Five months ago, when Rose Namajunas showed up in Manhattan to fight for the women’s strawweight title, she was supposed to become the answer to a future trivia question. The one that goes: “Who did Joanna Jedrzejczyk defeat to tie Ronda Rousey’s all-time mark for title defenses for women in the UFC? Answer: Rose Namajunas.”
Of course, it didn’t work out that way.
Instead Namajunas treated her first visit to New York as a kind of ayahuasca trip for self-discovery, her own personal Peru in which Jedrzejczyk was nothing more than a piece of trauma she realized she didn’t need to hold onto. And if Namajunas discovered something of greatness in her heart in scoring that first round TKO of Joanna Champion — and further demonstrated the humility of an old ascetic upon attaining it — many outsiders had a different word to describe her findings.
The most offensive f-word in fighting.
The word that implies that whatever we first saw was a public deceit, a kind of lie that overcame long odds.
After Saturday night’s unanimous decision over Jedrzejczyk at UFC 223 just across the East River in Brooklyn, that dirty little word is no longer applicable. Namajunas showed up as coolly as she did the first time, and just as inwardly confrontational, to make her first title defense an exhibition of proof. It wasn’t that she caught Jedrzejczyk and then swooped in for the kill. This time it was a sustained lashing, with the occasional smile. She stood in with a profoundly gifted kickboxer and pieced her up for the better part of 25 minutes on the feet. Towards the very end, perhaps just to show she could, she shot in and took Jedrzejczyk down. The fans at the Barclays let up a tremendous roar. The grappler was there the whole time, that gesture seemed to say, but she didn’t need it.
Moments later, Namajunas got her arm raised again. Jedrzejczyk, who contributed to the chants of a fluke by pointing to a bad weight cut the first time through, looked like she’d just gone five rounds with a puma in the dark.
“Sorry for not being as technical this time,” Namajunas said in the post-fight interview, like the queen of downplay. “I felt a little heavy but I got the job done, so it’s all good. She’s definitely one of the best kickboxers in the world but I train with one of the best to ever do it: Pat Barry. I believe her that she had a tough weight cut and it affected her last time, but this one means I’m just better.”
“Thug” Rose is just better. And really, when you think about the week she had, it’s kind of a testament to what kind of champion she is. On Thursday, Namajunas was in the bus that Conor McGregor and his roving band of droogies attacked. With her mental focus so honed in on Jedrzejczyk, the incident, understandably, jarred her off her bearings. Some of those on the bus were forced off the card with injuries. And Namajunas admitted that she considered bowing out as well, letting herself off the hook after temporarily finding herself ungrounded.
“Yeah, I did,” she said in the post-fight press conference. “But I think a lot of times leading up to many fights I’ll question that. I’ll doubt myself or I’ll question myself, but the voice was strong this time.”
It wasn’t just that she was being asked to overcome the mighty Jedrzejczyk a second time, which would have been formidable enough. It was that she had to dig deeper than she wanted to dig.
“I’ve just been in tough spots before,” she said. “I’ve had manual fights before. They were on autopilot kinda thing. This was just another level of that and a new challenge and a new development in my growth, so I welcome that. I just wanted to, I don’t know, just prove to myself that I can once again face my fears and it will pay off.”
Namajunas has made a frenemy of her fears. What’s unique about her is that she talks about those fears like they are co-stars in her rise. She talks about those fears like she’d be nothing without them. But there’s a competitor in there that overrides it all, and that’s the unconquerable flame she’s learned to protect. That part is clear. Namajunas heard that f-word for the last five months, just like Chris Weidman heard it after knocking out Anderson Silva at UFC 162. It gave her a purpose to prove that her truth is the actual truth.
On Sunday, she left no doubt as to who she is. She’s “just better.” And she’s got selective hearing, too. You say the word “fluke” and she hears “psych.” Not bad for a 25-year-old fighter with the whole world ahead of her.