If you can’t pronounce her name, then just call her “champ.” That will work just fine for Polish strawweight titleholder Joanna Jędrzejczyk. The undefeated 27-year-old star has taken the UFC’s 115-pound division by storm. First, she ruined Claudia Gadelha’s path to a championship bout. Then, she topped the champ to claim the gold.
Now, Jędrzejczyk returns to defend her title in a championship affair that will air exclusively on the UFC Fight Pass digital subscription network. Her challenger is a former Invicta atomweight champion and a member of The Ultimate Fighter 20 inaugural strawweight title tournament. That woman, of course, is Jessica Penne. Penne’s high initial ranking within the division and a close win over Randa Markos earned the former 105-pounder the title berth. But can Penne step up to the challenge in a weight class above the one where she found most of her success?
Before the ladies battle for gold, a slew of up-and-comers and a pair of aging veterans take to the Octagon in the hopes of advancing their own stock. Featherweights Tatsuya Kawajiri and Dennis Siver never really made waves in the UFC’s 145-pound division, but they’ll try to start one more run when they lock horns in the co-headliner.
The main card also features local favorite Peter Sobotta against fellow welterweight Steven Kennedy and a lightweight clash that pits Nick Hein against Lukasz Sajewski.
The action kicks off with a seven-fight preliminary card at noon E.T. on June 20. The main card of the event, which takes place at the O2 World in Berlin, Germany, kicks off at 3 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Eric Reinert and Bryan Henderson break down the card in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
UFC Fight Pass gets a title fight to headline this UFC Fight Night 69 card. Women’s strawweight champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk puts her belt on the line against former Invicta atomweight champ Jessica Penne. Penne has only won one fight since exiting The Ultimate Fighter house, and that was via split decision. Does she deserve this crack at the belt, and can she put up a legitimate challenge against the champ?
Reinert: I believe the answers to these questions are “yes” and “yes.”
Take one look at the UFC strawweight rankings as well as a bit of MMA history and it becomes clear that Penne makes the most sense to face Jędrzejczyk. Penne is currently ranked No. 3 on the UFC’s list, but the only fighters ranked ahead of her (Carla Esparza and Claudia Gadelha) have both lost to Jędrzejczyk already. Ranked immediately below Penne is Rose Namajunas, who lost to Esparza in the UFC’s first strawweight title fight, and Tecia Torres, who just beat Angela Hill this past Saturday. If the UFC passes Penne over, it would then have to look outside its top five for Jędrzejczyk’s next opponent, and that’s not really a good look this early in a division’s existence.
Keep in mind, too, that Penne is a former Invicta atomweight champion, and has faced some of the best fighters in MMA’s lightest divisions along the way. More than anything, it’s this experience that makes me think Penne will be able to hang with the champion at least for a little while on Saturday.
In the end, though, Jędrzejczyk has been just too impressive to bet against. Penne is a world-class mixed martial artist, but at age 32 she’s probably just past her athletic prime. More than that, I think we’re seeing the start of a long-term reign at 115 pounds for Jędrzejczyk, who is too complete a fighter right now to be bested by anyone else in the division. It’ll be Jędrzejczyk prevailing on Saturday, and I think she’ll dominate all five rounds.
Henderson: I’ll agree with my colleague on one of the two answers. Penne does deserve the crack at the belt, but she won’t put up much of a challenge against Jędrzejczyk.
Penne’s high ranking extended to her seeding on The Ultimate Fighter 20, where she entered the championship tournament ranked No. 4, submitted Lisa Ellis in the preliminary round and went on to decision Aisling Daly in the quarterfinals before suffering a loss to Esparza in the semis. She essentially snagged her high ranking with her performances on the show and confirmed it when she eked out a split decision over Randa Markos at the TUF 20 Finale. Her record does make her the top candidate for the shot. There’s no argument about that.
However, Penne belongs at 105 pounds, not at 115 pounds. She’s one of many female athletes who have recently shifted weight classes in an effort to make it to the UFC, where there are only two current choices — 115 pounds or 135 pounds — for the ladies. However, if the options weren’t so limited, you’d probably find Penne competing as an atomweight again.
