MMA Ratings Podcast

November 28, 2021

Fantastic Four: Four Things That Make Rose Namajunas Elite

By Schwan Humes

Rose Namajunas, the UFC Strawweight Champion, has long been seen as a mixed martial arts prodigy, someone who had been tapped as part of the future of women’s mixed martial arts, and one of the faces of the sport as a whole. But unlike many other fighters marked as potential stars or future champions, Namajunas made good on her promise, moving from newcomer to prospect to star to title challenger, then champion, former champion, and champion again. Namajunas has played many different roles, faced a number of opponents and overcome adversity in and out of the cage during her time in the sport, making her current position as unlikely as it is impressive. Today we take time out to take a closer look at Rose Namajunas and what exactly makes her elite:

1) Length/Size

In mixed martial arts, certain factors have historically been flaws in the skillsets of most fighters. One of them is their lack of footwork -- they don’t know how to close distance, nor do they know how to maintain it. So when a fighter has advantages in height and/or length, he or she instantly poses problems for a majority of opponents, as most fighters rely exclusively on safe zones. When opponents can't reach them with probing shots or combinations, nor pressure aggressively due to the risk of being countered with strikes or reactive takedowns, they can be easily backed up with long strikes because they don't have the footwork to circle out or angle out to neutralize advantages in reach. Nor do they typically have the defensive awareness to get around strikes or close distance in order to achieve clean takedowns and clinches, or get in a position to put shots together to overwhelm, break down or control the other fighter.

Namajunas’ length affords her freedom; knowing these fighters have those technical limitations or holes, she can push opponents back, or counter opponents when they over pursue. This means that she generally controls the terms of engagement in most matchups right off the bat. The only way that changes is if an opponent is willing and able to pay the price, which raises with every step she takes, in order to get closer to threatening or punishing Namajunas. Because of her length, half the work for Namajunas is done before she even establishes her jab, her counter punches, or her footwork; the minute the fight starts her opposition is facing an uphill battle technically and strategically. Jon Jones and Stefan Struve are two example of fighters whose height and length have afforded them a certain degree of success offensively and defensively for the very same reasons.

2) Footwork

Namajunas’ length is a natural advantage, one that many fighters have, but very few ever really take advantage of it past the base levels. And eventually, these fighters get punished to varying degrees when they face opponents who have advantages -- or better yet, skill -- in regards to footwork, which would include positioning, angling in and out, circling, and changing the length of steps (full, half, quarter) or changing the rhythm (staccato, legato, portato). These are things you see Jose Aldo, Valentina Shevchenko, and Ciryl Gane exhibit. This is where Namajunas separates herself from fighters like Jones and Struve -- she is aware of the advantages that her length provides, but she doesn't rely on it exclusively, and as a result has not been exposed or made less effective in regards to defensive consistency and offensive efficiency.

This provides a layer of defense as it pertains to takedown defense, since Namajunas doesn't move forward or backward in straight lines, which limits an opponent's ability to pressure her or set up takedowns with strikes. This essentially cuts her opponents’ opportunities to take her down in half. Offensively Namajunas’s footwork allows her to pressure opponents, cleanly close the distance, and get into position to attempt and complete singles, doubles, trips, sweeps, and body lock takedowns without paying a cover charge (or as high of a cover charge as others do) for the attempt of that strategy. This allows her to take advantage of her incredibly dynamic, creative, and esoteric grappling, something many fighters who are high-level wrestlers or grapplers can’t do, because of their lack of fundamental, measured, and technical footwork. It also sets up our next thing...

3) Striking

The changes in Namajunas’ footwork have maximized and refined her striking; the earlier iteration of Rose Namajunas didn't have the precision, positioning, or nuance necessary to strike intelligently, using poise and clean technique. Early on in her career, her striking evinced a traditional martial arts background, as she employed a variety of kicks, knees, and punches bolstered by her explosive athleticism, and overall, her freewheeling approach was emboldened due to her physical gifts. As her footwork was slowly installed, refined, and diversified, it allowed her striking to mature because she no longer had to rely exclusively on athleticism or height. She didn't have to worry about blowing someone out or scaring someone off because she lacked the tools to limit their offensive pressure, power or volume; she started to be more mature, accurate, and balanced because of the defensive awareness that came as a result of the footwork.

Namajunas' right hand became a game changer, one that has become one of the most feared weapons in women’s MMA. However, the tool that truly allowed her to unlock the full range of weapons, both physical and technical, was the jab. Namajunas’ jab has become legendary, on par with some of the best in all of MMA, including Aldo, Georges St-Pierre, Kenny Florian, “King Mo” Lawal, and Pat Curran. Namajunas’ jab is fast, accurate, sharp, and independently effective. But what makes it truly unique is the fact that it is multifaceted -- it can establish or reestablish range, it can create entries (and limit them), it gauges distance, sets rhythm, disrupts rhythm, sets up and builds offense, and acts as a line of defense against a variety of offense, whether that be striking, grappling or wrestling.

