‘Thug’ Rose blossoms into a wholesome UFC star
Rose Namajunas posed with a UFC championship belt around her waist and a tomato plucked from her garden in her hands.
Namajunas has always had a bit of a green thumb, a labor of love passed on from her mother who could make strawberries blossom even in a tiny patch of yard in Milwaukee.
“When they asked us what we wanted to be when we grow up, in kindergarten I always said I wanted to be a farmer,” she said.
She’ll have to settle for the baddest woman in UFC.
Namajunas plowed through her competitors and landed in the biggest garden of ’em all — Madison Square Garden, and in the fight of her life at UFC 217. She left Joanna Jedrzejczyk in a battered heap and walked out the 115-pound UFC strawweight champion. With a buzzcut and steely determination that made a hybrid of some sort of Ripley meets Eleven sci-fi character, Namajunas dominated in a flash and thrust herself into the conversation as the new face of UFC.
“I was the talk of the town that night,” she said. “I’ve always felt that I was a star. I always knew that I am a star. The only thing that was missing was the belt.”
Oh, Namajunas has the belt in the suburban Denver home she shares with fiancee and training partner, Pat Barry. It’s in her closet.
“It’s got an energy to it, you know? We want to make sure we don’t too wrapped up in it,” she said. “But we’ll shine it up. Give it some love.”
Namajunas has felt nothing but love since winning a title on a card that fans, starting with UFC President Dana White, widely called one of the best in the company’s 25-year history. Namajunas, T.J. Dillashaw and Georges St. Pierre all won belts as challengers.
“The UFC in general, we’ve been in kind of a weird spot lately,” she said. “That card is something that doesn’t come by very often. We haven’t seen a card like that in a really long time and it was something special to remember.”
UFC has spent the year craving a new box office star that can carry the promotion into 2018 and beyond while stalwarts Ronda Rousey, Conor McGregor and Jon Jones are on the bench. UFC’s promotional push had been all-in on Jedrzejczyk, the Polish fighter who was a win away from matching Rousey with six straight title defenses.
Namajunas is used to taking the shine off UFC’s brightest female stars.
Paige VanZant’s rise into championship contention was chopped when Namajunas choked her out in 2015.
Michelle Waterson was pegged as the next one until Namajunas choked her out, too, in April.
She was never a factor in their fight. Namajunas dropped her early in the first round with a big right hand, finished off a combination with a vicious left and pounced on a fallen Jedrzejczyk to finish her off.
The MSG crowd that was solidly behind Jedrzejczyk during the walk to the cage roared with cheers when Namajunas won. Namajunas choked back tears as White placed the championship belt on her shoulder.
“I make my environment what I want it to be,” Namajunas said. “I went to her castle where she felt comfortable, where she wanted to be in New York City and I took it from her.”
UFC announcer Joe Rogan said a superstar was born in New York.
“I hope the UFC realizes, and I think they do, that’s a … star. That’s a real star,” he said this week on his “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast. “She’s a genuinely nice person. When you look like her and you’re 115 pounds and you’re a woman and you (mess) up the Boogeyman, yeah, crowds are going to gravitate to that. If she doesn’t become as a big a star as any other woman in MMA, I would be stunned.”
Namajunas said that as champ, she wants to skip the brash trash talk that shot McGregor to mainstream stardom and has been imitated throughout UFC, including by the champions Jedrzejczyk, Michael Bisping and Cody Garbrandt, who all lost at UFC 217.
Namajunas, who said she earned the nickname “Thug” as a kid from one of her neighbors, used her post-fight interview to preach kindness.
“This was the fight I had been fighting for,” she said. “Yes, the belt is a goal. But in this fight in particular, I wasn’t fighting for the belt but the bigger picture. Ever since I lost to (Karolina Kowalkiewicz), I decided I wanted to change the world.”
Namajunas has said she was a victim of abuse and violence in a childhood complicated by watching her father suffer from schizophrenia. She also spoke out against the toxic atmosphere she found early in her MMA training at Roufusport. As Namajunas takes a turn trying to steer the women’s division into the future, she hoped she could serve as role model for someone looking for a voice.
“Of course I want to leave things, especially negative things, in the past,” she said. “But if it can help somebody overcome something, then I want to make sure it ends up on a positive note. I don’t want to dwell on negative things.”
The big negative in New York? Someone played the wrong walkout song. She requested “Sweet Freedom” by Michael McDonald.
“They played some Oasis song or something,” Barry said.
“It was definitely not my type of music,” Namajunas said.
Namajunas planned to take some time off headed into the holidays and had no contender or timeframe in mind for her first title defense.
She just knows that next time, everyone will be watching for her.
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press.