DOROTA JURKOWSKA WAS sitting in her home in Warsaw, Poland, in the middle of the night on April 8, 2017, her face illuminated by the glow of a computer screen. She was nervous, nearly to the point of feeling ill, and wouldn’t sleep at all until the following day.
She had just watched her boyfriend (now fiancé), Jan Blachowicz, suffer another defeat in the UFC. The majority decision loss to Patrick Cummins, on the undercard of an event in Buffalo, New York, marked Blachowicz’s fourth defeat in his last five appearances and dropped his UFC record to 2-4.
Jurkowska was devastated but needed to focus. In addition to their personal relationship, Jurkowska has been Blachowicz’s manager since before his UFC days, and she had a very important, very difficult task ahead of her that night. She needed to save Blachowicz’s job.
“Oh my God, I thought he was going to get fired. Seriously,” Jurkowska says. “I was expecting that email to say he was gone. I was emailing [UFC matchmaker] Mick Maynard immediately. We had a lot of emails go back and forth that night. That was a very tough night.”
There have been a lot of good nights since for Blachowicz (27-8), who is now the reigning UFC light heavyweight champion. At UFC 259 on Saturday in Las Vegas, he will make his first title defense against Israel Adesanya, the middleweight champion, who is coming up in weight in an attempt to become the eighth fighter in UFC history to win titles in multiple weight classes, the fifth to hold two belts simultaneously.
Of course, Jurkowska didn’t know what would come to pass for Blachowicz as she made her case to the UFC nearly four years ago to simply keep him on the roster. Looking back, she acknowledges that her case wasn’t terribly strong. Blachowicz hadn’t been overwhelmed in the UFC — his fights had been competitive — but a 2-4 record is a 2-4 record.
“I had this fire in me. I knew, ‘This is not the end. I cannot finish this adventure like this.'”
“I pushed them so hard to give Jan one more chance,” Jurkowska recalls. “I told them that Jan is a huge star in Poland, and I knew they wanted to hold an event in Poland. I told them, ‘He needs to be on this card!’ That was my last argument for him not to be fired.”
Jurkowska’s efforts came through. The UFC held an event on October 2017 in the northern Polish city of Gdansk. The promotion matched Blachowicz against a promising American prospect, Devin Clark, who was 8-1 at the time. Blachowicz went into the fight knowing he’d be gone from the UFC with a loss.
But walking to the Octagon that night, he’d never been more confident.
“Before that fight, I started to believe good things would happen again,” Blachowicz says. “I had this fire in me. I knew, ‘This is not the end. I cannot finish this adventure like this.’ I knew I had to win the fight and prove to myself that I could still be much better.”
Eight wins and one UFC title later, Blachowicz has proven to himself what he already knew: He can beat anyone. The rest of the world, however, has been slow to learn.
WHEN UFC PRESIDENT Dana White was asked by BT Sport in late 2020, “If you could make one fight in 2021, what would it be?” his answer was Jon Jones vs. Israel Adesanya.
White has made it clear in interviews since then that there are “massive hurdles” in the way of making that fight. The first of them, of course, is Blachowicz. There are several paths the UFC could take to arrive at a super fight between Jones and Adesanya, but all of them start with Adesanya beating Blachowicz at UFC 259.
So the narrative surrounding the UFC’s light heavyweight champion is not about his resurgence. It’s that he is an obstacle.
The world of mixed martial arts doesn’t outright disrespect Blachowicz, per se — people recognize that he’s good — but it’s quite possible he’s not shown enough respect. Jones, the most dominant light heavyweight of all time, willingly vacated the title in 2020, in part, because a title defense against Blachowicz just wasn’t super motivating. As of last month, Blachowicz was the only UFC champion to not receive at least one vote in ESPN’s pound-for-pound rankings. And although Saturday’s fight is for his belt, and will be fought at his weight, he’s a 2-1 betting underdog.
“This fight is very good, because after this fight, every single person will know Jan, and he’ll finally earn the respect he needs,” Jurkowska says. “Even after being a champion, he’s still the dark horse. This is more my thing, but Jan is also starting to think this way. He needs to give Adesanya the first loss on his record, then we’ll see what they say.”
Blachowicz doesn’t have the most supporters, but the ones he has are fiercely vocal about him. When Polish MMA organization KSW, one of the top promotions in Europe, signed him in 2007, he had minimal MMA experience. But KSW CEO Martin Lewandowski had heard his name so frequently, he gave him a shot.
“He was a really big word-of-mouth signing for us,” Lewandowski says. “He was a Muay Thai amateur champion, but he didn’t have a clue about MMA whatsoever. From Day 1, you could tell he was a unique fighter.
“He never ascended to become our biggest star. His skills made him a top guy, but popularity, no. He was in the circle of our top stars, the top five or seven, but he wasn’t No. 1. He wasn’t the top PPV draw. That’s probably what he’s missing today. He’s not a big media guy. He doesn’t talk too much. He’s not a showman.”
