In this week’s edition of Pundit Arena’s Fighter of the Week series, we’re going to take a look at a woman who may well be the future of the 115lb division, ‘Thug’ Rose Namajunas.
Rose Namajunas will make her long-awaited return to the UFC octagon this weekend when she takes on her fellow contender, the celebrated former atomweight star Michelle Waterson over three rounds at UFC on Fox 24.
A win for either of these women will most certainly place them in pole position for a shot at the belt, but in Namajunas, the UFC have a fighter who – win or lose – has all the time in the world to reach her undeniable potential. At 24, she has already gained a massive amount of experience and every single time she steps into the octagon she looks lightyears past her former self.
With her status as a real favourite among the fans growing by the fight, I think I can speak for us all when I say that a showdown between ‘Thug’ Rose and the champ Joanna Jedrzejczyk may well stand among the most potentially electric match-ups the UFC could possibly make in the latter half of this year.
Namajunas was a member of the season of the Ultimate Fighter that crowned the inaugural champion of the newly-formed women’s strawweight division in 2014 and entered the show as a relatively inexperienced 21-year-old with a record of 2-1.
Three highly impressive wins by way of submission allowed her to coast to the finale and though she was defeated on the night by the powerful wrestler that is Carla Esparza, her loss allowed her to regroup, reevaluate and ultimately gave her the experience necessary to better herself at the next time of asking.
Namajunas – in the wake of her third round submission loss – took about ten months away from competition, opting to focus on her training and take advantage of the rapid bursts of improvement that her young age would guarantee her before fighting again.
Rose’s main strengths lie in her incredibly versatile and deceptive striking. Her kicks, though perhaps not overly devastating, are as varied and unpredictable as anyone’s at 115lb right now and as a counter-striker, she possesses fantastic movement on the backfoot and a pair of very accurate hands to boot.
Despite her three submission victories in TUF and some highlight reel worthy finishes in her early professional career, I would still argue that her main skills lie in her standup. With a black-belt in both karate and taekwondo, her dynamism on the feet has given her the freedom to flex her muscles on the ground, with her never being afraid to shoot for a takedown, something that speaks volumes about her confidence in all areas.
And that’s what sets ‘Thug’ Rose apart from a lot of fighters in her division. She has that undeniable aura when she walks into the octagon, that unshakeable self-belief that you can see written all over her face. It’s a cold, dead stare and it’s one that is there only as a result of her hard work and unmistakable talent.
Angela Hill welcomed the returning Namajunas back into professional competition in late 2015 and though she possessed the type of pure Muay Thai skills that could have potentially troubled the Lithuanian-American on another night, Rose’s trickiness on the mat earned her a first round stoppage and sent out a chilling message to the division that not only was her future contender status beyond doubt, but that she was still in the process of feeling her way into her prime.
Paige VanZant and Tecia Torres both lost out against Namajunas in her next two outings but once more, the brakes were slammed down on her title aspirations when she dropped a very close, but thrilling three-round, split decision to the Polish muay-thai star Karolina Kowalkiewicz at UFC 201.
It was another setback for ‘Thug’ but again, not one for her to lose any sleep over. Kowalkiewicz employed a very intelligent game plan in this match-up and used her masterful knees within the clinch to sap the energy from her relentless opponent, something that gradually allowed her to take over the fight and nab herself a very close win, and the shot at Jedrzejczyk that came with it.
Namajunas faces off against Michelle Waterson this weekend and, win, lose or draw, she still has ample time to get herself to where she needs to be. The core skill set she possesses is impressive enough but what really clinches it is that unshakeable self belief and the attitude that comes as a consequence of that.
The future is looking very bright for the women’s strawweight division and things could well be looking very, very different at 115lb by the time the year ends, and no matter who comes out of this weekend’s contest the victor, Joanna will have her work cut out to hold onto the title that she has made her own in recent times.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena