Combat sports, like many things in life, have traditionally been dominated by an over-emphasis on the brash, the brawn, and projecting an air of fearlessness no matter how you’re feeling on the inside.
Fear is weaponised by those who seek to draw out cracks in the facade of their adversaries and moments of visible doubt of swarmed upon by fans who only add to the delusion that these athletes are unfeeling, unflinching super-soldiers.
It’s genuinely refreshing to see fighters as revered as Donald Cerrone speak about the crippling distress they feel before and during bouts. Cowboy, who has been quite vocal about his intense pre-fight nerves, did his best in the below video to describe exactly how conquering these nerves is what continues to bring him back to the table.
Fighting, in its simplest form, is conquering a problem.
To deny that one of the most prevalent problems in life exists and not to highlight it is to do your own strength in overcoming it a disservice.
Ahead of UFC 237 this weekend, I think it’s worth highlighting one of the sport’s most honest fighters in this regard. One who not only is incredibly open about the toll that this sport takes but also one who is not afraid to confront that fear in the most extreme ways possible.
When Rose Namajunas stepped up in an attempt to vanquish the seemingly-unbeatable women’s strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 217, she did so at a time in which the Polish fighter was just starting to break herself into the eyes of the mainstream.
And to be honest, Joanna was playing up to it in a big way – most notably at the event’s official weigh-ins.
She relentlessly attempted to elicit fear out of her latest would-be-victim. Hitting her with a barrage of what we can only presume to be a mixture of taunts and insults, the famously soft-spoken Namajunas just stood there, reciting the Lord’s prayer.
If Joanna embodied the fear in that situation, Rose took on the guise of a mythical or even biblical figure – staring the beast right between the eyes just hours ahead of their inevitable clash.
We all know what happened next, Rose sprung one of the most incredible upsets in the history of the sport – not only beating Jedrzejczyk in the striking exchanges but TKO’ing her decisively in the very first round.
Taking to the mic in the biggest moment of her life, in front of the packed Madison Square Garden, she relayed a message of peace and love before belittling her own accomplishment in comparison to the more important things in the world.
She, of course, went on to defeat Jedrzejczyk once again at UFC 223 – solidifying herself as the real deal with another impressive performance, but not before the events of the show’s now-infamous media day nearly derailed everything.
We all more or less know the story behind Conor McGregor’s attack on the bus that carried his great rival Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Rose was on that bus and in a recent interview done during UFC 237 fight-week, she spoke about the ongoing effect of that skirmish and how it was something of a traumatic event, even today.
“All the stress of what happened on the bus in Brooklyn took a lot out of me emotionally and physically. I just needed to give myself that break and recuperate. It really bothered me, and it is still an ongoing thing. I’ve learned that you take it one day at a time.
“Sometimes it might be hard, but once you get into it, you are definitely happy that you did it and helps calm the mind. I just always remind myself of all the positive things that I have in my life and the positive effects that I have on people that keeps me going.” (via Sporting News)
Some fight-fans have read into this the wrong way – calling Namajunas mentally weak for citing an event in her recent past as traumatic, for showing vulnerability in a sport as driven by supposed-toughness as this is.
But from where I’m standing, Rose has made a habit of highlighting the fear and then diving headfirst into it.
For the second defence of her UFC strawweight title, she has well and truly thrown herself into the deep-end again, taking a fight with Jessica Andrade, the hardest-hitting fighter in the division, who is Brazilian, in Brazil.
Combat sports fans down the years will know that the Brazilian fans are among the most fiercely loyal and incredibly intense supporters out there.
These Brazilian fight-cards are generally stacked from top-to-bottom with home fighters against outsiders – pairings that summon deafening shouts of Uh Vai Morrer in the direction of those who are attempting to steal away glory from the crowd’s national heroes.
The Portuguese chant, which, of course, translates to ‘you are going to die’, will perhaps be heard at its loudest in the night’s main-event when Rose makes the walk to the octagon after Andrade in Rio.
The champ will enter enemy territory Saturday night – a place where she is going to be met with a hostile environment that will test her mettle to the fullest.
She no doubt knows this full-well and the fact that she took this fight in itself is consistent with the type of person she has shown herself to be.
Rose Namajunas is a truly unique individual in a sea of people striving to make their mark – the type of fighter to show extreme vulnerability despite holding a proven desire to confront fear at every opportunity, facing it head-on with complete transparency.
Her words to Joe Rogan in the wake of her UFC 217 do a good job in summing up her character.
“I feel like a normal person, man. That’s it, I’m just regular, ain’t nothing special here.”
With that being said, if I’m being totally honest Rose, I’ll have to respectfully disagree with you on that one.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena