A confident Rose Namajunas hopes to inspire others in and out of the Octagon

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist

After doing everything near-perfectly – performing brilliantly against one of the sport’s elite women, handling the in-cage interview with aplomb and knocking it out of the park at the post-fight news conference – Rose Namajunas left Madison Square Garden at about 2:30 in the morning and headed to the airport for her trip home.

“I felt like I robbed a bank,” she said, chuckling, of her upset victory over Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 217 on Nov. 12 that gave her the women’s strawweight championship.

She needed just 3:03 in the first round to knock out Jedrzejczyk, who before the fight was being compared to the greatest women’s fighters ever. Namajunas ended that chatter with authority, dropping Jedrzejczyk early and then finishing her off with an amazing display of striking acumen.

It was, though, her performance in her brief interview with Joe Rogan in the Octagon after her victory that was most impressive. It showed an athlete who understands sports and its place in our culture.

“Thug Rose” hit all the right chords, sending a message of harmony to the world after an oh-so-violent victory.

“There’s so much crap going on in the media, news and stuff, and I just want to use my gift of martial arts to try to make this world a better place, to change the world,” she said. “This belt, this belt doesn’t mean nothing, man. Just be a good person, that’s it. This is extra. This is awesome, but just give each other hugs and be nice.”

The seeds of that speech were sown several months prior, at a UFC news conference introducing its upcoming fights. Several fighters scuffled with each other, both onstage and behind the scenes.

It was troubling to Namajunas. Before the fight, she noted the “negativity” she felt emanating from Jedrzejczyk, but said it was more than just from her opponent.

“One event that stuck out to me in particular was the summer [series press conference],” she said. “There were all these big fights and it was literally chaotic, being backstage and seeing how all the fighters were out of control. Nobody was being respectful toward anybody, fighting on stage. It was like a zoo, to me. I felt I was at a zoo thing. That’s all exciting and cool for fans and stuff, but that’s not the kind of environment I wanted to be in or be associated with.

“I want to bring back what martial artists acting like should be. It’s not just a sport. It’s an art, as well.”

At an often raucous news conference in Brooklyn on Wednesday, Namajunas stared silently ahead, and didn’t create any undue controversy. She’s confident she’ll beat Jedrzejczyk, but she openly professed her respect for what the former champion has done for the sport.

She knows she has a bully pulpit as champion and is attempting to use it to change attitudes. One doesn’t have to be loud and aggressive in public to be tough, she points out.

“My mission is bigger than just one division or just female [fighting],” she said. “It’s the entire world. I just want to, you know, be myself and show everybody they can just be themselves, too. I just want to fight for what I believe and hopefully inspire other people to do the same.”

But to affect any kind of change, she needs the kind of notoriety that the championship affords. She knows that Jedrzejczyk will be better the second time around, but she remains confident in her ability.

While Jedrzejczyk can make adjustments, Namajunas believes that she will still be largely the same.

“I am familiar with the way she fights and wants to attack,” Namajunas said. “I felt the first fight, I knew everything she was going to do. This time, I know she’s going to make some adjustments, but her style is her style. Part of being a martial artist, though, is being ready for the unexpected. I’m expecting her to be very good and I just have to match or exceed that.”

UFC women’s strawweight champion Rose Namajunas poses during UFC 223’s media day on Thursday, April 5, 2018. (AP Photo)
UFC women’s strawweight champion Rose Namajunas poses during UFC 223’s media day on Thursday, April 5, 2018. (AP Photo)

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