Faces and Heels | The Future of Women’s MMA? (Guest Editorial)

Written BY: Josh Hemeon

Professional wrestling fans are familiar with the way their storylines work. The most basic form of this is face versus heel. Face characters are the crowd favorite, honorable, good guys and heels are the mean spirited, cheating, bullies that play the role of the antagonist. During a storyline, the heel often gets the better of the face by way of underhanded tactics but eventually it all comes to a head with a big showdown where the heel is finally defeated and the storyline concludes. The particulars of each encounter change but the basic storyline is as follows: face and heel clash over something, heel takes advantage and looks like they are going to win, then against all odds the face overcomes the challenge (backhand wave, do, do do, do) then on to the next storyline. Heels are also often champions and have substantial title reigns, but in the long run, professional wrestling revolves around heels being humbled and faces winning out.

               The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) is the UFC’s reality television series where up and coming competitors fight for a UFC contract. It is a week by week tournament-style competition where winning fighters advance to the series finale on a free televised UFC event. The UFC’s rise to popularity is often credited to the series. Competitors on the show are coached by current UFC fighters who also fight in the main event of the finale. Coaches often trash talk to each other in the series and this is arguably the show’s biggest draw. In the last few years, TUF viewers have seen an increasingly amount of professional wrestling style face versus heel storylines between coaches. I use the term storyline lightly as the encounters on the show, while they may be encouraged by the UFC, are not staged as far as we know.

               This season of TUF was between Strawweights, the Brazilian #1 contender Claudia Gadelha and Polish Champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk (No, a cat did not walk across my keyboard that is her name!). There is a bit of a curse on the show that says the coach who leads his/her team to victory usually loses their fight in the finale. The curse held up and Gadelha who nearly swept the preliminaries and whose two finalists earned contracts, lost her fight and Jedrzejczyk successfully defended her title with a unanimous decision victory. This is not very interesting. Gadelha made training adjustments for this fight in order to cut less weight and it negatively affected her performance. Former Welterweight Champion Johnny Hendricks and former Middleweight Champion Chris Weidman did the same thing to the same result. What interests me is just how much this season resembled the professional wrestling face versus heel storyline.

               Some background: Jedrzejczyk and Gadelha fought in a title eliminator bout in December 2014. Gadelha dominated the fight save for a knockdown which Jedrzejczyk scored in the first round. I scored the fight 30-27 Gadelha, pundits widely scored the fight 29-28 Gadelha, but the judges that night scored it 29-28, 28-29, 29-28 Jedrzejczyk. Gadelha was robbed that night and lost a chance at then champion Carla Esparza who Jedrzejczyk ran through. When the decision was announced Jedrzejczyk delivered an awkward interview where she thanked the judges and complimented Gadelha. Gadelha dominated her next fight and Jedrzejczyk won her championship bout and defended the title convincingly twice more. When it was announced that Jedrzejczyk and Gadelha would coach opposite each other on the new season of TUF I was not expecting anything special. I was wrong.

               At press conferences for their upcoming bout, they exchanged verbal jabs at each other and security had to be put between them. Soon rumors spread that during the filming of TUF Jedrzejczyk and Gadelha got into a fight on set. It turned out these rumors were true with Gadelha allegedly getting the better of a brief exchange. While real life violence is certainly a major escalation from anything we have seen between coaches on TUF it didn’t foreshadow any greater storyline. Then the season started.

               Right away we see Jedrzejczyk towering over the shorter Gadelha in her face and berating her. Jedrzejczyk says she is “going to put you in shame” (both coaches speak English as a second language) and “go [back] to the jungle where [you belong]” and this does not let up throughout the entire season. Then as the preliminaries begin we start to see very different coaching dynamics with each team. Jedrzejczyk picks the first matchup and picks an opponent from Team Claudia who injured his foot on the fight that earned him a place in the TUF house. Despite his injury Gadelha’s fighter rallies and wins the first fight. This gave control to Gadelha who opted to change her fight choice because the original opponent she selected from Team Joanna was sick and Gadelha made a point of saying she “[did] not want to fight dirty.” As the fights go by, one by one Team Claudia defeats Team Joanna’s fighters. Team Claudia’s coaching staff is seen giving their fighters special attention and motivational speeches, Gadelha is even seen comforting a fighter going through severe personal troubles and lobbying for an injured fighter to get a fight on the finale. Meanwhile, in the other locker room Jedrzejczyk is seen berating her losing team and at one point calls them “a bunch of pussies” behind their backs. Gadelha also won the coaches challenge which awarded $2000 for all her teammates, a losing Jedrzejczyk gave Gadelha the finger and remarked that she didn’t care about the contest. The season is capped off by a final showdown between the two where Jedrzejczyk repeatedly calls Gadelha a “little whore.”

