UFC

The unbreakable Joanna Jedrzejczyk part 1: The evolution of a champion

FOX Sports presents an inside look at Joanna Jedrzejczyk ahead of her fight at UFC 211 in Dallas. In part one of our three part series, Jedrzejczyk looks back on her first days as a fighter long before she was competing in the UFC.

It's hard to imagine Joanna Jedrzejczyk as anything but a fighter.

As the UFCs strawweight champion, Jedrzejczyk has become one of the most ferocious fighters on the entire roster while amassing four straight title defenses and becoming one of the faces of the organization.

But her current status as UFC champion is a far cry from where Jedrzejczyk started her athletic career.

Growing up in Poland, Jedrzejczyk was the middle of three children with a twin sister born 25 minutes after she was, as well as another sister, who is six years older than her. As a kid, Jedrzejczyk didn't grow up with aspirations to become a UFC champion.

In fact, Jedrzejczyk didn't come from a family filled with athletes, so there was no road map laid out for what kind of sport she should get into.

So she just explored all of them.

"I was very active. I don't have ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] but I was very active. I was always full of energy and I was always into sport," Jedrzejczyk told FOX Sports. "I didn't have any athletes in my family so I didn't have someone who could push me into sports. I used to represent my school at like volleyball, basketball, soccer, hockey and other sports but I was still a complete girl.

"I didn't have any idea that I'd be a professional athlete one day."

As Jedrzejczyk began testing the waters in all manners of competition, she eventually fell in love with basketball, which is where she stayed until she was 13 years old.

That's when the bottom fell out on her athletic endeavors.

"I played basketball until I was 13 but then I stopped because I had some problems with my liver," Jedrzejczyk explained. "It was surprising because I didn't have any health problems but when I got to the [next level] basketball team, I started having issues with my liver.

"At that time, I went to the doctor with my mother and he said I could not train and I should change my diet because my liver is like three-fourths a centimeter bigger than other kids my age. It was kind of serious."

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It broke Jedrzejczyk's heart that she could no longer play basketball or any other sport for that matter and it appeared that athletic competition was no longer in her future.

Still, Jedrzejczyk needed a creative outlet that sports once provided so she began dabbling in other activities, including an exploration into photography.

While it might seem random for a teenage girl to suddenly take up photography as an interest, Jedrzejczyk had an eye for it and it didnt long for her to completely immerse herself into that activity as sports faded to the background at least temporarily.

"I stopped training basketball, and I stopped doing hard exercises. But I wanted to do something. I was looking for something else so I started taking pictures," Jedrzejczyk said. "I bought a professional camera, it was a Nikon and I was 16 or 17 at that age. The camera was expensive but I saved up for so long to get it and my father said 'are you really going to buy this camera it's so expensive!' My parents always give me advice and some tips, but it was my choice what I was going to do and they just wanted me to be happy."

As much as she loved photography, Jedrzejczyk still didn't get the satisfaction from it the way that she did when stepping onto a court and feeling the thrill of victory. Add to that, Jedrzejczyk just had too much drive to completely stop doing athletics so she began searching for a new sport that could feed her need to stay active.

Thankfully, the issues Jedrzejczyk had with her liver had subsided as she came closer and closer to graduation from high school, and that's when she discovered martial arts for the first time.

Jedrzejczyk had actually tried out a taekwondo class previously, but was admittedly bored by it. This time around, however, Jedrzejczyk wandered into a different martial arts academy that taught a hybrid of fighting styles, including the one she fell in love with the most.

"I went for my first martial arts class. It was a mix between karate, Muay Thai and I couldn't even say Muay Thai at that time, but after one [class] I knew this is what I liked. I didn't have any health issues anymore," Jedrzejczyk said.

"I think this was a sign from God 'stop doing basketball, there is something better waiting for you. It was hard what I had to go through but in the end there was success waiting for me."

Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

At that point, to say that Jedrzejczyk fell in love with fighting would be a vast understatement.

What started as a new athletic endeavor soon developed into a full blown obsession as Jedrzejczyk started going to classes three or four times per week as her development as a Muay Thai practitioner really started to progress.

It was definitely a passion project because Jedrzejczyk had no idea that it would ever develop into a career, much less that she'd ever really make any money doing it. She just loved fighting and that feeling pushed her further and further into the sport.

"I was training twice a week and then three, four [times] a week. After three months, I had my first serious sparring and after that, I knew I wanted to do this with my life," Jedrzejczyk said. "I wanted to be a professional fighter. After six months, I went for the first competition and after I won the gold medal, I said this is what I want to do for my life even though it cost me so much. Because there was no money at that time. I went through it. I'm happy because it was my way.

"God gave me a talent and I'm happy I can share this talent with other people."

As much as Jedrzejczyk was falling in love with fighting, her family wasn't exactly on board.

It's not to say that they didn't support her, but Jedrzejczyk admits that in the beginning her mother and father both thought martial arts was just another phase like she had gone through with volleyball, basketball, climbing and photography in the past.

"They thought I wasn't serious. I was serious. I was exploring my life. I was looking for something," Jedrzejczyk explained.

