LAS VEGAS — Joanna Jedrzejczyk figured she had lost the first two rounds on all three judges’ scorecards, and the champion knew she needed to let it rip. For the final three rounds, Jedrzejczyk swarmed all over Claudia Gadelha with flurries of kicks, waves of elbows and innumerable precise punches.
The barrage was more than enough to keep her belt.
Jedrzejczyk defended her UFC strawweight title Friday night with a unanimous-decision victory, punctuating their long-running feud by beating her archrival for the second time.
From the first takedown to the final combination, Jedrzejczyk (12-0) and Gadelha put on an impressive technical display of mixed martial arts. The world’s top two 115-pound fighters thrilled the MGM Grand Garden Arena crowd.
While the Polish champion started slowly, she finished furiously. According to the UFC’s statistics, Jedrzejczyk landed 153 strikes in the final three rounds to a mere 41 for Gadelha, whose six takedowns weren’t enough.
"We felt she might get tired in the third, fourth and fifth round, so I was waiting for my chance," Jedrzejczyk said. "She was trying to control me, but it didn’t feel like she could do anything on the ground."
Gadelha (13-2) largely controlled the first two rounds through takedowns and timely strikes, but Jedrzejczyk decisively rallied with her superior striking and remarkable conditioning. Jedrzejczyk’s three-round onslaught left her Brazilian opponent bloody and open-mouthed.
Gadelha valiantly tried more takedowns, but Jedrzejczyk defended and kept throwing blows to the bell. The bout was another thriller to add to their first meeting, a debatable split-decision victory for the champion in late 2014.
"Every fighter who knows what she wants in life will get better," Gadelha said. "I think she got better, just like I got better. I think I’m better technically. If it wasn’t for the conditioning, I would have beat her."
Two judges scored the bout 48-46 for Jedrzejczyk, and a third saw it 48-45. The Associated Press scored it 48-47 for Jedrzejczyk.
"I’m ready for everyone, and I proved it today," Jedrzejczyk said.
Jedrzejczyk and Gadelha were combative coaches on the just-completed season of "The Ultimate Fighter," the UFC’s long-running reality competition show. They traded harsh words and shoves during promotional appearances for the bout, almost coming to blows at several points in their uneasy co-existence.
Immediately after their fight, Jedrzejczyk apologized for her behaviour. Gadelha praised Jedrzejczyk’s skill in the cage, but also said their unfriendly rivalry won’t cool.
"It’s not done. Never," Gadelha said. "I respect Joanna as a champion, but I don’t respect her as a person."
Will Brooks also made his UFC debut with a unanimous-decision victory over veteran Ross Pearson. Strawweight Tatiana Suarez and light heavyweight Andrew Sanchez won their bouts to claim the UFC contracts awarded to winners of the reality show.
Jedrzejczyk, a former muay thai fighter and kickboxer, has reigned atop the UFC’s newest division since taking the belt from original 115-pound champion Carla Esparza in March 2015. Three months before that bout, she earned the title shot with her first win over Gadelha, who stoked their rivalry by hitting Jedrzejczyk after the bell.
Jedrzejczyk defended the belt twice last year, and Gadelha got a rematch of her only career defeat after an injury-slowed 2015.
Brooks (18-1) didn’t dominate the rugged Pearson, but still earned his ninth consecutive MMA victory with 29-28 verdicts on all three cards.
Brooks was Bellator’s lightweight champion when the promotion released him in May following a series of disputes. He celebrated his first victory in the UFC by mentioning Eddie Alvarez, the former Bellator fighter who won the UFC lightweight title on Thursday night.
South Korean featherweight Doo Ho Choi and Brazil’s Joaquim Silva got the main card off to a strong start with first-round knockouts.
Choi (14-1) has finished all three of his UFC fights with jaw-dropping early stoppages, and he rendered Thiago Tavares senseless with one enormous right hand. The baby-faced 25-year-old fighter who calls himself "The Korean Superboy" has won eight straight bouts by knockout.
Suarez, a cancer survivor from Fontana, California, looked intimidating in her first-round submission victory, pounding Amanda Cooper on the ground before locking in a D’Arce choke late in the first round.
Sanchez’s wrestling-based domination of Khalil Rountree was much less entertaining for the Las Vegas crowd.