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The evolution of Rose Namajunas runs as deep as the strawweight division

UFC on FOX 24 Open Workout Photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Hard to believe, but the UFC women’s strawweight division will (officially) turn three this year. It’s actually been a lot of fun sorting it out, especially with the original bundle of straws being dropped into the aquarium reality of The Ultimate Fighter franchise like a kind of divisional meet-and-greet. That season — the most compelling in years — gave rise to Angela Hill (today’s Twitter titan), the confectionary duo of Bec Rawlings and Angela Magana (still double trouble), Carla Esparza (the original champ), Joanne Calderwood (all subtitles and volume adjustment) and Felice Herrig (nobody rolled her eyes better).

And of course it produced Rose Namajunas, who fights tonight in Kansas City as the co-main event at UFC on FOX 24 against Michelle Waterson, the former atomweight champion of Invicta FC. It’s been a strange ride for “Thug” Rose, who has grown up with the division.

Namajunas, you might remember, emerged as the intrigue on the show, the one that Dana White and company tinseled with unreasonable expectations. If Phil Nover was the next GSP, and Uriah Hall the next Anderson Silva, the then 21-year old Namajunas was the next Ronda Rousey. But it wasn’t quite that simple. She lost to Esparza in the TUF 20 Finale, in a bout that was perhaps too much too soon. Two-and-a-half years later, Namajunas, now 24, remains an intrigue from that original cast, even as others — like current champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Paige VanZant and Waterson — have come in and made the division their own.

Still, the early setbacks feel as misguided as they do meaningful. There is a feeling about Namajunas that continues to hover in wait — as if the sparks we’ve seen in her fights with Hill and Tecia Torres are part of a fiery whole that everyone expects will one day fully materialize. Maybe it was the way she showed up on relative short notice for her fight with VanZant looking like a Hare Krishna. There was something piercing and inevitable about Namajunas in that fight, something focused and unburdened that filled in a few blanks. We knew that she spoke with a hood-inflected slang that didn’t feel very Wisconsin — that “thug” nickname carries a back-story, after all! — but it was that she refused to make it a beauty pageant with VanZant that carried import.

The revelation: There’s more to Rose.

Then again, the way she took out VanZant couldn’t help but come off as symbolic, as well. The original strawweight with the expectations put a beating on the current apple of the MMA world’s eye. That she did it with cold bloodthirsty aplomb made it all the more eye opening. That was the fight Namajunas’ potential felt lived in.

UFC Fight Night 80 photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Yet it seems whenever Namajunas gets into the “titlesphere,” as she found herself again after beating Torres a year ago at this time, she has faltered. That inaugural title fight with Esparza occurred when she had just recently moved to Colorado, and was still getting her legs under here. She disappeared for 10 months after the loss and reemerged a different fighter against Hill.

Now she’s coming back eight-and-a-half months after a split-decision loss against Karolina Kowalkiewicz, in what was a title eliminator at UFC 201. She downplayed the title implications going in, and now those implications are tucked away. Once again Namajunas is coming back from a stint of “soul-searching,” in which she traveled, joined causes, and gave herself over to introspection. And once again, it seems, she’s a slightly changed person from the last time we saw her — evolved, confident, yet still not entirely at home with the attention she’s getting.

While Waterson has her daughter Araya with her in Kansas City, Namajunas has Mishka, her dog. During her open workouts on Thursday, she used Mishka as her workout partner, which was the cutest thing since Ido Portal broke out the pool noodles. There’s still a deflection of attention in play with Namajunas, a toe-dip into the spotlight beams, as if those beams are not to be completely trusted. If anything, such delicate handling of the situation looks familiar.

And it is a familiar situation, after all, that she finds herself in. “The Karate Hottie” Waterson is coming off a nationally televised victory over VanZant of her own, which was effectively a transfer of mojo. It’s Waterson who is popping up more and more, showing up on the FOX desk for analysis, and hosting media days during events (like she did at UFC 208 in Brooklyn). Once again it’s Namajunas being overshadowed and outshined by a marketable come lately, which is of course when she has shined brightest.

The strawweight division has gotten far deeper since TUF 20 opened the floodgates. As it chugs along with Jedrzejczyk as its champion, Namajunas has continued to grow into her own skin. She wins, and she rolls to the next. She loses, and she digs in. Namajunas has a lot going on. She’s not just a sidecar to heavyweight Pat Barry, as some first came to know her, and she’s never going to be the next Ronda Rousey.

It turns out being the first Rose Namajunas is far more interesting.

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