Comfort in chaos: How Rose Namajunas found peace in the Octagon

Namajunas ready to defend title against Andrade (4:34)

Rose Namajunas reflects on her road to becoming one of the top fighters in the UFC ahead of her bout vs. Jessica Andrade. Order UFC 237 on ESPN+ https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv (4:34)

WESTMINSTER, Colo. -- Pat Barry is standing over a large aluminum bathtub in his backyard, gripping one of those plastic dog-ball launchers with both hands.

He has just poured an aggressive amount of ice chips into the tub and filled it to its brim with hose water. After letting the concoction sit, ominously, for several minutes, Barry begins to stir. The sound it creates is more jagged than you'd expect, because there's so much ice. Occasionally, for dramatic effect, Barry slaps the plastic launcher against the water's surface. Whhhtt!

It's obvious that ice baths are kind of Barry's thing.

"You know, these baths are 90 percent mental, 10 percent physical," he says. "If your mind can handle this for 10 minutes, what's a 25-minute fight? I mean, it definitely helps with recovery, too. But I almost look at it as, if your ankle hurts and you sit in this ... your ankle is gonna say, 'OK, I'm good. I'm healed. Just don't make me sit in that again.'"

If someone were to come to this modest townhouse just north of Denver in search of the world-champion martial artist who lives here, that visitor would almost certainly believe the champion is Barry. He is a larger-than-life personality. Think bull in a china shop. He's talkative, animated. He's also 245 pounds, with tree trunks for legs. He's a guy you'd want to have your back in a dark alley.

But Barry is not the world champion of the household.

As Barry stirs, his fiancée, Rose Namajunas, lies contently in a nearby chair, soaking in the rays of sun. Her arms stretch gently behind her head, and she's smiling. You get the sense there's nowhere she'd rather be than here, at her own home. In the background, Namajunas' best friend, her dog, Mishka, chases a squirrel between two trees. Apparently, the two do this every day.

And even when Namajunas stands, walks to the tub and gently lowers herself into the harshest ice bath anyone has ever created in a Colorado backyard, and you realize she is the world champion, it still can be hard to wrap your head around. Rose? The same Rose who just offered you a bowl of her homemade beet soup? And who will later fill the room with music as she softly plays her antique piano?

Yep, that Rose is one of the baddest women on the planet. And as Barry will tell you, she always has been. She was born for the fight game. The woman's a killer.

Barry himself used to be a fighter. Successful one, too. In his prime, he was a feared kickboxer who also fought in the UFC. But the first time he met Namajunas, nearly 10 years ago when she was still a teenager, Barry knew his career was over. Even at a young age, Namajunas had something Barry recognized he'd never had and never would.

"I can pinpoint the end of my career to when Rose first hit me," Barry says. "The first time we matched up and moved around, she hit me with this punch that took years for me to figure out. I instantly knew she had something special about her. ... I'm good, you know? Some would even say, at a point in time, I was great at what I did. But I didn't have the whole package.

"She's every bit of MMA, all combined into one."

This weekend, Namajunas (9-3) will defend her strawweight title against Brazilian challenger Jessica Andrade (19-6) at UFC 237 ... in Brazil. Oddsmakers have Namajunas as an underdog.

It is unusual for a UFC champion to travel to a challenger's backyard, but due to timing, the UFC's schedule and Namajunas' confidence in her ability to perform amid chaos, she agreed to go. Originally, there was talk of holding the event at a 45,000-seat soccer stadium, but it ultimately landed at Jeunesse Arena in Rio de Janeiro. Now there will be only 15,000 fans chanting "Uh vai morrer!" -- Portuguese for "You're going to die!" -- at her on Saturday.

"There is no safe fight," Namajunas says. "There is no safe environment for a fight. ... For me, it's about being in that mentality and being ready for anything."

