Namajunas on return: I do miss having that belt
Ariel Helwani is an MMA reporter at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter at @arielhelwani.
Rose Namajunas’ last fight was more than 14 months ago.
On that night, in Brazil, she lost her strawweight title in dramatic fashion after she was knocked out following a slam by Jessica Andrade.
Following the bout, Namajunas said she might never fight again. Six months later, in an emotional interview, she told ESPN she decided to keep on fighting after all.
The original plan was for the fan favorite, nicknamed “Thug Rose,” to return to action at UFC 249 on April 18 against Andrade, however, the COVID-19 pandemic stalled those plans.
The bout was eventually moved to May 9, but Namajunas ultimately withdrew after two of her family members died after contracting the coronavirus.
“They were living in a hot spot where COVID-19 was,” Namajunas told ESPN. “They came down with it. They got put on ventilators and shortly, in a few days, it just happened like that. Passed away.
“For the longest time, just as a fighter, we deal with [many things]. I had MRSA before, we deal with the worst [things], we face death in the face all the time … or just serious injuries and things like that. So, for the whole world to get shut down for a virus at first seemed like, ‘What is this?’ We didn’t even know it was real. And then it hit home, and it was close to family. It scared me. It shook me up a little bit.”
Namajunas said the deaths happened about seven days apart. She decided to pull out of the rematch shortly thereafter.
“Everybody deals with death differently,” she said. “For me, it just wasn’t a great idea [to fight]. In a way, it has been a reset for me. It puts things into perspective. Before I was just trying to control everything around me and trying to make all these situations perfect and then everything just fell apart.
“Everything was looking good and then everything just fell apart. It just was a wake-up call for me. I can’t control anything but myself and that’s what’s the most important [thing]. Even though it was very tragic, I learned a lot from it. That’s all we can do. Keep praying and know this life is temporary. Everything is temporary, not everyone is the same, but what helps me is believing in my higher power and knowing that I have a purpose and this my purpose right now. It’s not going to be my purpose forever, but this is what I’m doing right now, and I got to make the most of it and enjoy it.”
And so Namajunas finally returns to action July 11 against Andrade at UFC 251 on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. She said she initially didn’t love the idea of fighting overseas again, but considering her newfound interest in religion, she now likes the idea of fighting in the Middle East.
She also seems to have regained her passion for MMA after falling out of love with it as champion.
“I love this sport,” she said. “There’s always things to gripe and complain about, but this is what I love to do, man. I’m a martial artist. I’m just pretty much hitting my prime right now, and it seems like everything, all of a sudden, is coming together.
“It seemed like everything was falling apart. Sometimes, things have to crumble down before you have to put them back together again.”
Namajunas celebrated her 28th birthday Monday. She won the strawweight belt as a 25-year-old in November 2017 when she scored a first-round TKO over then-champion Joanna Jedrecyzk in dramatic fashion at Madison Square Garden. She would win the rematch five months later, but being champion didn’t prove to be as great of an experience as she thought it would be. She eventually lost to belt to Andrade in May 2019.
“I don’t know why but ever since I turned 26, I think I just dealt with … becoming an adult was kind of difficult. Losing my title and all of that sad s—, all of that ungratefulness and bitterness, I just went through a lot of different stages, and I just kind grew to understand some things.
“Everything is temporary, so you just kind of have to live in the moment and enjoy yourself as much as possible.”
Recently, current strawweight champion Zhang Weili told ESPN that she would like to fight Namajunas in the future. Namajunas knows that fight will come but isn’t focused on the belt right now.
“I don’t miss the way that I felt as a champion,” she said, “but I do miss having that belt, though.
“When you get up and it’s your turn to dance but you ain’t ready, you ain’t got your moves right. Everybody is looking at you. That’s kind of what it felt like. You feel like everyone is staring at you. That’s kind of like how it felt.”
But things are different now for Namajunas, she says. She’s a little older, a little wiser, and appears to be in great spirits as she looks to end the longest layoff of her professional career next weekend against the woman who dethroned her more than a year ago in Rio de Janeiro.
“This has been one of my more fun training camps,” she said. “It’s kind of weird. The amount of days that I didn’t look forward to training has been very seldom, so that is something I am very happy about.”
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