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Rose Namajunas has arrived just in time to be the next Rose Namajunas

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

If the Ultimate Fighter has been consistent in anything for the last 11 years, it’s in the loose hyperbole being flung at its jailbirds. One of the more famous examples was Rose Namajunas, who was teased as the "next Ronda Rousey" during the airing of TUF 20, the strawweight season that the "Thug" was a contestant on.

Rousey, at that moment, was ten inches taller than her nearest UFC counterpart — a crossover star who’d long stopped checking her Twitter mentions. It was a hell of a leap for a prospect still operating on raw emotion. If Namajunas had been accused of being the next Roxanne Modafferi, say, maybe she’d have whipped Carla Esparza in the TUF finale and taken home the belt.

(Then again, if Phillipe Nover was really the next Anderson Silva -- as he was once very casually accused -- Queens would be down one of its most reliable nurses, so who can really say?)

But in some ways, now that we’re a step or two removed from the fictions of reality TV, Rose Namajunas certainly appears to be the next Rose Namajunas. She’s emerging as a star using her own reasonable expectations and her own way of dealing with the pressure cooker of fighting. Somewhere along the way, Namajunas began controlling her narrative, too. She has shaved her head, not because she’s become a Hare Krishna or a super-fan of Mad Max, but because hair gets in the way. Her fighting has improved, too.

She’s steadily getting comfortable in the Octagon.

It was in evidence again on Saturday night at UFC on FOX 19 in Tampa. Namajunas, thrust into the co-main event against Tecia Torres as the card went through its many revisions, showed how much more she’s grown into her own skin. Torres, who beat her three years ago in Invicta FC, found herself being styled on when she couldn’t close the distance. Rose shook her fists out when she connected on the punches that she knew could produce no return. She was having fun out there in space.

Nor did Namajunas gas, as she did against Esparza in the title fight. She was ladling out the animal in intervals. When she got into a bit of trouble — as she did in the first round, when Torres blasted her with an inside punch — she reset. You could see Namajunas coolly taking in her coach Trevor Wittman’s call to fundamentals. The reining in has paid off. Namajunas on the show was a feral hellcat who just wanted to rip apart opposition, as if to salve some hurtful thing in her Milwaukee past. She seemed to be punching at a million faces. These days she’s a mindful competitor, mostly a sportswoman, who lets the wild thing out but selectively.

The first good sign of her refinement came against Paige VanZant, the 21-year-old star commodity who had just inked an exclusive deal with Reebok. Namajunas, who’d rebounded from the Esparza loss admirably against Angela Hill at UFC 192, volunteered to step in and face VanZant on short notice when Joanne Calderwood had to back out with an injury. In her most rebellious moments, Namajunas still shows very well. Not one for a beauty pageant, Thug Rose shaved her head. Then she scrambled VanZant’s features in the modest cage at the Chelsea, and humbly downplayed her feat afterwards.

It was the moment that Namajunas really arrived, tearing asunder the hype of PVZ, just as much as the initial hype of the next Ronda Rousey. This was the real Rose. She came in against the machine, and she was right at home.

Sometimes these progressions stand out, particularly in the first days of spring. Namajunas didn’t overwhelm Torres, but she won a fight that might gave gone south on her two years ago. She’s a work in progress, but that progress is the story. She even downplayed being next for the winner of Claudia Gadelha’s title bid against Joanna Jedrzejczyk, which takes place in July.

"Right now I’m in no rush," she said when asked about it in the post-fight press conference.

"I’ve been through so much for this fight, I’m just not going to worry about it tomorrow. I’m done crying, I’m done not sleeping at night. I’m just ready to do my best and go home after that. Right now, I do want a little bit of a break to enjoy the fight world as a fan, just for a second. I’ll be all fired up and ready to get back in there…but right now, it’s about having fun just for a little bit."

At 23 years old, Rose Namajunas seems to know what’s best for Rose Namajunas, and it’s hard not to appreciate how she conducts herself.

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