TORONTO — Only a few dozen spectators took in the first bout between UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Karolina Kowalkiewicz in their native Poland back in 2012.
The stage will be much bigger on Saturday night.
Jedrzejczyk beat Kowalkiewicz when they fought as amateurs and she's confident she'll do it again when they meet at UFC 205 at New York's Madison Square Garden. It's one of three title fights on a card headlined by a lightweight showdown between (The Notorious) Conor McGregor and champion Eddie Alvarez.
Jedrzejczyk excelled in the Muay Thai and kickboxing disciplines before making her professional mixed martial arts debut four years ago. Since then, she has gone 12-0 overall, with a 6-0 record in the UFC and a 3-0 mark since knocking out inaugural strawweight champ Carla Esparza at UFC 185 in March 2015.
Kowalkiewicz, who also turned pro in 2012, is a former champion in the Warsaw-based KSW promotion. She's 10-0 as a professional and has won all three of her UFC fights.
Jedrzejczyk, on a one-day media blitz Monday in Toronto, said she too could have proven she was the best fighter in her home country, but added she was born for bigger things.
"I wanted to become the world champion," she said. "I wanted to become the champion of the best MMA organization in the world and this is what I did."
The 29-year-old fighter from Olsztyn is one of the most feared strikers in her division. She uses strong footwork to her advantage and her impressive Muay Thai skills can wear down opponents.
It's a crowd-pleasing brand of fighting, one that has seen her rewarded with a performance of the night award and two fight of the night nods.
"I know that my striking is amazing," she said. "But I know that my ground game, my wrestling is better. This is what I want to prove in my next fight is that I'm not just the best female striker in the UFC, but I'm a complete MMA fighter. That I'm as good on the ground as I am when I'm striking."
Jedrzejczyk can be just as entertaining outside of the cage. She's not afraid to offer some trash talk and understands the appeal of heat with her opponents.
Her staredowns can often be the highlight of pre-fight weigh-ins.
"I'm trying to be a good person but I'm part of MMA," she said. "I don't have to be rude, I don't have to be aggressive to my opponents but it's part of our job. The faceoffs, the staredowns, we are not models, we are not playing pennies. We don't have to smile (at) each other. I have my limits as a human being and as an athlete. When there is a time to joke around, we can do this and laugh all day.
"But when there is a time to work our asses (off), when there is a time to fight, there is no time for jokes, there is no time for smiles. I like to talk to people, I like to smile, I like to joke. But I'm talking about my opponent. I cannot let them get in my head, so that's why I must be first and show them the limit. So OK, here is the line. It's better if you don't pass this line. That's all."
Intensity was high in her last title fight against Brazil's Claudia Gadelha. A long war of words laid the foundation for a memorable battle at The Ultimate Fighter finale last July in Las Vegas.
Gadelha scored a few early takedowns but struggled in the championship rounds as Jedrzejczyk showed her mettle.
"At the end of the second round I looked in her eyes and I was like, 'You're done girl,'" she said. "I saw that she was asking for help because she was out of gas. How do you want to be a world champion, how do you want to be the UFC world champion, the champion of the best MMA league in the world, when you're not ready for a five-round bout?"
Jedrzejczyk, who trained for her upcoming fight at the American Top Team gym in Coconut Creek, Fla., said her goal is to retire as an undefeated champion.
She added that her focus has only sharpened since she first won the belt.
"I must keep my eyes open because I know that my opponents, their coaches, the teams of my opponents, they have their eyes on me," she said. "They want me to sleep and fall down but it's not going to happen."
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