4) Grappling

As mentioned earlier, Namajunas’ dynamic creativity as a grappler has gotten her many of her highest profile wins: There was the jumping armbar at Invicta FC 4 that went viral and started the legend and hype train of “Thug Rose.” There were three consecutive and increasingly savage submission finishes while competing on The Ultimate Fighter which only gave her more momentum and credibility, as she convincingly finished three of the best available fighters in the new weight class, looking like a juggernaut cutting a swath of destruction through the competition. And after a less than stellar showing against inaugural UFC Strawweight Champion Carla Esparza, there were the two submission wins she rattled off over Angela Hill and Paige VanZant before her very high profile (and brutal) rear naked choke win over recent signee and former Invicta champion Michelle Waterson. As damaging as Namajunas’ striking has been, what has helped her immensely is the fear of her grappling, both in regards to the freedom it affords her as a striker and the fact that has led many fighters to decide that engaging in extended and often high contact striking exchanges with one of the most physically gifted and technically skilled strikers in any division in the sport is a better path to victory.

Opponents of Namajunas have survived extended striking battles with her, some have even won exchanges when engaging in firefights. But there aren't many fighters who can say they engaged willingly or were forced into grappling exchanges with Rose Namajunas and lived to tell the tale. Whether it's creating scrambles that throw opponents off balance and out of position, allowing her to snatch submissions, or getting advantageous positions where she can pound fighters into submission or force them to extend or seek escapes, creating openings for submissions, the threat of Namajunas’ ground game takes away much of their aggression as it pertains to how they attack her, and influences what they choose to attack her with. That means Namajunas holds the majority of the cards in most fights she engages in, and she is only really vulnerable to fighters with very particular physical and/or technical skill sets that allow them to navigate danger zones, creating instances where they can punish her, systematically break her down, or overwhelm her.

In her first fight with Weili Zhang at UFC 261, we saw power, timing, length, and high-level striking, as Namajunas clearly showed the gap between them in talent, experience, and range of skills. It was the very best of Rose Namajunas technically, physically, and strategically. But in the rematch, the four things I listed, the things that make Namajunas elite, did not make many appearances. The mental aspect of the game stymied Namajunas and allowed the former champion to not just win rounds but make an argument among fans and media that she won the fight. Namajunas chased the knockout, looked to assert herself too aggressively, and summarily gave up the physical and technical advantages she had over Zhang. Namajunas’ corner finally got to her halfway through the fight and got her back to fighting a controlled, patient, technical fight that provided her with the opportunity to control Zhang’s aggression, navigate her physicality, and assert herself well enough to win a contested decision.

UFC 268
Rose Namajunas vs. Zhang Weili (UFC Women's Strawweight Championship): Rose Namajunas def. Zhang Weili via split decision (47-48, 48-47, 49-46).
The bout at UFC 268 highlighted the best and worst of Namajunas, a woman who is seemingly created not just to fight; but to dominate the sport of fighting, while expressing the beauty of fighting as an art form. But Namajunas is also a fighter whose talents are often muted by her inconsistent mindset and headspace; in this fight she very well could have lost, her physical gifts allowed her enough margin for error to stay in the contest long enough for her to reset, lock in, and separate herself in what had previously been a nip-tuck affair. Namajunas is an all-time talent, and has all-time skill, in the same way Paul George is an all-time great in skill and talent in basketball. Much like George, the question is never and will never be whether they are good enough to be the best, or skilled enough to beat the best. The question is, if and when things get tough -- be it physically, mentally or strategically -- will Namajunas perform to the best of her ability? Will she find a way to push through, regain control, or rein herself in so she can execute her game plan and win?

The vast majority of the time, the answer is “Yes.” Rose Namajunas is a uniquely gifted fighter, one who has been blessed with all the physical tools necessary to not just become a world class fighter, a top ten fighter, or a top five fighter, but a world champion and pound-for-pound entrant in the world of women’s mixed martial arts. Namajunas is one of the few fighters who is as good as advertised, a fighter who really lacks any real technical or physical holes, but in spite of these things has suffered more than one defeat. Namajunas on paper is the closest thing to what a perfect fighter is, as she equally balances striking, grappling, wrestling, defense, offense, counters; she is at once a savage finisher, a punishing fighter, and a slick technician. She can attack and defend on multiple levels and can exploit opponents in a multitude of ways. That allows her to dictate the pace, place and nature of her engagements and exchanges. All these things make her exceptional, and a truly elite fighter, not just in women’s MMA, but MMA as a whole.

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