Jedrzejczyk will also never forget the look on her father's face when she walked back into the house after her first hard sparring session with an opponent. With kicks and punches often come cuts and bruises and Jedrzejczyk was sporting a bloody nose on that particular day when she ran into her father after practice.

There was an unmistakable look of concern on his face because no father wants to see their daughter harmed, even if it's for the sake of a sport, but Jedrzejczyk had no intention of stepping away from fighting.

While her twin sister went off to college before eventually becoming an accountant, Jedrzejczyk was completely enveloped in martial arts with a budding career that would see her travel to Holland and Thailand looking for competition.

"My father was like 'please don't do this. I saw a blink in his eyes when I came back from my first sparring and I had some tissues in my nose because it was bleeding. He was like 'you are a girl you shouldn't do this!' but I saw that he was also super happy for me and excited," Jedrzejczyk said. "Fighting seems like it's more for the guys. It's not but they'll always worry about my health. It's dangerous but they know that I'm training smart. I've done so many courses with sports and diet so they know I take care of myself.

"They were like 'if you want to do this, do it' but for so many years my father said 'don't do this, get through your studies, get a good job, because life goes so fast and you're not going see it when you're already an adult' but I told him this is what I want to do with my life. This is who I am. I feel this is what God wants me to do."

Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Over time, her parents realized that she wasn't doing martial arts as some activity to fill her time away from school and this was the career she was going to pursue.

While it was tough for them to concede to her passion for fighting, Jedrzejczyk knows her parents concern was coming from a place of love, and that's all that really mattered to her.

"My parents taught me how to work hard. How to respect money, how to respect people and how to be a person full of faith and believe in God. They just wanted me to be safe and have a good life," Jedrzejczyk said. "They wanted me to have a good job and have kids. There is a time for everything."

As her career flourished, Jedrzejczyk always had her family right by her side and that never wavered whether she was fighting in the dingiest dungeons with only dozens of people watching to the moment when she stepped into the Octagon at UFC 193 in Australia with more than 56,000 fans in attendance.

Jedrzejczyk says that her father and sisters have attended her fights in the past, but her mom still hasn't been able to witness her in action just yet.

"My father was at my first title defense against Jessica Penne in Berlin, [Germany]. My mother doesn't watch my fights. She panics too much," Jedrzejczyk said with a sly smile on her face. "I will be 30 this year but for my parents, I'm still a child."

Last year, Jedrzejczyk left her family and fianc behind in Poland when she moved to the United States to join American Top Team in Florida as she continued her evolution as a champion in the UFC.

It was a difficult decision because Jedrzejczyk is extremely close with her family, but she also knew it was the best move for her fighting career.

Given all the sacrifices she's made -- from all those years spent toiling away on the fringe of the sport, where money is at a minimum to leaving everyone she loved in Poland behind so she could join a new team in America -- Jedrzejczyk knows her family would love nothing more than to see her hang up the gloves and come back home again.

"Sometimes my father's like 'Joanna, you train so hard, you work so hard, you live by yourself far away from us, maybe it's enough' but I tell my father, I cant leave it like this right now," Jedrzejczyk explained. "I've been working so hard, 10 years to this point and I cannot just leave it. I invested in myself for 10 or 11 years. I used to not make money in that and I want to enjoy my life for a little bit.

"I know for part of my life I've been competing a lot and traveling a lot and I lost a few things in my life. But I think I'm blessed and I was chosen to be a champion and that's why I am here. I know that I put in so much hard work so maybe a year [from now] or two years I could just retire. That's all and enjoy my life for the rest of my life."

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As tough as it's been living far away from home, Jedrzejczyk is still definitely enjoying her life as she prepares for her fifth title defense against Jessica Andrade at UFC 211 in Dallas.

When she's not training, Jedrzejczyk still finds time to enjoy her past passions, including a trip to the basketball court every now and again. In fact just recently, Jedrzejczyk and her trainers went to shoot some hoops and they ended up playing a pick-up game with some teenagers who just happened to be playing on the same court.

Little did the teens know, that they were going up against one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet.

"It was amazing because we went there to play for like 15 or 20 minutes but we ended up playing for like an hour. We were sweating like crazy and it was amazing," Jedrzejczyk said about the pick-up game.

Photography is still a hobby for Jedrzejczyk as well, and she's currently looking to invest in a new camera as she continues to take pictures whenever she has some free time.

Those moments are admittedly sporadic because Jedrzejczyk is mostly focused on her fighting career because she knows it can't last forever. She doesn't have an exact timetable on how much longer she will compete, but Jedrzejczyk wants to soak it all in for as long as she possibly can.

And right now, Jedrzejczyk can't think of anything she'd rather be doing than reigning over the UFC's strawweight division as champion of the world.

"Here I am. I'm the UFC strawweight champion. I'm about to defend my title for the fifth time, and I want to keep on doing this and keep on proving that I'm the best," Jedrzejczyk said.

"I know I will be a good mother in the future. I will be a good businesswoman in the future but now it's time to be an athlete. To be the baddest chick on the planet."

In part two of 'The unbreakable Joanna Jedrzejczyk' coming this Wednesday, her coaches and teammates explain what makes 'Joanna Champion' such a ferocious competitor inside the gym and how that translates to making her a champion in the Octagon.

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