It could be said that Namajunas' entire life has revolved around this idea of environment -- her desire to find a safe one and her need to explore the chaotic ones. Namajunas grew up in Milwaukee and is a first-generation American. Her parents came to the U.S. from Lithuania. According to Namajunas, her father was schizophrenic and exited her life relatively early. Her mother worked a lot, and her brother was rarely home. She has mentioned several times during her career that she experienced sexual abuse as a child, but has made it clear that she does not want to discuss specific details.

"I lived in a house, but I never felt comfortable there, never felt safe there," Namajunas says. "So that's something I've longed for my entire life, just having a place to feel safe, like no one's going to hurt me."

Namajunas found that safe place in 2016, when she and Barry purchased their home. The two have made significant improvements to it -- including a flower bed that extends around the perimeter. Namajunas wants to plant roses there this year.

This is her safe environment, and it's where she prefers to spend the majority of her time. But another side of Namajunas still seeks the unsafe, because the unsafe is where Namajunas grows.

"She came from a rough lifestyle growing up, and when she started facing those things, her life changed," explains Namajunas' coach, Trevor Wittman. "I think she's kind of become addicted to being in chaotic situations and seeing how she performs.

"When they asked me about Brazil, I was like, 'Eh, I've been down there a few times, judging [can be biased]' -- things like that. But then Pat was like, 'She said she fights the best when she's in chaos.' And it clicked for me, and I said, 'That's what she said? We're going to Brazil.'"

When Namajunas dropped former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk with a left hook in the first round of their title fight in November 2017 at Madison Square Garden, Barry recognized the punch immediately. That punch, which began Namajunas' title reign with one of the biggest upsets that year, was the same punch she hit Barry with all those years ago.

"It looks like a jab, but it's really a hook," Barry says. "There's some magical little twist to it. I remember thinking when she hit me with it, 'That's a really good punch.' We kept moving, and she hit me with it again. Same thing. I was pretty positive I was blocking it, and it just kept landing. I mean, I had giant gloves on, blocking, and my head kept getting knocked to the side."

For some reason, what took Barry five seconds to realize about Namajunas has taken the rest of the sport much longer. Frankly, this sport tends to count Namajunas out. Perhaps that's because Namajunas is so genuinely open about everything -- her fear, in particular. It is not unusual for Namajunas to cry at practice, during fight week or anytime else. Before her last fight, a rematch against Jedrzejczyk at UFC 223 in Brooklyn, New York, she was so tense in the locker room that she clenched her fists to the point her hands bled.

"[Crying] better not be a bad thing, because it be happening on a daily [basis]," Namajunas says, laughing. "It's the yin and yang. I don't know. It's a balance you've got to have, because it's a traumatic experience, getting into a fistfight. If you're not feeling it, you probably shouldn't be doing it."

At 26, Namajunas is the UFC's youngest champion and has already fought four of the strawweights in ESPN's top-10 rankings. The majority of her wins have come via submission, but she is coming off back-to-back fights in which she outstruck a Muay Thai specialist, Jedrzejczyk. "She's stunned me more than anyone I've ever trained with," says Namajunas' teammate Justin Gaethje, a UFC lightweight.

And yet Namajunas has been a betting underdog in each of her past three title fights. And there's a good chance that even if she wins this weekend, that trend will continue. If Namajunas remains champion, it's likely she'll eventually run into the red-hot, undefeated prospect Tatiana Suarez, whom many are already calling the future champ of the division.

The only sense Barry can make of it is that Namajunas, at least when she's away from a fight, doesn't fit most people's concept of a cage fighter. And for that reason, perhaps she'll always be overlooked. But Barry believes this fight against Andrade -- a powerhouse of a strawweight who used to compete in a division 20 pounds heavier -- will go a long way in earning Namajunas the credit she deserves.

"It may seem like she's all over the place outside of fighting and her emotions are everywhere. Can she control them? Can she not?" Barry says. "But as her name gets announced and she's walking towards the ring, man, you can see it all. All the questions. All of the doubt. It just all comes together. And she's fantastic at what she does, man. When Rose is on, she's the best."