Penne was submitted by Michelle Waterson in an Invicta atomweight title fight and lost to Zoila Frausto via unanimous decision in a Bellator strawweight bout. Those losses don’t bode well for Penne as she heads into a fight with the top strawweight fighter in the world. If a smaller, albeit elite, competitor and mid-tier strawweight could hand Penne losses, then Penne is sure to suffer another defeat against someone who enjoys the size of a strawweight and an arsenal that allowed her to edge Gadelha on the scorecards and finish Esparza. This one doesn’t go a full five rounds. Instead, it ends via TKO in the middle rounds as Jędrzejczyk holds onto her belt.
Tatsuya Kawajiri and Dennis Siver occupy the co-headlining slot of this event. Both men found success as lightweights and then shifted down to the featherweight division, where they were expected to do big things, especially in Kawajiri’s case. That hasn’t been the case, however, with Kawajiri going just 1-1 inside the Octagon so far and Siver posting a 3-2 mark with one no-contest. Did these men miss their window of opportunity as featherweights, or can one (or both) of them turn things around and become a contender?
Henderson: If the window hasn’t closed on these two men, it’s on its way to slamming shut. Kawajiri, whose glory years came in Pride and Dream, just turned 37 and Siver is 36. They have a few competitive years left at best, and neither has been tearing it up lately. However, there’s still time for at least one of these men to make a final charge up the ladder.
Let’s give Kawajiri’s UFC run the benefit of the doubt. He overcame any Octagon jitters in his promotional debut and disposed of Sean Soriano by way of submission. His lone UFC loss came against Clay Guida, the same man who handed Anthony Pettis a loss early in “Showtime’s” UFC career before the Roufusport fighter went on to capture gold. Guida’s style can allow him to play spoiler to any fighter, even some of the best. However, while forgiving Kawajiri for his performance against Guida, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that he tends to come up short against the very best fighters he’s met, be it Guida, Eddie Alvarez, Gilbert Melendez, Takanori Gomi or Shinya Aoki. The only exception for Kawajiri came in his victory over Josh Thomson. He is quite capable of climbing up the contender’s ladder, but when he gets to the top few rungs, he might stumble and fall again.
Siver doesn’t get quite the same benefit of the doubt. His UFC tenure has included a lot more setbacks. He lost three of his first four Octagon appearances, exited the promotion for one fight and then returned to win nine of his next 11 in the UFC, which is admittedly pretty impressive. His shift to featherweight near the end of that run put him in a prominent position and therefore slotted him into match-ups against surging contenders like Cub Swanson and Conor McGregor. Siver didn’t stand a chance against those men, both of whom handed him TKO losses. He’s less likely to make a run at a title, but he’s an established name who will continue to draw tough opponents.
When it comes to the showdown between these two veterans, it’s really a question of whether Kawajiri is capable of breaking through and proving that he can succeed inside the Octagon against anyone of any relevance. Siver is not a pushover. The German fighter has a strong striking arsenal and sufficient takedown defense. But Kawajiri is a bruiser with a strong wrestling base, something that’s not all that common for a Japanese fighter. If Kawajiri can’t plant Siver on the mat or tag him on the feet, Kawajiri’s future UFC potential might not look so bright.
The one wild card in this encounter is its setting. Siver is enjoying the opportunity to fight in his homeland, whereas Kawajiri will be fighting in Europe for the first time in his career. That could tilt this contest in Siver’s favor, but it’s not enough to sell me on the idea of a Siver victory. This is Kawajiri’s chance to finally start building some momentum, and he’ll take full advantage. He’ll use his wrestling to tie up Siver and outwork the German fighter. Kawajiri either scores a late TKO or settles for the decision.
Reinert: Even by my standards, Bryan’s is a very generous assessment of these fighters.
All you need to know about what I think here can be summed up in my colleague’s first sentence: Kawajiri is 37 and Siver is 36. If they were heavyweights, then we might be able to talk about possible contendership. Who, after all, would have ever thought we’d be referring to Fabricio Werdum (also 37) as UFC champion? The featherweight division, on the other hand, is one dominated by men on the other side of 35.
