As usual, there are a lot of storylines at UFC Vegas 56, but Karolina Kowalkiewicz’s is the biggest, hands down.
Karolina Kowalkiewicz was once the darling of the UFC strawweight division and a marketer’s dream. Unbridled enthusiasm, blessed with dynamic striking skills in a formidable package. She was nicknamed “The Polish Princess,” an undefeated phenom in eight contests before entering the octagon in 2015 as the KSW women’s flyweight champion.
Karolina used her striking to rack up three big wins over the tough grappler Randa Markos, veteran Heather Jo Clark, and former strawweight champion Rose Namajunas to earn a title shot in late 2016 with champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 205.
While she fell short, losing to her Polish colleague (and future training partner) via unanimous decision, the future seemed bright for Kowalkiewicz.
But then the rest of the division started catching up to Karolina. And overtaking her. The losses started to pile up.
Kowalkiewicz is 2-7-0 in her last nine bouts, albeit most of them to top competition. This Saturday at UFC Vegas 56, she will rematch Felice Herrig (14-9-0), 37, the source of her last win at UFC 223 in 2018. It was a narrow split-decision that Herrig has put in her memory bank for motivation.
Then there was the diagnosis of Hashimoto’s Disease in 2019, which required Kowalkiewicz to adapt to a vegan diet. There have been other changes, like moving to American Top Team.
The UFC strawweight division might look the same right now since Carla Esparza reclaimed the belt she first won almost eight years ago, but it is not. The TUF 20 generation that Herrig and Esparza ushered in 2014 are struggling to compete against the current wave of fighters that they inspired.
Felice Herrig has her own career to think about. She will be gunning to avenge her narrow loss to Kowalkiewicz at UFC 223. Having lost three in a row herself, she cannot feel sympathy for Kowalkiewicz’s plight. We all remember Herrig and the TUF 20 alum, but the octagon has a short memory.
Neither fighter is ranked and the bout is the featured prelim at UFC Vegas 56. But this fight has a good old-school feel and I will be looking closely at it because the loser will be scrambling in quicksand to avoid unwanted extinction.
Let’s see who can pull out a vintage performance on Saturday.