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The evolution of Rose Namajunas has happened before our eyes

UFC on FOX 24 photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

NEW YORK — Rose Namajunas was a future cover girl with flowing blonde hair and blue eyes when she was first introduced to UFC fans three years ago. Dana White said she’d be the next Ronda Rousey. And if you didn’t believe him, Rousey said the same thing.

Back then, heading into her shot at the first-ever UFC women’s strawweight title in 2014 following The Ultimate Fighter 20, Namajunas would talk about following in Rousey’s footsteps. The fame, the movies, the crossover to the mainstream. That seemed to be Namajunas’ destiny and she was embracing it.

All along, that was probably never the real Namajunas. That was “Thug Rose” or the glamour girl she thought the UFC — and the fans — wanted her to be.

The Namajunas who steps into the Octagon for a second shot at the belt Saturday against Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 217 will be a different one. Rose 2.0. She’ll be nearly unrecognizable. Namajunas has shed her nickname and her long locks. She’s no longer bubbly in press conferences; she’s steely eyed. Namajunas has traded in talks of celebrity with Instagram posts about the environment and articles about body positivity.

MMA was always likely a means to an end (along with an outlet for her emotions). Back then, it was the first step to becoming a star and all that came with it. Now, three years on, Namajunas wants to use her fame to make the world a better place.

“I wouldn’t be probably at this high level if it wasn’t for the money,” Namajunas said Wednesday at UFC 217 open workouts at Madison Square Garden. “But I would always be involved in martial arts, no matter what. For me, it’s a personal journey. And it’s not about being perfect and being this invincible being. I’m just like you or you. I’m a regular ass person. But I have a special gift and I want to use it to change people’s lives and try to make this a better place.”

Namajunas, 25, has been honest along the way, almost to a fault. Jedrzejczyk is trying to exploit that honesty in an effort to promote the fight or rattle her opponent. Perhaps a bit of both. On a conference call last week, Jedrzejczyk said Namajunas was “mentally unstable” and that she had “personal problems.”

Namajunas has been open about her challenges with mental health and warned on the call that it’s not something to be taken lightly. She said her father was not in her life and ultimately died in part due to schizophrenia. Mental illness is something, Namajunas said, that she has to address around her for her entire life. She wants to be an advocate for awareness, so people can be more comfortable with talking about it, so it can lose its stigma.

“I think it’s important to inspire other people to try and do things that people discourage you to do,” Namajunas said. “You should do things that you want to do, because that’s just what you want to do, regardless of what people say. Just because you might have a mental disability or something like that or whatever, it’s just like if you have a health problem. There’s no reason that you can’t work on it and get better at it and get better as a person each day.”

Namajunas said she wasn’t upset about what Jedrzejczyk — she doesn’t care. She knows about Jedrzejczyk’s tactics.

On UFC Tonight on Wednesday, the UFC champion sought to clarify what she said. Jedrzejczyk said she was not talking about the serious topic of mental illness.

“I don’t follow my opponents,” Jedrzejczyk said. “I didn’t know about her father. I was not talking about mental illness, I was talking about her mental game. Now people judge me and hate me for that, but let me make it straight. I was talking about her mental game, because we know that she is having such big problems with mental strength. Sometimes 30 minutes before the fight, she’s like, ‘I’m not fighting. I’m not going to the fights.’

“She didn’t want to do media. I’m enjoying this. I love this and it’s part of my job. Like the weight cut, like the training before every fight. We must deal with this. She wants to be a champion, but she’s not ready to put on great work outside the Octagon, outside the gym. So, there is something not right. But I’m always very respectful to my opponents and I would never talk about someone with mental illness. It was just wrong.”

Did Jedrzejczyk really just misspeak? Or was she picking at a very real wound for Namajunas? Either way, the fighter formerly known as “Thug” is disinterested. It doesn’t make her regret speaking up about mental illness.

“It’s just who I am,” Namajunas said. “I’m a very honest person, so it’s really hard for me to shy away from those things. I deal with those things head on. To act like my past doesn’t exist is kind of silly. But at this point, it’s just kind of irrelevant, even though is it the driving force, the reason behind why I fight. But it’s also, I’m just ready to fight.”

Fighting is what Namajunas loves to do and it’s therapeutic for her. She said on the conference call that she believes if more people did martial arts there would be less tragedy in the world today. MMA is also what Namajunas hopes will lift her to a level where she’ll be able to make a difference in the lives of others.

“I want to use this and try to fix the problems I see in society,” Namajunas said. “We’ve got tragedies happening left and right. Maybe it’s always been happening, but media and news just focuses on it and I want to try and change that and make there be more positive things out there in the world. Because fighting can only do so much, unless you have that motivation and drive to change people’s lives and make it a more positive thing.”

Namajunas is passionate about the Earth. The Milwaukee native and Denver area resident said she wants to one day build an urban farm. Maybe the ideas haven’t been fully hashed out yet, but Namajunas envisions some kind of life of service.

“Money and fame, it only makes you so happy,” Namajunas said. “You gotta find other reasons to fight. I want a certain amount of money to do the things that I want to do.”

That’s not to say the title is not important. Namajunas just doesn’t identify success by wins and losses any longer.

“I don’t attach myself to it,” she said. “I’m successful every day, because I look in the mirror and I’m happy with who I am. It has nothing to do with my record. I don’t even know what my f*cking record is. To me, fighting is special, because that’s what I enjoy to do. Every fight is a memory to me.”

Namajunas (6-3) has certainly come a long way since she lost that first title chance against Carla Esparza. Not only is she a more mature, developed fighter than she was back then, she’s a much more fully realized individual. Namajunas knows who she is now and she’s not afraid to let us know, either.

“I think that I’m way more in tune with myself,” she said. “I have a better reason for fighting, I feel. But we’re gonna find out. I want to change the world, and I think this is the best way to do it.”

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