Facing a presumed outcome, Rose Namajunas hopes the unexpected can topple Joanna Jedrzejczyk
Rose Namajunas has the trappings of a mixed martial artist, from her shaved head to her nickname, "Thug Rose."
But she also has played piano since she was 5 years old, the same amount of time she has studied taekwondo. She writes in her journal regularly, and she grows tomatoes outside her Denver home.
Namajunas (6-3-0) surprises people, and when she gets into the Octagon at UFC 217 on Saturday against undefeated strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk (14-0-0), she's counting on that surprise to knock the champ off balance.
Namajunas, 25, is returning to the Octagon with a belt on the line, something that first happened for her in 2014 when she fought Carla Esparza for the inaugural strawweight championship. She lost by submission in the third round. It has taken three years and one more loss, but Namajunas is looking at a field -- cleared by Jedrzejczyk's victories -- that is hers for the taking.
"If you look at the top three in the world now [behind Jedrzejczyk] -- Jessica Andrade, Claudia Gadelha and Karolina Kowalkiewicz -- Joanna has already beaten them," UFC president Dana White said. "Next in line is Rose. She's won four of the last five, so I think she's ready."
Beating Jedrzejczyk is no small task. In her professional MMA career, Jedrzejczyk has never lost, and that's not an accident. Jedrzejczyk isn't lucky; she's dominant. And Namajunas is not the least bit intimidated.
"It's all about me, no matter who I'm fighting," Namajunas said during a phone interview. "There are so many variables that go into a fight, you shouldn't waste your time worrying about the other fighters."
Namajunas grew up tussling on the Milwaukee streets with the neighborhood kids. "There were a lot of knucklehead kids running around," Namajunas said. They played basketball to pass the time, ducking inside anytime a car circled the block more than once. Sometimes they would "fight each other for fun," Namajunas said, practicing fending off multiple attackers just in case a group of people tried to take their bikes.
A neighbor gave Namajunas her nickname, "Thug Rose," because of the way Namajunas walked around with such swagger. With her hair "puffed up like a cat," as she put it, she projected strength that outweighed her slight frame. "In order to survive, I created a certain type of aura about myself that I was the baddest chick walking down the street," Namajunas said. "Anytime somebody underestimates me, Thug Rose comes out."
Her mother, who also played piano, put Namajunas in piano lessons to keep her busy and off the street as much as possible. Namajunas still spends time playing when she can; she just relearned "Fantasie-Impromptu" by Chopin.
But expect to see "Thug Rose" at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. She's facing a presumed outcome, one in which Jedrzejczyk will defend her belt en route to tying Ronda Rousey's record of six consecutive women's title defenses.
"Everyone who is not giving Rose a chance is just ridiculous," former UFC fighter Pat Barry, Namajunas' partner and coach, said during a phone interview.
Also helping Namajunas prepare is bantamweight fighter Valentina Shevchenko. Shevchenko, who lost to bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes at UFC 215, is familiar with Jedrzejczyk. They crossed paths in their Muay Thai days, facing each other three times in competition. Shevchenko won each time.
"I have a lot of respect for Joanna, but Rose is a complete MMA fighter," Shevchenko said. "She has everything it takes to win this fight. She's a complete MMA fighter. And she has the spirit of a warrior."
"I'm just going to come with something she's never seen before," Namajunas said. "I'm going to be my most complete self, and that's something she hasn't had to deal with. She will have to do something different than she's done before, and I don't think she's ready for that."
Namajunas burst onto the scene in 2014 on Season 20 of "The Ultimate Fighter," the reality series on FS1 featuring hopeful UFC fighters. White dubbed her "the next Ronda Rousey." It was at the conclusion of the season when Namajunas faced Esparza.
After losing, Namajunas clawed her way back to a showdown with top contender Kowalkiewicz at UFC 201 in 2016, but lost in a split decision. The loss derailed her opportunity at another title shot and postponed her chance to take on Jedrzejczyk.
"It was a team issue," Namajunas said of her lackluster performance, meaning that Barry wasn't in her corner during the fight. He was struggling with an addiction, one that came to a head that summer, when he was pulled over while driving under the influence, Barry told MMAfighting.com. Namajunas moved out. Barry watched Namajunas struggle against Kowalkiewicz from afar.
"I wasn't where I was supposed to be," Barry said. "My actions and the decisions that I made hindered the team."
"It's hard to focus on a fight when your heart is broken and you're not happy in your relationship, especially if that's your coach," Namajunas said. "That's like fighting without one leg."
After UFC 201, Barry said he and Namajunas confronted the adversity they faced "head on and together," like they do everything else.
"It's not like we have a relationship and then a fight relationship," Barry said. "Fighting is just a part of our life. There is no separation between the two. We are a team. We're a unit."
Three years after her first opportunity to fight for the strawweight title, Namajunas finds herself back where she started. The opponent is different, the setting is different, but her hunger remains. She has been tested and beaten, but when she steps into the Octagon on Saturday surrounded by a crowd of doubters, Namajunas believes her strength will win out.
"I'm right where I'm supposed to be," Namajunas said. "Eventually that belt is going to be mine."