By Schwan Humes
On July 30, 2016, the three-fight winning streak and reinvention of "Thug" Rose Namajunas came to a sudden stop, as she lost a closely-contested three-round decision to Karolina Kowalkiewicz at UFC 201, stopping her from receiving a second opportunity to rule over the strawweight division. This Saturday night at UFC on Fox 24, Namajunas gets a chance to reassert herself as the biggest threat to the title reign of champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. The only person standing in her way is former Invicta Atomweight champion, and current highly-ranked strawweight, Michelle "The Karate Hottie" Waterson, who is coming off of a huge win over the much publicized but not heralded Paige VanZant. The oft injured Waterson is on the precipice of mainstream success in and out of the cage, and with one more win she becomes the next title challenger and potential crossover star. But today we take a look at Rose -- what she was, what she became, and where she might end up.
Rose Namajunas has long been known among mixed martial arts observers as one of the most talented fighters not just in the women's divisions, but MMA as a whole. The question for analysts and fans wasn’t whether she had the talent to compete, but whether she had the discipline, poise and grit to put things together and become a process-minded, strategically aware, dynamic fighter. The athleticism, creativity, and unorthodox technical setups were there. The ability to channel that unique physical and technical set of skills wasn't, and in the biggest spots against the best opponents, "Thug" found herself slowed down, walked down, and outclassed.
This new iteration of Namajunas, masterfully directed and developed by underrated MMA coach Trevor Wittman, is not defined by her athleticism or aggression. No, this "Thug" is cerebral, poised, and efficient. Namajunas has become a busy and measured out fighter. What really allows her to maintain the distance, pace, and terms of engagement in a fight is her footwork. For a fighter with no hint of a world class pedigree, Namajunas’s angles, lateral movement, entries, and exits are surprisingly efficient and consistent, regardless of the volume of strikes or amount of pressure generated by her opposition.
The second and most notable beneficiary of this improvement in footwork is her striking. The changes in the length of steps (full, half, quarter) and articulation of her strikes (staccato, legato, portato) allow her to fight with an efficiency, accuracy, and control that she previously lacked “B.E.” (Before Esparza). Namajunas’s weapons of choice early on in her career were her variety of kicks, knees, and wild punches. As her striking has become more mature, her weapons of choice have become her straight punches. Her straight right is a sharp and damaging one. But her calling card is her jab and has become the most dominant of them; Namajunas’s jab is on par with some of the best in MMA, including Georges St. Pierre, Kenny Florian, “King Mo” Lawal, and Pat Curran. Not only is it sharp, fast, accurate, and independently effective on its own, but what makes it special is the fact that it's multifaceted; it can do many things. Namajunas’s jab establishes and reestablishes range, gauges distance, disrupts rhythm, sets up offense, and acts as a line of defense against aggressive strikers and wrestler-grapplers. Of more importance within the context of her redefined striking game is the jab’s ability to enhance the effectiveness of her straight right, turning it from a competent weapon to a game-changing one.
Karolina Kowalkiewicz, the issue wasn’t a technical one, but a strategic one, as the discipline and poise she flashed against Tecia Torres, Angela Hill, and Vanzant seemed to disappear when she faced an opponent who wasn't being quickly overwhelmed or clearly dominated. When Kowalkiewicz refused to allow her to dictate where and how the fight was going to go, Namajunas lost focus, choosing to engage her opponent in her area of strength (the clinch), instead of relying upon the clear advantages she had by using her footwork and jab to out-slick/out-quick Kowalkiewicz, who is as notoriously ineffective at range as she is dominant in the clinch. By the time Namajunas was in any position to reassert her long range striking game, too much damage had been accrued, and Namajunas’s ability to regain control of the fight slipped through her fingers.
This lack of sound judgment, in the biggest spot she had been in since her career renaissance, was a concerning sign. It made even the most ardent supporter of Namajunas wonder whether a corner had truly been turned, or if it she had just put on an act, concealing her true identity as a frontrunner with no ability to adjust, make good decisions, or persevere when faced with adversity.
This brings us back to where we started. This Saturday night at UFC on Fox 24, where once again Rose faces a high-end, top-ranked strawweight, albeit one who isn’t a natural strawweight. And while Waterson lacks Namajunas’s length and physicality, she is comparable to her in regards to athleticism. Furthermore, Waterson is far superior to Namajunas in mixed martial arts experience, and much more accomplished, especially as a former Invicta champion. This fight will determine whether Namajunas has in fact truly grown into a fighter whose skill, smarts, and will has grown to match her multidimensional and world class talent. If not, it will be her third loss to an elite opponent, and one that would declare to the world that while she is in position to be the best, she isn't quite ready to be.