The problem for Blachowicz — and probably the reason he is still frequently overlooked today — is that he coupled his quiet, gentlemanly manner with a horrendous start to his UFC career. You don’t have to talk trash to make headlines in combat sports, but you can’t not talk trash and go 2-4 in your first six UFC appearances.
The main culprit behind Blachowicz’s slow start was that, for the first time, he felt doubt. Not in himself, but in his surroundings.
“When I signed with the UFC in 2014, it was like, ‘OK, I’m in the UFC, I need to train harder and have something different now,'” Blachowicz says. “Everyone said, ‘Oh, they have good wrestling in the UFC. You have to have good wrestling to be the best in the world.’ So, I changed my camp. I changed everything.”
Immediately prior to his UFC debut, Blachowicz left his longtime trainer in Warsaw, Robert Jocz, and moved 200 miles west to train with a new team in Poznan, Poland. It wasn’t a good fit.
“I think they just changed my style there, and it was a big mistake,” Blachowicz says. “I don’t know how to explain it, but I have good style, good wrestling. It might not be a pure form of wrestling, but they tried to take my takedowns and my punches and turn it into pure wrestling. And finally I was like, ‘OK, this is working for you, but not for me.'”
It took time for Blachowicz to recognize that the coaching change wasn’t working for him, and for him to abandon the move and reunite with Jocz. That happened in 2017, just ahead of the Clark fight that saved his career.
Since returning to his old coach, Blachowicz is 8-1. He’s beaten some of the top names in the sport, including Jared Cannonier, Luke Rockhold, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Corey Anderson and Dominick Reyes. But despite all of that success, he’s still a perennial underdog. Blachowicz has been favored to win only twice in his last 10 bouts.
Not that he minds.
“Oh, he’s actually very happy about that, because he knows those are only numbers for someone to earn money,” Jurkowska says. “If you just put money on Jan, you’re going to be rich. After the Luke Rockhold fight [in 2019], a fan was waiting for him at our hotel and said, ‘You made me rich. I made $50,000 on this fight.’
“Seriously, he doesn’t give a s— about being an underdog. It actually gives him more confidence.”
EVER SINCE BLACHOWICZ won the championship by knocking out Reyes at UFC 253 last September, his stock has soared — in Poland.
His small town of Cieszyn threw a massive celebration upon his return home. He received an invitation to meet Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. He was included in a prominent list of 2020’s most popular Polish athletes.
“He’s being recognized everywhere, places you wouldn’t expect, it’s crazy,” Jurkowska says. “Walking in the woods, he gets stopped by people calling, ‘Hey, champ!’ When we went to his hometown, the city was full of fans. Jan was expecting maybe some friends and family, but what happened, oh my God, it was amazing.”
The same recognition has not yet come from across the sport. Blachowicz is still more often viewed as one of the “massive hurdles” blocking a Jones-Adesanya matchup than he is as a must-see champion. But beating Adesanya, one of the UFC’s top stars, could change that.
For Blachowicz, though, a win over Adesanya is less about recognition, money and fame than it is about competition. When he made his professional MMA debut in 2007, he did so in search of a challenge. That remained his source of motivation throughout his time in KSW and, eventually, into his tenure with the UFC. When his UFC roster spot was in jeopardy in 2017, that’s what was on the line more than anything. Blachowicz did not want to lose his opportunity to face the absolute best.
“That was Jan from the beginning,” Lewandowski says. “We couldn’t pay him much at the start of his career, but he didn’t give a s—. He was the one who wanted the challenge. He wanted to fight the best. He wanted to fight the guys who were good on the ground; he didn’t avoid them. He said, ‘That’s what MMA is all about.'” Lewandowski recalls two instances in which Blachowicz came to him and said he wanted to sign with the UFC. As a promoter himself, Lewandowski wants to retain his talent, and at first he was able to persuade Blachowicz there were challenges for him in KSW, which has a reputation for pulling international, not just Polish, talent. When Blachowicz approached him a second time, however, the conversation was brief.
“I saw it in his eyes: That was his dream,” Lewandowski recalls. “I didn’t even try to convince him to stay. I was even happy to see him go there. And that’s the only time I can say that about a fighter leaving. I knew he could be a UFC champion because he’d fought international fighters in KSW and smashed them.”
On Saturday, Blachowicz will face a fighter who is undeniably one of the best in the world. If he defeats Adesanya, his profile will certainly rise. And don’t think for one second it hasn’t crossed Blachowicz’s mind that a win could clear his own path to Jones, the greatest challenge to ever exist at 205 pounds.
“I believe in the future I will get that fight,” Blachowicz says. “If not in the UFC, I will go to Albuquerque and fight him in his gym. We will do this. But I’m not thinking about Jon right now. In the future, yes, but not now.
“Adesanya is a completely different fighter. I have never fought anyone like him. But I think me and my team have found holes in his game, and we will use all of our tools like we always do. I will take him down or knock him out and win this fight.”