With all due respect to these two MMA veterans, their position in the UFC’s rankings is likely due to the thin nature of the division outside of its top 10 more than the possibility for either to challenge for the title. Siver has won just one fight since 2012, and Kawajiri’s lone UFC victory (against Soriano, who is 0-3 in the UFC) doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that he can compete against the fighters ranked above him. Barring a major surprise, the winner of this fight basically gets his money doubled up and the opportunity to either a.) take on one of the division’s younger, ranked fighters or b.) serve as gatekeeper to one of the more talented featherweight up-and-comers. Neither path is one that ends with Siver or Kawajiri challenging for a contender’s spot.
Saturday’s co-main event could, however, end up being a fairly entertaining fight. Both of these fighters have finished more than half of their opponents inside the distance, and they’ll surely be looking to stand out in an effort to get just a little more of the UFC’s spotlight shining on them. I’m hoping for a slugfest, with Siver getting the eventual knockout.
This event features a very top-heavy card, with well-known fighters in the top-billed fights, but very few recognizable names, at least to casual fans outside of Europe, in the remaining fights. If you had to pick one fighter — outside of the main and co-main event — who could blossom into a true UFC star, who would it be?
Reinert: While there’s always concern about a language barrier (and perhaps some prevailing Cold War-era hostilities) blunting any Russian fighter from breaking through as a major star in the United States, Magomed Mustafaev seems to fit the bill nicely. Mustafaev, who makes his UFC debut on Saturday, sports an 11-1 professional record, with the lone loss coming in his very first fight. Since then, he’s won all 11 inside the distance. At 26, he’s the perfect age to begin a lightweight campaign in the UFC, and he’s been sharpening his skills at American Top Team in preparation.
On Saturday, Mustafaev faces Piotr Hallmann, a veteran of four UFC fights (where he’s gone 2-2). If Mustafaev can win in impressive fashion, he might find himself on the fast-track to higher placement on the UFC’s future cards.
Henderson: As much as I’d like to highlight someone whose nickname is “Wookie” as a potential future star — because all of us Star Wars geeks would love to see that name on the UFC marquee someday — I don’t see 13-0 Lukasz Sajewski as the blossoming fighter. Instead, my eyes are focused on a fighter who has suffered one loss, and in his most recent bout no less. I’m still high on Niklas Backstrom.
The Allstars Training Center product entered the UFC with an unblemished 7-0 mark and outdueled Tom Niinimäki en route to an impressive win. He was cocky in the post-fight interview, which is an excellent quality for a budding star. He was in the fight against Mike Wilkinson — and arguably winning it — before he was dropped and finished. Backstrom’s resume contains a nice number of finishes and suggests that the Swedish fighter could be a common addition to the highlight reel.
Even many of the best in the sport experience their stumbles early in their UFC runs. Backstrom can be forgiven a single loss. He’ll return with more determination and prove that he’s a dangerous fighter at featherweight. Backstrom’s opponent, Noad Lahat, is no pushover, but he’s giving up a few inches to Backstrom and could find it difficult to connect from the outside. Lahat could take the fight to the mat, but Backstrom’s not a complete fish out of water in the grappling department either.
With a little more improvement to his all-around game, Backstrom could become another outspoken European fighter and a major draw for the promotion. This weekend, he’ll connect with a strike that lays out Lahat and gives Backstrom his second UFC victory.
The vast majority of the UFC’s events take place somewhere in North or South America, making it easy for the promotion to program its cards in primetime on Saturday nights. Once in a while — and as is the case this weekend — the UFC travels further abroad and must therefore slot its events in the morning or afternoon here in the United States. What is your favorite time of day to watch a live UFC event?
Henderson: To be honest, I love when the UFC springs an event on us that is a wrap before 5 p.m. even rolls around.
Perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve been conditioned to expect evening-oriented events. In my advancing age, it’s becoming an increasing struggle to stay awake so far beyond my normal, pitifully early bedtime. Yes, I’m not that old, but the demands of work and parenting prevent me from keeping my night-owl inclinations intact. The alternative — the opportunity to watch an entire 11- or 12-fight card while fully alert — is kind of nice. Plus, there’s the advantage of having a full evening ahead where the possibilities are endless.
So, while it does feel right to view the most important of UFC pay-per-views at night, give me a daytime event on a regular basis and I certainly won’t complain.
Reinert: I really like the occasional morning card the UFC puts out. I’ll sacrifice the odd Saturday night for MMA, and afternoon cards are fine, though they do cut into my errand-running time. In the morning, though, there’s really nothing going on. I can make myself a nice breakfast and watch some fights before proceeding with my weekend. Can you think of a better cocktail than the Bloody Mary to pair with MMA? I can’t.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Reinert: I like the middleweight fight between Scott Askham and Antonio dos Santos. My interest is piqued whenever I see a match-up between two guys with a lot of striking-based victories, and that’s exactly what we have here. Askham’s 12-1 record includes seven wins by knockout or TKO, while dos Santos has won four of his six victories with strikes. Both fighters lost their respective UFC debuts in 2014, so both will no doubt be motivated to stand out on Saturday. Look for a brawl here, folks, with the taller Askham winning the distance game before putting together a solid finishing combination.
Henderson: My colleague picked Magomed Mustafaev as the one fighter on this undercard who might develop into a star. I’ll take Mustafaev as one half of the evening’s sleeper fight. His opponent, Piotr Hallmann, shares the honors.
Hallmann hasn’t lit the UFC ablaze with his work inside the Octagon, but he’ll get there. The 27-year-old Polish fighter was 13-1 when he signed on the dotted line with the UFC. Now, he’s tacked on another two wins and two losses. The wins — submissions of Francisco Trinaldo and Yves Edwards — prove that he can hang with and submit some very grizzled veteran. His losses in the UFC were hard-fought decisions to Al Iaquinta and Gleison Tibau. Those losses shouldn’t be a knock on the fighter’s skills.
My colleague has already covered Mustafaev’s credentials with sufficiency. The 26-year-old Russian is a finish-or-be-finished who tends to get the job done. He has potential, but he’ll need to prove his worth on a much bigger stage this time around.
It should be a tough scrap, but Hallmann’s experience will come in handy. He’ll work his way toward the decision unless he finds an opening for a submission or fight-ending barrage of ground-and-pound before the final bell.
Pair this card with…
Henderson: An afternoon party featuring beer and brats. This card, based in Germany, features a ton of talented European fighters with promising records and the potential to give the UFC exactly what it wants for the European market. Given its location, the main card also lands right in the middle of Saturday afternoon viewing for U.S.-based fans. So, celebrate by inviting your friends over, throwing some brats on the grill and maybe partaking in a good German beer — my pick would be Krombacher Dark or perhaps the Paulaner Salvator Doppel Bock.
Reinert: A thorough examination of how to pronounce the UFC strawweight champion’s last name. During Jędrzejczyk’s title fight against Carla Esparza, we probably heard about five different versions of her name from the announce team (including the unforgivable YEE…OH…JAY-CHACK by Mike Goldberg in his best pre-fight announcer’s voice). She’s the damn UFC champion. Get it right.
Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 3 p.m. ET)
Women’s StrawW Championship: Joanna Jędrzejczyk vs. Jessica Penne
FW: Tatsuya Kawajiri vs. Dennis Siver
WW: Steven Kennedy vs. Peter Sobotta
LW: Nick Hein vs. Lukasz Sajewski
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 12 p.m. ET)
FW: Makwan Amirkhani vs. Masio Fullen
LW: Alan Patrick vs. Mairbek Taisumov
FW: Alan Omer vs. Arnold Allen
FW: Niklas Backstrom vs. Noad Lahat
MW: Scott Askham vs. Antonio dos Santos Jr.
LW: Piotr Hallmann vs. Magomed Mustafaev
BW: Taylor Lapilus vs. Yuta Sasaki
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