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Rose Namajunas trains at ONX Sports in Denver, Colorado, on April 22, 2022. (Photo by Zac Pacleb/Zuffa LLC)
Athletes

Rose Namajunas Has ‘Leveled Up’ As A Champion

Strawweight Champion Rose Namajunas Feels Everything Is In Place For A Successful Fight At UFC 274

Rose Namajunas didn’t need any questions answered when she defended her title against Zhang Weili at UFC 268. She got all the confirmation she needed the previous April when she knocked Zhang out with a first-round high kick – her second title-winning highlight for the ages. 

What her split decision win over Zhang did provide, however, was an opportunity to fine tune her life a little bit more. Namajunas was transparent about the ways her first title reign impacted her before losing the belt to Jéssica Andrade, and so this time around, she knew better about how to handle the expectations of a UFC champion. She parlayed that organization of her life into a measured and gritty performance that earned her the split decision nod in New York City.

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“I think I just kind of leveled up everywhere 10 percent,” Namajunas told UFC.com. “I think what I took away from that fight is that I’m a true champion, and this is my division, and I’m the best.”

Namajunas cites UFC Hall of Famer Georges St-Pierre as an inspiration in terms of how he has continued his martial arts journey beyond the length of a fighting career, as well as the incremental improvements the most elite athletes chase once they reach a certain point of their career. 

At present, Namajunas’ biggest task is defending her belt for a third time against the streaking Carla Esparza. The fight is Namajunas’ fifth career rematch – she holds a 4-0 record to this point – but the seven-and-a-half-year gap represents her longest between two fights against the same opponent. 

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When it comes to her previous success against familiar opponents, Namajunas cites her ability to sort the encounters into their own buckets and not overthink things too much, but she is excited to match up with a grappling ace in Esparza. She compares this matchup to her rematch against Tecia Torres mainly because of the long gap between those two fights but, in the end, she understands the unique nature of the bout.

“I really know how to just compartmentalize all my different experiences," Namajunas said. "It’s really important to take the information that you’ve learned and stuff from the past, but always be in the present moment. I think once we meet face-to-face, there will be similar feelings. Maybe feelings from the past might reignite or whatever but, for the most part, I’m just focused on every day, one step at a time and really just focusing on my evolution as a fighter.”

Rose Namajunas: 'Ultimately, I'm The Best' | UFC 274
Rose Namajunas: 'Ultimately, I'm The Best' | UFC 274
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Although Namajunas has earned a reputation as an elite striker, five of her seven finishes are submissions, so there’s a complex layer to this matchup beyond a supposed striker-vs-grappler reading. 

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When looking at Esparza, what jumps out is her wrestling acumen. The strawweight division’s inaugural champion holds the division’s takedown record with 42 and averages more than three takedowns per 15 minutes, according to Fight Metric. 

After beating Namajunas in 2014, Esparza lost her belt to Joanna Jędrzejczyk in 2015, starting a tough three-year stretch in which she went 3-4. However, the “Cookie Monster” turned things around in 2019 and embarked on a five-fight win streak that included victories over Michelle Waterson and Marina Rodriguez, capped with a TKO win over Yan Xiaonan – Esparza’s first finish since submitting Namajunas.

“What’s impressed me about her over the years is her consistency and discipline and her heart,” Namajunas said. “She just kind of pulls through, and her ability to just do the same thing and for her people to pull other people out of their game in order to do the same thing she always does is pretty amazing because everybody knows, and she’s still able to pull it off. Especially because she’s not super young anymore, but that experience and that consistency and that discipline is really what has kept her floating around the top ranking of the division. Ultimately, I’ve been using that as inspiration to be more consistent and disciplined in my own life and training. It’s worked.”

Grounded & Grateful: Rose Namajunas Picks Up Gardening
Grounded & Grateful: Rose Namajunas Picks Up Gardening
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UFC 274 could represent another special night in a career of them for Namajunas. After she competes in the co-main event, her teammate and friend Justin Gaethje competes in the headliner against lightweight champion Charles Oliveira for gold. Namajunas inspired an emotional, celebratory video from Gaethje after she finally earned the belt, and Namajunas expects to shed some tears should “The Highlight” finally earn the undisputed belt. The first and only other time the two competed on the same card was UFC 268, and both came out victorious. 

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However, “Thug” Rose knows the only thing she can control is herself on fight night. She said she doesn’t experience a “switch flip” so much as just a culmination of building blocks to the moment of the fight. The hard work is done, and, at this point, it’s been done as efficiently and effectively as at any point in her fighting career. This potential achievement represents another big step for the champion, although it is driven less by revenge than it is pure competitiveness. 

“Ultimately, I think beating Carla is a huge milestone for me,” she said. “Then, from there, there’s other milestones that are going to be had, but it’s just every day, live like a ninja.”

There’s a particular ease that radiates off Namajunas these days – one that kind of matches the maturity and skill level with which she operates in the Octagon. Although still south of 30 years old, Namajunas has gone through the wringer in her fight career. 

From losing to Esparza in an Ultimate Fighter finale that doubled as a title fight as a 22-year-old, to her shock-the-world win over Jędrzejczyk to capture the belt, all the way until now, Namajunas maintained a certain emotional transparency, allowing those on the outside to understand her development as a person and martial artist. 

So when she shares in our interview that she pretty much has everything in order when it comes to fighting, training and all that entails, it begs the question of where she goes from here. 

“It’s just a journey,” Namajunas said. “I’m enjoying every step of the way, the process. I enjoy training. I enjoy being a martial artist. Even when I’m done fighting, I’m always going to try to stay in the gym as much as possible. From there, I’m going to integrate it with my other lifestyle beliefs and my interest in growing food and being one with nature. I think it’s a very martial arts way of living, as well, so I would like to maybe integrate that even more post-fighting when I have a little bit more free time. 

“Each day, I’m always thinking about ways I can integrate it, so that’s where everything is going.”

UFC 274: Oliveira vs Gaethje took place on Saturday, May 7, 2022live from a sold out Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona. See the Final ResultsOfficial Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses — and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!