Strawweight contender Rose Namajunas has never engaged in 12 or 15-round boxing matches like Ray Mancini did in his heyday, but she’s had her share of battles leading into her Saturday co-main event against Michelle Waterson. And she understands what the Boxing Hall of Famer says about going through a fight with someone: Once you go through a fight with someone, you know them better than anyone else — spouse, mother, sibling, it doesn’t matter.
As Mancini said, “I knew what was inside them.”
“I know them differently than anyone else, on a more primal, subconscious level,” Namajunas said of her opponents. “You might not know their favorite color (Laughs), but you know what their breath sounds like right before they get tired. You feel certain things more subconsciously, and it’s more like a feel that you know them rather than a literal, ‘I have conversations with them all the time.’ You don’t really listen to what your opponent is saying, even pre-fight. You’re just looking at their body language or the look in their eyes or the way they sound when they something. It’s not always about what they say, it’s about how they feel.”
It’s a somewhat intimidating prospect to be put on the line like that every time, exposing everything over the course of a 15-minute fight. But for those in it, that’s part of the appeal. And for the 24-year-old Namajunas, that’s what being a martial artist is about.
“Martial arts excites me,” she said. “I don’t wish any ill will on my opponents. My goal is to cause damage and that might end up injuring somebody, so that sucks, but it’s a part of the job and part of life too. If there’s no food, you’ve got to do what you gotta do in order to eat. Like a lion doesn’t feel bad for killing a gazelle. It’s part of the job.
“Almost every girl that I’ve fought before, I don’t feel bad or anything because I know that they would do the same to me if they could, but I’ve always befriended all my opponents afterwards because we shared that crazy experience in the ring,” she said. “You’re fighting for your life in there, in a way, and it’s a very spiritual experience for me.”
If Namajunas sounds like she has a different approach to the sport than ones you’ve heard before, that’s accurate and refreshing. She’s never followed a typical path, and while there have been ups and downs, she’s emerged as an older and wiser fighter heading into a pivotal bout with Waterson.
“It feels like I was born to do this,” the Milwaukee native said. “As far as being in the UFC, I still feel like I have a lot to learn, but at the same time, I feel pretty established. My ranking is solidified – I’ve floated around the three or four number for quite some time now, so it’s about time to break through that, but I feel good, though.”
Is this the fight that does it for the No. 4-ranked Namajunas?
“I think so,” she said. “Technically, Michelle is lower ranked than I am, but the last fight (against Karolina Kowalkiewicz) I had was really close, and I made some adjustments – not just technically, but in my life – and I feel like I’m on the right track. It’s one day at a time, and I’m competing better every day and learning so much that I feel like it’s only just a matter of time. Persistence and patience is the key to everything.”
Patience is a fairly new virtue to be added to the tool box of “Thug” Rose, who not only faced five current Top 15 strawweights in her first nine pro fights, but also fought as if double-parked for a long time. She’s settled in as her experience level rose, and today, she’s a different fighter than she was when she made her UFC debut in 2014. Namajunas credits a new mindset for that evolution.
“You don’t only have to be a well-rounded mixed martial artist, but nowadays you have to be a well-rounded person,” she said. “You have to be pretty witty, and cool, calm and collected in stressful situations. You have to have a good support system behind you and you really have to make sure people have your best interests in mind, and make the right decisions. You have to control all the things you can control and then be okay with whatever comes your way and know that even doing everything in your power that you can, there are certain things that are gonna happen and you have to learn from those situations. You have to take the positives from things and learn from the negatives.”
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As for the weight of expectations? Bring it on, because Namajunas is just focused on fighting.
“It takes a little bit of pressure off when you just try and focus on doing the best that you can,” she said. “You have to be positive and look yourself in the mirror every day and say, ‘You know what, I’m a champion just for waking up today.’ I can be super hard on myself, more than anybody else can in this world, so I have to constantly remind myself to be easier on myself and enjoy the process, even the difficult times. I’m gonna look back at all the times I cried and was frustrated with training, and I’ll miss those times when I can’t fight anymore. Everybody has an expiration date, so you’ve got to enjoy it while you’re young. You’ve got to stay in the present and not over think things too much.”