A year ago, when The Ultimate Fighter 20 had concluded and Rose Namajunas was being prepped as the "next Ronda Rousey" ahead of her strawweight title fight with Carla Esparza, there was an air of pending stardom surrounding "Thug Rose." Yet as Namajunas lost the fight to Esparza — a third-round rear naked choke that left her distraught in the cage — many thought it was too much too soon for her at just 22 years old.
That was December 12, 2014.
On December 10, in the same city of Las Vegas, Namajunas, now 23, will return to take on the star that emerged in her stead, Paige VanZant. This time Namajunas is the more incidental piece to the equation. The hype has all been centered on VanZant, who is just 21 years old and is already main eventing a fight night card.
The roles have changed, at least in the hot beam of the spotlight. Not that Namajunas necessarily sees it that way.
"I don’t know — I don’t even know if our roles are even interchangeable because we’re way different human beings," Namajunas said during an appearance on The MMA Hour on Monday." We’re two different individuals with different paths. So, as much as I’d like to say…there’s definitely a lot of patterns that you can see growing up, with people making similar mistakes, [myself] being over-confident like I was and learning that the hard way and then coming back and coming stronger — usually that’s the natural progression of a younger, more immature individual kind of coming back, and I seem to be on the right path.
"At the same time, we’re two different people, so it’s really hard to compare our circumstances."
Namajunas is replacing her TUF 20 castmate Joanne Calderwood, who was forced to withdraw with an injury. The booking came as a bit of a surprise for some people on the MMA community who thought that the UFC was giving VanZant a slower build to a title shot. Namajunas, who made it to the finals of TUF 20 and is coming off a first-round submission of Angela Hill at UFC 192 would appear to be a more severe litmus test for VanZant.
Now they will clash at UFC Fight Night 80, in a bout that should have fairly major title implications at 115 pounds. Even though the pairing caught some people off guard, Namajunas wasn’t one of them.
"No, I think it’s actually a really natural progression," she said. "Was it like one fight of a difference in terms of when they would match us up? Maybe, because obviously no one expected Jo Jo to pull out. I think that we were going to be lined up either right after that fight or somewhere maybe one more fight after that. So to me, I view her as a high level opponent even though there’s a lot of criticism around saying she’s kind of like brought up slowly and all that. I think it’s a very natural progression the way that we’ve matched up right now."
Given that Namajunas was the original intrigue of the strawweight division as the show aired, there’s been a lot of perceptional shift since then. Esparza ceded her belt to Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 185 in March, and has since defended it against another TUF 20 alum, Jessica Penne. She is slated to defend the belt against at UFC 193 in Melbourne, Australia against Valerie Letourneau.
The other name to emerge since the inaugural strawweight title fight was VanZant, who has gone 3-0 in the UFC, scoring wins over Kailin Curran, Felice Herrig and Alex Chambers.
Namajunas has watched the landscape change about her, and says that she’s been admiring of the way VanZant has not only competed in the Octagon, but how she’s handled herself outside of it at such a young age.
"Yup, I think she’s doing her thing, she’s doing all these interviews," Namajunas said. "She’s here and there and she’s been able to juggle it all and constantly getting technically better as well as really not losing any of her natural aggression."
Asked if she thought it all too much too soon for VanZant — which she herself knows a little about — Namajunas said she didn’t think so.
"Obviously not, she’d doing pretty good," she said. "I think that she’s being brought up at the rate that she needs to be brought up, and obviously this is a jump up in competition for her coming up. So I think that’s the test that everybody’s been waiting for, and I think she’s been waiting for as well. I’m more than willing to bring it to her."
Namajunas said she’s come a long way herself in just a year.
"Mentally, I’m just so ready. I’m more motivated than ever, and I’m really just enjoying this crazy ride."