It may seem like ancient history now, but UFC 217 will not be Rose Namajunas’ first title challenge.
Before Joanna Jedrzejczyk ever established herself as the queen of the strawweights, Namajunas vied for the division’s inaugural UFC title back in 2014 against Carla Esparza. Ultimately Namajunas fell short, losing to Esparza via third-round submission, but the experience awoke something within “Thug Rose,” and she has hasn’t been the same since, embarking on the torrid 4-1 streak that propelled her into another title shot against Jedrzejczyk on Nov. 4.
Namajunas’ evolution from precocious prospect to ferocious contender has been one of the division’s most intriguing narratives to watch over recent years, and now that she is once again approaching the mountaintop, Namajunas is ready to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself at UFC 217.
“Really what I’ve learned from that (first title) fight is I’ve just gotten better mentally,” Namajunas said Wednesday on a UFC 217 media conference call. “Like, I’ve overcome some demons in my path, and just, every day I wake up and I’m f*cking champion, so that’s just my mindset all of the time, and that’s something that — I think this fight could be a great PSA announcement for mental health awareness. I think I’m a champion for that and just overcoming a lot of demons in my past, and I’m so much stronger from it and I’m going to continue to be stronger.”
The struggles and evolution of her mental game are issues that Namajunas has spoken of with uncommon honestly over recent years. And Jedrzejczyk has noticed as well.
In the first staredown the two strawweights shared at last month’s UFC 217 pre-fight press conference, Jedrzejczyk told Namajunas that she was “mentally unstable” — and that was a point Jedrzejczyk aggressively reiterated on Wednesday’s conference call.
“Hey, listen to yourself,” Jedrzejczyk said to Namajunas. “You didn’t even want to do media. You didn’t want to do extra media. How do you want to be a champion and deal with all of these things? You know what? You are not stronger mentally. You are mentally unstable and you are broken already, and I will break you in the fight.”
“I think there’s a lot of mental instability in this whole country,” Namajunas began to say in response. “And I think that’s a great reason to fight and a great reason to…”
“This country has been amazing,” Jedrzejczyk interjected. “This country has been amazing to me. I think you have some personal problems, and I will show you what’s your problem, OK? You’re never going to be a champion.”
That pattern kept up throughout the call, with Jedrzejczyk aggressively pursuing Namajunas at every turn.
It’s no secret by now, that sort of dynamic comes with the territory when challenging Jedrzejczyk, the undefeated champion who will tie Ronda Rousey’s women’s record for the most consecutive UFC title defenses with a win at UFC 217. However, rather than engaging Jedrzejczyk like many of the Polish star’s past opponents, Namajunas instead elected to hold back, disregarding Jedrzejczyk’s many threats and promises rather than returning fire — even with an issue as personal as mental health.
“I’m not sure if it’s maybe a cultural difference or something like that, but for me, it’s not something that’s taken lightly,” Namajunas explained. “My family has been torn apart by this. My dad died and he wasn’t in my life because he had schizophrenia, so it’s been something that my entire family has been fighting against since I can remember. So, this fight means a lot to me, and it’s not just about the belt. It’s more than that, and I just want to inspire other people to f*cking do whatever the f*ck you want to do, and do what makes you happy, and be a good person, and you can overcome anything.”
Namajunas’ unwillingness to engage Jedrzejczyk verbally has been her philosophy from the start. In last month’s press conference staredown, Namajunas stood stoically — vacant and unflinching — while Jedrzejczyk barraged her with trash talk just inches away from Namajunas’ face. And Namajunas doesn’t plan to change anything as their dance date at Madison Square Garden approaches.
“I’m not concerned about what she’s doing,” Namajunas said. “Whatever she’s saying, that’s fine. But for me, it’s all about me. It’s all about conquering my demons and that’s what is important.
“Every fight is personal, but with myself,” Namajunas added. “I just want to try to make this world a better place and somehow use my gifts of f*cking martial arts. I’m great at this sh*t. This is what I’ve been born to do. I might be crazy, but I’m dangerous too.”