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Rose Namajunas’ UFC 261 title triumph sets up second act for the ages

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They say defending a world title is more difficult than winning it. Winning one back is arguably the toughest challenge of all.

Here are the fighters who lost and regained a UFC title in the past decade: Cain Velasquez, Stipe Miocic, Jon Jones, Jose Aldo, Dominick Cruz, and T.J. Dillashaw. It’s a legendary list and not a long one. Rose Namajunas is now part of that group after UFC 261.

Namajunas pulled off the upset on Saturday and did so in such a way that if you hadn’t glanced at the odds, you wouldn’t have believed that she was the underdog at all. Her 78-second head kick knockout of Zhang Weili will go down in history as one of the all-time great championship finishes and it’s even more impressive when you consider the context.

The first loss for Zhang in 21 fights, dating back to her pro debut. Zhang’s first knockout loss. Just the second knockout of Namajunas’ career, the other being a first-round TKO of Joanna Jedrzejczyk (“Thug Rose” knows how to pick ‘em, eh?). And it happened in front of a packed arena in Jacksonville, Fla., 15,000-strong cheering Namajunas from the first step of her walkout to her emotional exit from the octagon.

It was another memorable chapter in Namajunas’ incredible story and not one that was guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination. Of UFC 261’s three challengers, she was the popular pick to draw an “And new!” from Bruce Buffer (Kamaru Usman had already beaten Jorge Masvidal, and Valentina Shevchenko is Valentina Shevchenko), but even then Zhang was a solid 2-to-1 favorite and the champion following up her glorious win over Jedrzejczyk with a highlight-reel finish of Namajunas would have surprised no one.

Instead, it was Namajunas adding to her highlight reel with a head kick that couldn’t have landed more accurately if she was squaring up a BOB back at the gym in Colorado. The moment Zhang hit the canvas, you knew this one was over, and while her animated disagreement with the stoppage will make great fodder for a rematch someday (Zhang later issued a more thoughtful congratulations to Namajunas), there was no debate over who the better strawweight was on this day.

If anything, the debate has shifted to whether Namajunas is now the greatest strawweight of all-time. She holds two wins over Jedrzejczyk and her UFC resume is comparable to the Polish star, long regarded as the de facto GOAT at 115 pounds. Stacking Namajunas up against the criminally overlooked Megumi Fujii is a fool’s errand, given that Namajunas didn’t even make her pro debut until 2013, the same year that Fujii retired. But in the UFC era of strawweights, which dates back to 2014, the case can be made that Namajunas is the best so far.

It helps that Namajunas earned her second shot the hard way, stepping back into the octagon to face her own personal Boogiewoman in Jessica Andrade last July. Let’s remember that Andrade didn’t just end Namajunas’ first championship reign, she did it by dropping Namajunas on her damn head. That would be a wrap for your average human as far as fighting goes, much less signing on to face your destroyer again in your first fight back after a year-long layoff. But Namajunas is made of sterner stuff than most.

(Let’s take a moment to address the elephant in the room here: Namajunas’ pre-fight comments regarding Zhang and “what she represents” as far as her ties to communist China. I understand that Namajunas felt compelled to bring this up because of the past occupation of Lithuania by the Soviet Union [something that had nothing to do with China], but even ignoring the broad and misinformed strokes Namajunas was working with, Zhang is not the physical embodiment of China’s politics any more than Namajunas is representative of fast food, consumer culture, and The Second Amendment. Speaking from the perspective of a North American-born Chinese person, Namajunas bringing politics into this matchup was silly. Back to our regularly scheduled program.)

Namajunas survived another three rounds with Andrade, then went on to KO Zhang, a two-fight series that should remind everyone that when Namajunas is on her game, she looks like she belongs not just at the top of the strawweight rankings, but in the top-10 pound-for-pound as far as talent and skill go. She’s spoken publicly about her struggles with self-doubt (struggles that have been borne out in some of her performances) and when she let out a sheepish “I’m the best!” at the behest of her team following her win Saturday night, it felt both appropriate and wholly necessary.

Now Namajunas gets to go about the business of cementing her legacy, which could involve several rematches. If Andrade drops back down to 115 pounds, she’s likely one fight away from setting up a trilogy bout. The UFC may decide to grant Zhang an immediate rematch. Carla Esparza—the UFC’s inaugural strawweight champion who earned that title with a dominant submission win over Namajunas once upon a time—could get a long-awaited chance to win the belt back if she defeats Yan Xiaonan next month. And the popular Jedrzejczyk is always waiting in the wings.

If Namajunas avenges her past losses and vanquishes the next wave of contenders, which includes Yan, Tatiana Suarez, and Mackenzie Dern, she’ll have a resume that few can touch. The all-time greatest women’s fighter discussion currently revolves around names like Shevchenko, Amanda Nunes, and Ronda Rousey, but at 28 years old with a whole second chapter of her career ahead of her, Namajunas could end being inextricable from that conversation when it’s all said and done.


Where does Rose Namajunas rank among the all-time great women’s fighters after UFC 261?

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  • 40%
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