LAS VEGAS -- So far in the UFC, no woman has been able to figure out the riddle of Paige VanZant. Strawweight's blonde bulldog has either finished or dominated all three of her fights since first entering the Octagon in 2014, drawing acclaim and hype unmatched by anyone except the division's champion, Joanna Jedrzejczyk. But Rose Namajunas has been through this wringer before, and where others have been undone by VanZant's dogged pressure and aggression, Namajunas sees only holes waiting to be exploited.
"She makes a lot of mistakes in her fight, and just girls haven't been able to capitalize on it yet," Namajunas said Tuesday at UFC Fight Night 80's open workouts. "I mean, she has such heart and tenacity that she's able to kind of make up for it in a sense, and she also uses her mistakes to her advantage because some people overly jump on things, or try and jump on her back and try to choke her out too fast, and she gets back on top. She likes those scrambles. But for me, I'm really good in the scrambles. It takes me less than a second to see something and grab onto it, so she's got to be very careful."
Namajunas speaks with such confidence simply because she has occupied the space where VanZant is now in: a fighter with the UFC hype machine fully at their back. For Namajunas, that time came last year following her remarkable run on The Ultimate Fighter 20, but ended with a devastating loss to Carla Esparza in a title fight that was supposed to cement Namajunas as the next star of the division.
While those weeks in the aftermath of her defeat were dark, the Namajunas of today is thankful to have experienced such a low point, largely because it propelled her to become the more mature fighter of her present day. Even if she could go back and change things, she claims she would not, because no longer does she allow herself to get caught up in thoughts of the future and the ‘what ifs' that can drive a fighter mad. That change in philosophy is perhaps resembled most outwardly by the loss of her previous long brunette locks.
Both Namajunas and her fiancé, ex-UFC heavyweight Pat Barry, find it comical that her decision to shave her head became such a big story in the lead-up to the showdown against VanZant, but Namajunas also admits that the decision held more significance for her than just a simple haircut.
"I could probably write a book on it," Namajunas said. "But (it's) just years and years of playing in sports, not just fighting, and always being a tomboy growing up and not really wanting to have to do my hair. I don't even know how to do it. I don't know, I've just got to put a whole bunch of product in and just, I want to just be able to wake up in the morning and feel pretty. Not have to do a whole bunch of crap. It's definitely just like shedding the past.
"I wake up every morning trying to be a new, better person and version of myself. I never try and be the same thing," Namajunas added. "So that's what's going to be hard for girls to keep up with me, because I'm always ever-evolving my style. I'm always trying to improve and you can't ever expect anything from me. You can always just expect me to be dangerous."
Namajunas' newfound focus on the present was evident once again on Tuesday. While others among her entertained thoughts of their futures and goals and potential title shots, Namajunas circled every discussion back to VanZant, whether it was the respect she had for VanZant's game, or the preparation she has done in Colorado with World Series of Fighting lightweight champion Justin Gaethje -- who Namajunas said has an aggressive fighting style that is "like Paige, but times 1,000."
But her reluctance to look ahead does not negate the stakes at hand. A decisive win over a popular foe like VanZant would propel the already No. 3 ranked Namajunas onto the short list for the next title shot, and while Namajunas answered the idea with deference, Barry was not nearly as coy.
"Of course it's going to take time. We don't want to force anything, we don't want anything to be unnatural," Barry said. "But come Thursday night, if the fight goes the way that we intend the fight to go, Rose should get a title shot right after that. I'm calling it. If the fight goes the way that it's supposed to, Rose should get a title fight, a title offer, right there on the spot."