still one of the best,” she said. “I was the champ for a reason, I’m still competing at a championship level and people want to see a rematch. I will be back.”