Mixed martial arts is known for many things.
Violence. More blood than most people can stomach. Awful T-shirts. Real bad tattoos. Passionate/drunk fans. Dana White and Joe Rogan screaming at you: This is the biggest fight ever and you’d just be stupid not to order it, and you know we’re telling you the truth because our faces are so red.
Of all the things the sport is known for, subtlety is not one.
Life is full of shades of gray, of differing and wholly unique personalities and traits and relationships.
Mixed martial arts? Fighters seem to fall into one of two personality traits: Conor McGregor or boring.
And who can blame them? One look at the riches McGregor’s brash and outlandish promotional style has wrought, and it’s enough to make anyone consider taking the same path.
You can talk and say ridiculous things, or you can be respectful and never meet the same heights of superstardom. And forget about padding your bank account.
Which is why it was such a breath of fresh air to see 25-year-old Rose “Thug” Namajunas win the UFC women’s strawweight title last week. Namajunas, from her shorn locks to her anti-MMA demeanor, is more than just a new title-holder. She’s a superstar in the making and an immensely unlikely one.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk is a terrifying cyclone of sharp and pinprick-accurate limbs.
The first time I saw her doing her thing was at a media workout before her fight with Carla Esparza in Dallas a few years ago. The impression I left the gym with that day was: “Oh my God, this is the most terrifying person that’s half my size on this entire planet.”
And she was. Jedrzejczyk brutalized Esparza and took the championship, and she never looked back. But somewhere along the way, “Joanna Champion” became more than just a fun nickname. She started believing her own hype, which is easy to do when you’re obliterating all your peers.
Jedrzejczyk said a lot of hurtful things about Namajunas in the lead-up to their fight on November 4. Jedrzejczyk forgoes the standard MMA trash-talk bible and goes straight for the psychological jugular. During the conference call on October 25 to promote the fight, Namajunas spoke of how she believed her challenge could help promote mental health awareness.
“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,” Namajunas said. “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–king do whatever the f–k you want to do, and do what makes you happy, and be a good person, and you can overcome anything.
“I’ve overcome some demons in my path, and just, every day I wake up and I’m f–king 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.”
Jedrzejczyk’s retort was as unexpected as it was brutal.
“How do you want to be a champion and deal with all of these things? You know what? You are not stronger mentally,” she said. “You are mentally unstable and you are broken already, and I will break you in the fight.”
Not exactly your typical pre-fight banter. Jedrzejczyk kept up the onslaught up to and throughout fight week, leading to an unforgettable visual during the public ceremony of Namajunas praying on stage, her eyes closed tightly, as Jedrzejczyk stood in her face and told her she planned on taking her soul the next day.
Pride goeth before a fall. And Jedrzejczyk fell. Hard.
The great irony of Namajunas’ win at UFC 217 starts with the way it actually happened: Namajunas did it using Jedrzejczyk’s own best tools against her.
Namajunas didn’t go in the Octagon and take Jedrzejczyk down and submit her. That would’ve been an impressive thing, but it could never hold a candle to what actually happened.
Jedrzejczyk has never been untouchable on her feet; she takes more strikes than you might realize. But she’s a survivor, always able to inflict more damage on her opponents than they on her.
Namajunas has never been known as a striker. Her best career moments have always come from grappling.
And yet, Namajunas stood in front of the world champion and beat her senseless with her hands and feet. She dropped her to the canvas multiple times and then finished her by knocking her to the canvas and then pounding her into submission.
Jedrzejczyk said she would mentally break Namajunas and insinuated that she wasn’t stable enough to mentally handle the pressure.
Instead, it was Jedrzejczyk who ended up folding under the weight of the moment.
There is no shame in tapping to strikes, as Jedrzejczyk did. A fighter’s long-term health is more valuable than many athletes even recognize. Anyone who senses they are taking damage with no way to recover must be applauded for recognizing it and doing something about it.
And yet there was something deliciously ironic about the moment unfurling the way it did.
Namajunas didn’t break. She did the breaking.
In 2014, I profiled Namajunas for Bleacher Report. I asked her coach Trevor Wittman what he believed Namajunas’ greatest strength was. Grappling? Athleticism?
No, Wittman said. It was her mental strength.
“You can win with technique. But with the mental aspect, you can reach greatness,” Wittman said. “It’s so cool to see her cry before a fight because she can look at herself in the mirror. She understands that fear is a natural thing in this sport. But she turns fear into belief.”
If Thug Rose goes on to become a genuine megastar—if she follows in the footsteps of Ronda Rousey and finds herself a genuine mainstream attraction—it won’t be the knockout of Jedrzejczyk that sent her there.
It won’t even be found in the minutes after Jedrzejczyk yielded when Dana White draped Namajunas’ new belt over her shoulder and she allowed joyful tears to flow, even if only for a moment. Joe Rogan cornered Namajunas for the typical post-fight interview we’re used to seeing, but it was anything but typical:
Rogan: I’m at a loss for words. That was unbelievable. The winner and new UFC strawweight champion of the world: Rose Namajunas. How does that sound to you?
Namajunas: Man, it sound like buttah. Sound like buttah.
Rogan: Does this even feel real?
Namajunas: No. It feels like a movie right now.
Rogan: There was so much tension and so much emotion leading up to this fight. The weigh-ins, she was saying all kinds of crazy stuff to you. And you were reciting the Lord’s Prayer. What was going through your mind when all this was happening?
Namajunas: There’s so much crap going on in the media, news and stuff. And I just want to try and use my gift of martial arts to try and make this world a better place. Change the world. This belt don’t mean nothing, man. Just be a good person. That’s it. This is extra. This is awesome, but let’s just give each other hugs and be nice, man. I know we fight, but this is entertainment. And afterwards, it’s nothing.
And that is the perfect illustration of why Namajunas is so refreshing, and why she has the kind of star potential promoters dream about, and why it’s likely we’re still in the first few chapters of a story that might just reach incredible heights.
She didn’t comment on the things Jedrzejczyk said about her, though she would have been perfectly within her rights to do so. She didn’t gloat. She didn’t fawn over herself.
“Be a good person,” she said. Let’s just give each other hugs and be nice.
It’s an earnest and simple message. We are highly politicized. Our differences have divided us so greatly that it’s difficult to imagine reconciliation. Social media is a wasteland of snark. Anger is our default setting.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Especially in mixed martial arts. Not everyone needs to be Conor McGregor. We don’t need another Colby Covington, with his penchant for xenophobic comments. We don’t need another super bro like Mike Perry. We have more than enough negativity in our sport.
Thankfully, we have one Rose Namajunas, and she’s the opposite of what we usually get in MMA.
And though she may not be able to offset all the negativity on her own, we’re still pretty lucky that she’s around to try.
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