               Come time for the finale the stage is set; will the heel champion finally be humbled by a face challenger? No. Jedrzejczyk successfully defeated Gadelha mostly due to her superior conditioning and striking accuracy. What was interesting to note was Jedrzejczyk’s behavior in the lead-up to the fight, the post-fight interview, and the post-fight press conference. As the show came out, Jedrzejczyk remarked that she didn’t like how she was portrayed, she repeatedly said in interviews that she (herself) was a nice person and good coach. When her hand was raised Jedrzejczyk said about Gadelha “I have so much respect [for] her” and turns to Gadelha and says “Claudia … I’m so sorry, you are [a great] fighter.” Claudia then takes the mic and says “This is very important (gesturing to the title belt) but [this is] more important (gesturing to her heart), to be humble and [respect] people, thank you” to which she received probably the biggest cheer of any losing speech in the UFC.

               At the post-fight press conference Gadelha took responsibility for her loss saying “I got tired, that’s it” and when asked about a rematch she remarked that it was doubtful she would get one (losing challengers in the UFC typically do not get immediate rematches) but wanted “to prove [herself]” and work her way up to another title shot. Jedrzejczyk’s mood at the press conference was arguably lower than her defeated challenger. Jedrzejczyk hung her head, answered typical questions in the typical way saying she would fight whoever the UFC wanted next. Jedrzejczyk genuinely looked sad and it was clear she was not enjoying the victory very much. At the end of the day, Jedrzejczyk will go on to defend her title likely against Rose Namajunas or Carla Esparza, and Gadelha will likely face someone else coming off of a loss, possibly Tecia Torres or Valerie Latourneau. But what does this do for their careers?

               Jedrzejczyk now has three title defenses under her belt (pun intended!) and is a very exciting fighter to watch. She is a Muay Thai champion and has a very impressive striking output and excellent conditioning. The one thing that stands out is whether or not she will be viewed as a heel by fans in the future. Anyone watching TUF is definitely going to see her as a bully. Like Rhonda Rousey, Jedrzejczyk took the hostility towards her opponent very far, arguably too far. I have a feeling if I told a Brazilian to go back to the jungle or call a woman a whore I would justifiably get my ass kicked. Unlike Rousey, it appears Jedrzejczyk does not want to continue hostilities with Gadelha and showed some sportsmanship after the fight. Rousey, the prototypical female heel, often berated defeated opponents and continued hostilities outside the octagon in personal interactions and in the media. It appears for the moment at least, that Jedrzejczyk could not stomach her portrayal on TUF and attempted a face turn (transition to being viewed as a face) near the end. This will be difficult as TUF is the most publicity Jedrzejczyk has received and given the lengths she went playing the heel role, it may be hard to reverse this course. To Jedrzejczyk’s credit as a human being, the fact that she appears so bothered by this should be a credit to her character.

               As for Gadelha, there are plenty of things to be positive about. She clearly has given the current champion the greatest challenge of any competitor and issues with strength and conditioning are much easier to fix than technical deficiencies which she did not display. But perhaps her greatest asset is that many fans, after watching TUF 23, wanted to see her win. Gadelha once threw an illegal knee to the head of a grounded opponent in all-female promotion Invicta and threw a punch after the bell to Jedrzejczyk in their first fight (although this incident is widely viewed as unintentional). These things could have easily made her a heel in fans eyes but when it mattered, on TUF, she came off as the ultimate face. Gadelha came off as someone very relatable to anyone who has been bullied, any immigrant told to go back to their country, and maybe now, anyone who has chosen to do the right thing only to see the bad guy win in the end.

Could this be a Rocky I style lose but still win scenario for Gadelha? It’s very possible. Despite his later steroid scandal, Chael Sonnen performed this feat when coaching TUF opposite Jon Jones (Everybody’s on steroids! YOU’RE ON STERIODS!). Despite being known as a trash talking heel, Sonnen showed his nice side on TUF and is widely regarded as only performing the heel role in order to hype up his fights. Jedrzejczyk was likely trying to do the same seeing people like Rhonda Rousey and Conor McGregor do this to gather huge draws for their fights. But it seems Jedrzejczyk took things too far and regretted it.

Perhaps there is an unrealistic standard that female fighters need to be nicer than their male counterparts given that male fans naturally, feel uncomfortable watching a woman bullied or in any type of hostile situation. It will be interesting to see if these face/heel matchups take priority over rankings especially given the tendency of the UFC as of late to adopt WWE style bookings. In my view, Gadelha probably still poses the greatest threat to Jedrzejczyk’s title and in all likelihood ,the two will meet again somewhere down the line. If the future resembles the past as of late, the ratings of TUF and the especially the finale are going to determine who Jedrzejczyk faces next. As much as I am a fan of ranking based matches and the sport-first entertainment-second model, TUF 23 was a hell of a story!