The women's strawweight division was looking for a star and found one in Rose Namajunas. "Thug Rose" was the darling of The Ultimate Fighter 20, which introduced the 115-pound clan to UFC fans. She had it all, too -- from a marketable look and engaging personality to an exciting fighting style. Some were proclaiming her the next Ronda Rousey and she embraced the distinction.
There was just one problem. Namajunas just wasn't quite ready from an in-cage perspective. She fell in the TUF finals to Carla Esparza by third-round submission with the inaugural UFC women's strawweight title on the line.
That was in December, though it feels like an eternity ago. The division has been shaken up since then by a Polish dynamo named Joanna Jedrzejczyk. She knocked Esparza out at UFC 185 in March and then dismantled Jessica Penne in June. Jedrzejczyk has very quickly developed a cult following, led by none other than Ronda Rousey, the UFC's biggest star, who admitted to being a fan girl when she met Jedrzejczyk for the first time.
With Joanna Champion drawing all the headlines, Namajunas has not been at the forefront of most fans' minds. Her bout against Nina Ansaroff, which would have been her first since The Ultimate Fighter 20 Finale, was canceled at UFC 187 in May when Ansaroff had issues cutting weight and doctors deemed her unfit to compete.
Namajunas will now meet TUF castmate Angela Hill at UFC 192 on Saturday in Houston. It'll only be her second fight in the UFC, which is not the worst thing for Namajunas (2-2). She's still just 23 years old and inexperienced despite the previous hype -- she only has four pro fights under her belt and a .500 record.
"Sometimes when you push something or you force something too much, the progress doesn't happen the way it should," Namajunas told MMA Fighting over the summer.. "There's a process to everything. If you fast track or make shortcuts in any way and you get too much of one thing, you're just out of balance. I'm happy about the way things are going."
The fight between Jedrzejczyk and Penne was put together on somewhat short notice after the planned UFC Berlin main event between Alexander Gustafsson and Glover Teixeira was scrapped due to injury. Penne was chosen for a title shot and Namajunas never got a call. Even if she had, Namajunas said she wouldn't have taken it.
"I wouldn't even want that fight right away," Namajunas said. "Get one experience in the Octagon without being the main event, without it being a title fight, without all this stuff."
That's not to say she hasn't thought about fighting Jedrzejczyk and doesn't want that bout down the line. Namajunas said she watched her fights against Esparza and Penne and felt like she could have done better.
"Joanna is definitely the person to fight," Namajunas said. "She's exciting and I feel like I match up really well with her. Anybody else is just anybody that doesn't have the belt. So, it's just one more stepping stone in order for me to get the belt."
Namajunas, who trains out of Grudge Training Center in Denver, has TUF wins over top-10 opponents Randa Markos and Joanna Calderwood already, though those are not reflected on her pro record since they count as exhibitions. Since last December, she has just been using this time out of the spotlight to get better and improve as a fighter. Namajunas still has the athleticism, creative striking and explosive submissions to one day be a star in the UFC, even if no one is talking about her right now.
In many ways, Jedrzejczyk has taken some of the pressure off. Women's strawweight isn't struggling to find a star and Namajunas doesn't have to be the face of the division. At least not right now.
"People are gonna go up and down and people are gonna come in and out of this sport," Namajunas said. "For me to have this little thing where people were talking about me and then not talking about me, to me it's irrelevant.
"It is a good thing. There's pros and cons to everything and I choose to look at the positives. It is giving me more time to just progress."