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The first four years of Karolina Kowalkiewicz’ mixed martial arts career were flawless.
While there were surely mistakes she wishes she didn’t make, injuries that slowed her progress or hampered her performance, and the general annoyances that come with the pursuit of greatness in any field, the native of Lodz, Poland put up 10 victories in as many appearances to establish herself as one of the top strawweight competitors in the world.
After winning gold at home under the KSW banner and impressing in a one-off appearance with Invicta FC where she defeated Japanese rising star Mizuki Inoue, Kowalkiewicz signed with the UFC and didn’t miss a beat. Victories over Randa Markos and Heather Jo Clark set up a showdown with Rose Namajunas, and her split decision win at UFC 201 set up a showdown with fellow Polish standout Joanna Jedrzejczyk for the women’s strawweight title at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
That’s where the good times came to an end.
Despite having brief moments of success, Kowalkiewicz’ winning streak came to a halt last November against Jedrzejczyk and seven months later, she suffered a second consecutive setback, getting tapped out by fellow contender Claudia Gadelha three minutes into their clash at UFC 212.
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Adrift in uncharted waters heading into her homecoming matchup against Jodie Esquibel this weekend in Gdansk, the 32-year-old has little interest in discussing the most difficult year of her professional career.
“I don’t want to (look at the past),” says Kowalkiewicz after letting out an exhausted sigh. “I’m focused on Jodie. I want to try and fight and enjoy what I do. I love what I do – I love fighting, I love UFC, so this year, I am very happy.”
Where some fighters meticulously study the film from their setbacks, combing each frame for technical mistakes that tilted the fight in their opponent’s favor or tactical errors that can be corrected the next time out, Kowalkiewicz has watched each bout just once. Though she’s never explained her reasoning, you get the feeling talking to her – listening to her slip questions about the fights and refocus the conversation on the future – that the sting of each of those setbacks is greater than the joy she experienced in her 10 victories combined.
But it’s not all about avoiding a conversation she doesn’t want to have and keeping moments she’d rather not relive tucked away out of sight and out of mind; she is also genuinely excited about returning home to Poland to compete on the biggest stage in the sport.
“This is something amazing and something big in Poland,” she says of this weekend’s fight card in Gdansk. “The biggest organization in the whole world is in my home, so I’m very happy I can fight on UFC in Poland.”
Saturday’s event at Ergo Arena marks the second time the Ultimate Fighting Championship has ventured to the European nation with a passion for combat sports.
The first event in Krakow took place in April 2015, just a few weeks after Jedrzejczyk claimed the women’s strawweight title at UFC 185. Seated in the front row, she received a massive ovation, but unfortunately the partisan crowd was given little to cheer about inside the cage as five of the seven Polish fighters competing that evening came away on the wrong side of the results.
Kowalkiewicz was not on the roster the first time the UFC ventured to Poland, but this weekend, she is the last of seven competitors from the host nation who will cross the threshold into the UFC cage.
Bolstered by the support of the large contingent of family and friends making the three-hour drive north from Lodz, the former title challenger and elite strawweight talent knows she has a stern test ahead of her, but she’s confident in her preparations and eager to get back into the win column.
“I think my whole family and all my friends came here,” she says with a laugh. “Lodz is the place where I grew up, so maybe (the whole of) Lodz will come for my fight.
“I had great preparation for this fight. We changed a few things and I’m sure it will pay off in the fight. I know Jodie is very tough – she has good boxing and she is very determined. She’s a really great fighter, but I hope I win this Saturday.
And what would it mean to close the book on the most difficult 12-month stretch of her professional career with a victory in front of friends, family and a raucous Polish crowd in Gdansk?
Kowalkiewicz lets out another big sigh.
“This is my big dream,” she says, “to win a UFC fight in Poland, but we will see what the future brings.”