A common belief in mixed martial arts is that once a fighter has one foot out the door into retirement, it's probably time for them to hang it up. One exception has been Rose Namajunas.
In some ways, Namajunas (11-5), who faces France's Manon Fiorot at UFC Fight Night on Saturday in Paris, has always had one foot out of MMA. She's openly discussed the fears and self-doubt that have challenged her in this sport.
Four years ago, after a 2019 loss to Jessica Andrade at UFC 239 in Brazil, Namajunas matter-of-factly said, "Maybe I'll never do this again."
Nevertheless, this weekend feels like an important crossroads for Namajunas, who is still very much in her prime at age 31. She has not fought since losing her 115-pound strawweight championship at UFC 274 to Carla Esparza via split decision in May 2022, in one of the strangest title fights in UFC history. Namajunas was extremely inactive and timid during the bout and has admitted she felt a complete lack of killer instinct that night.
"One of the most boring fights ever," she said during UFC media day on Wednesday.
That alone is not a huge cause for concern because, again, it's Namajunas. She has a unique relationship with fighting, which is actually part of her appeal. She's emotional during camp and is known for crying during practice. Her ability to be vulnerable and embrace weakness almost seems to free up her ability to paint a masterpiece on fight night. Road bumps are part of Namajunas' story.
"I might have things and challenges that I deal with, but it's not anybody else's business," said Namajunas on receiving judgment on her performance against Esparza. "[Fans] are here to be inspired, to be entertained or to learn something. That's my job as a martial artist. I did my job -- but I definitely could've done a better job."
But when discussing MMA, there's also reality to consider. She's coming off a 15-month layoff for this fight, during which she seriously contemplated retirement. She's coming off the most subdued performance of her entire career. She's moving up a weight class to 125 pounds against a surging opponent fighting in her backyard.
"I can't see myself going back down again," said Namajunas on sticking at flyweight. "I wake up at 135, to go down to 115 now would be tough."
If the last two years have just been "Rose being Rose," there's no reason to believe she can't have a memorable performance against Fiorot (10-1) on Saturday. But if it's more indicative of something we see every day in MMA -- a veteran, former champion who has lost a bit of edge over time -- these circumstances might significantly expose that. The woman she's facing in Fiorot certainly has a lot to gain, and will go into the contest extremely hungry.
"I'm 100 percent sure if I put a good performance in this fight, I'm going to be fighting for the belt," said Fiorot, via an interpreter. "I think Rose is one of the best fighters we've ever seen. She's an incredible fighter. Personally, I put her Top 5 in the rankings. She's a former champ. It's a massive test for me before I go and fight for the belt."
If Namajunas returns to form, it changes the landscape of the 125-pound division. Current Mexican champion Alexa Grasso will defend her belt against Valentina Shevchenko on Sept. 16 in an immediate rematch from Grasso's upset of Shevchenko in March. Last Saturday, Erin Blanchfield picked up her sixth consecutive win by defeating former title challenger Taila Santos at UFC Fight Night in Singapore.
Namajunas would be an extremely high-profile addition to the top of this division, and a potential fight between her and Shevchenko would be an appealing matchup if everything fell correctly. The two have enjoyed divisional dominance at different points in their careers and have trained and sparred together in Namajunas' home base of Denver. Namajunas has already said her goal is nothing short of the belt, regardless of who has it.
"Originally, when I was making a bunch of goals when I was younger, 'two-division champ' was down on the list -- but it was on there," Namajunas said. "I think I'm known for surprising people, so it's kind of my style."
This one performance will go a long way in showing who Namajunas is in her now decade-long MMA career. And due to the circumstances and the matchup, it will likely be very definitive one way or the other.