UFC Fight Night: Why Joanna's striking poses big problem for Waterson

Joanna Jedrzejczyk, left, will look to use her precision striking against Michelle Waterson in the UFC Fight Night main event on Saturday. Amber Bracken for ESPN

A former strawweight champion and a popular veteran will both aim to get into title contention in Saturday's UFC Fight Night main event, when Joanna Jedrzejczyk faces Michelle Waterson.

Jedrzejczyk will be competing in the UFC for the 13th time, but only for the fourth time without a title on the line. She has already built a historic career that has seen her land the seventh-most significant strikes in UFC history (1,345) and hold the third-longest average fight time (18:29).

Her longevity in the promotion is not the only thing that favors her on Saturday. Per the numbers, Jedrzejczyk will have several key advantages over Waterson in terms of striking. However, Waterson certainly has the tools and experience to pull off the upset, and she is coming off perhaps the biggest win of her career over former title challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz. The following statistical categories detail Jedrzejczyk's edge in the striking game, but also describe Waterson's path to a potential victory.

Striking differential

Jedrzejczyk may not have the aura of invincibility that she once had, but she still has some of the best striking numbers in the UFC. Her +3.30 striking differential is the sixth highest in the history of the promotion among fighters with at least five bouts. Jedrzejczyk's success in terms of striking differential flows from her ability to land with volume while maintaining solid defense. In the UFC, she has landed 6.07 significant strikes per minute, which is well above the average for a ranked strawweight (4.68). She has also absorbed only 2.77 significant strikes per minute, which is behind only champion Zhang Weili (2.24) and Tatiana Suarez (1.45) among the same group.

Waterson (5-2) has not really been on the same level as Jedrzejczyk in terms of striking. She has landed fewer strikes per minute than Jedrzejczyk and absorbs slightly more. In her seven fights in the UFC, Waterson has landed 4.04 significant strikes per minute while absorbing 3.57, for a +0.47 differential. That measure is only ninth best among the top 16 strawweights.

Taking only striking numbers into account, this looks like a one-sided contest in favor of Jedrzejczyk. Even though Waterson has the moniker "The Karate Hottie," she will need to find another way to attack Jedrzejczyk. She simply will not be able to outland the former champion over the course of a five-round fight without varying her tactics.

Distance striking

Not only will Waterson likely struggle when it comes to striking overall, but also her issues may be exaggerated in terms of distance striking. In the UFC, 81% of Jedrzejczyk's landed significant strikes have come when standing and not in the clinch, compared to only 55% for Waterson.

At distance, Jedrzejczyk has landed 4.91 significant strikes per minute and only allows her opponents to land 2.20. On the other hand, Waterson's significant strikes per minute rate falls all the way to 2.22 when including only distance strikes, and she absorbs 1.87 in the position.

One of the key elements of Jedrzejczyk's distance striking has been her strikes to the legs. She lands 1.62 significant strikes to the leg, and she has landed at least 54 significant leg strikes in four of her 12 UFC fights.

Waterson will likely struggle to keep up with Jedrzejczyk at distance, and she will need to find a way to close the distance and get out of kicking range. If Jedrzejczyk is able to keep the fight at range, she will be able to keep her volume going and crank out a striking-based decision victory.

Striking output

Jedrzejczyk's striking accuracy is nothing special. In fact, her 46% accuracy is right at the average for a ranked strawweight fighter. However, she more than makes up for this with overall volume, as she has attempted 13.08 significant strikes per minute.

Waterson is a very accurate striker. She has landed 58% of her significant strike attempts in the UFC, but she also attempts only 7.02 per minute. Waterson will likely need to increase her output against Jedrzejczyk to be competitive when striking. The former champion has great defense and successfully avoids 65% of the significant strikes against her.

It is unrealistic to expect Waterson to maintain her strong accuracy in this fight, as Jedrzejczyk is simply a different type of opponent. If Waterson wants to maintain her usual landing rate, she will need to throw more attempts.

The ground game

The most obvious tactic that Waterson could use to break the striking momentum of Jedrzejczyk is to go to her wrestling, and the metrics do offer her some hope in this area. Waterson has averaged 2.15 takedowns per 15 minutes of fight time in her UFC career, and she has not been shy about hunting for the takedown, as she has attempted 3.58 per 15. Once the fight hits the ground, she has averaged 1.42 passes per takedown and attempted 1.32 submission attempts per 15 minutes. That submission attempt rate is the second highest among ranked strawweights behind only Cynthia Calvillo (2.00).

Jedrzejczyk has been able to stop 80% of the takedown attempts against her in the UFC, but she still allows 1.49 takedowns per 15 minutes and she has been taken down in eight of her 12 UFC fights. Not only does Jedrzejczyk allow a fair number of takedowns, but she also gets stuck in the clinch after stopping takedowns. Even if she stops an initial takedown attempt, she can be held along the fence for an extended period of time.

If Waterson fails to finish a takedown attempt, she could still end up in the clinch and that position might favor her. In Jedrzejczyk's last fight against flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko, she absorbed 16 significant clinch strikes. Waterson has landed at least 17 significant clinch strikes in three of her last four bouts. Some element of wrestling or clinching needs to be part of Waterson's attack if she is to pull off the upset on Saturday.