In only the promotion’s second visit to Madison Square Garden, Namajunas entered UFC 217 last November as a heavy underdog against reigning Strawweight Champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who was hunting for her Ronda Rousey record-tying sixth straight successful title defense.
Namajunas, who entered 6-3 with five wins by submission, stunned Jedrzejczyk, then 14-0, by first round technical knockout. Not long after, the rematch was set for April 7 at Barclays Center, where the new champion retained her title after earning a five-round unanimous decision.
But that night, Namajunas, nicknamed “Thug Rose,” lacked something, recently admitting that her strongest point of internal uncertainty came moments before entering the octagon.
“I would say in the locker room before walking out,” she told BQE Media last Tuesday at a media luncheon in The Palm in Tribeca, asked when she felt most doubtful before fight time. “Normally I’ll feel a spark, the engine wasn’t turning on. You feel like you’ve got superpowers because that adrenaline is starting to spike. That time I didn’t feel it.”
She didn’t. Even after shocking the world months prior. Even after conquering the seemingly unconquerable to become the greatest women’s MMA fighter of all-time, according to some.
During an eight-week pre-fight training camp, she says her punches were being forced, her shoulders continued to tense and her anxiety continued to elevate.
“It was such an emotional fight week for me,” offered a candid Namajunas regarding a week that included the infamous Conor McGregor incident two days before the fight, which landed him an assault charge after attacking a bus of UFC fighters, including Namajunas.
“I was pretty drained going into the fight. I felt like I was making a lot of conscious decisions rather than just being on autopilot and flowing with it,” she said. “The first fight with her I felt like that was on 99 percent autopilot. I felt like I was awake for the whole thing.”
Returning to New York, even if it was for a nice luncheon on a cooperative spring day, still brought back those memories for Namajunas, who trains and lives in Denver.
Namajunas’ candor is also shared by her team, led by her fiancée, head coach and former UFC fighter Pat Barry, who revealed that he orchestrated a pre-training camp meeting in anticipation of their greatest fear being confirmed.
As it turns out, the suspicions were warranted.
“In that meeting, I said, ‘I think that this training camp we’ll have to have individual faith in ourselves, in our own preparation and what we’re doing,’” Barry recalled. “We might get all the way to the second round before something clicks in.”
Yet Namajunas still managed to outlast Jedrzejczyk in a brutal five rounds, perhaps on a night where few could have survived such an onslaught from the former champ, which included 145 landed strikes to Rose’s 105. Though, Namajunas scored a take down late in the final round, and had more significant strikes to the head (85) than Jedrzejczyk (64).
“Really what got me in there was just the belief of the message that I wanted to get out there, that’s what kept me going,” said Namajunas. “The reason behind why I’m doing this and that’s to try and be that positive message out there, so at least there’s some type of balance in the world.”
The Milwaukee-born champion, who says she had a vision of knocking out Jedrzejczyk in the second round before actually doing so in the first last fall, hasn’t quite developed the same star power as others, like her rival, in UFC.
The Jedrzejczyk’s and McGregor’s of the world generally are heavily active on social media, where Namajunas isn’t. Her focus always been the actual fight, not the image of it.
Since her last fight with Jedrzejczyk, she’s taken up gardening as a stress-relief method. She revealed that she’s developed compression fractures in two vertebras in her neck, and some stenosis.
Still, Jedrzejczyk earned $6 million during her title run, according to Barry. Namajunas knows that true star power is a process to attain, but defeating the one at the top of her game twice in a row in New York City leaves her and her team to wonder when they’ll achieve similar opportunity and stature.
“We see other fighters who have not achieved what Rose has achieved who are riding around in a brand new sponsored Mercedes, live in a three-story house, have boats and all that other s---, which is fine,’” said Barry. “When does Denver’s new restaurant send out a tweet, ‘I heard Thug Rose is hungry, come on down.’ When does Gordon Ramsay start tweeting to Rose, ‘if you’re ever in Vegas, come on by?’”
Namajunas says she may return to the ring this year, saying UFC’s planned November’s MSG card could be an option. Unlike her rival, she has no interest in a third fight with Jedrzejczyk, though, it’s probably a discussion point due to the lack of clear-cut challengers in the strawweight division at the moment.
It gives Namajunas, who says she once texted Jedrzejczyk to get coffee years ago upon hearing the then-champion was in Denver, time to rest her injuries. Thug Rose says she’d still talk to Jedrzejczyk, though, in private.
“It’d be really cool to be able to sit down with Joanna and ask her how she did it,” Barry said. “How did you do it? How did you stay awake for five years?”