Rose Namajunas was 22 when she first faced Carla Esparza for the inaugural UFC strawweight title that was put up for grabs on The Ultimate Fighter 20. After finishing three opponents on the show, she was finished by Esparza in the finale.
Now 29 and in her second reign as champion, Namajunas looks back at how far she’s come and she isn’t sure she was ready for the responsibility that comes along with UFC gold when she first fought for it. She cites the youngest champion in modern UFC history as evidence of that.
“Had I won that fight, who knows where I would be,” she said Wednesday on The MMA Hour. “I was going to be youngest champion, like, younger than Jon Jones. Not definitely, but I can only imagine that with winning a fight like that at that point in my life, I probably would have crashed a few cars, or been doing all kinds of bad things. My life probably would have been way more out of control.
“Joanna [Jedrzejczyk] probably would have whipped my ass.”
At UFC 274, Namajunas returns to the Esparza matchup six years after a big career setback on the reality show. It’s her chance to avenge a loss, of course, but she said she’s not driven entirely by the satisfaction her ego would get by reversing the original result.
After all, Namajunas has the former champion to thank for the journey that’s reunited them.
“I wouldn’t go back and change anything for nothing,” Namajunas said. “That fight was the best thing that probably happened to me in my whole career. All of my losses have done wonders for me. But that one in particular, there was a lot of information that I downloaded.”
Early in her career, Namajunas said her personal and professional life was far less stable. She didn’t yet have a handle on how to properly prepare for a big fight, how to strategize, and how to get her mental game on point.
Namajunas’ traumatic childhood was well-documented on the reality show. But she said there was also a “rebellious kid” inside of her that didn’t take life very seriously, and it manifested in the choices she made at that time in her life.
“Without getting into too much detail, I’ve been a partier since I was really young,” Namajunas said. “I don’t do that no more.”
By the time she got serious about fighting, the champ said she drew a line about her bad habits. Eventually, she completely cut them out of her life.
“It just got really dangerous,” she said. “I had a few different wake-up calls. You get out of a situation and you go, ‘Wow, I could have died, or somebody else could have died,’ or really bad stuff. Not everybody’s fortunate enough to have that moment of clarity to be like, ‘OK, I need to stop messing around here, because not only is my life in danger, but other people’s as well.’
“Since I was 13 years old, I was drinking and doing all kinds of stuff, and I stopped, I want to say the last time I had a hard drink was my last amateur fight, and then I got super wasted and I woke up the next morning and there kind of, I was like, I was fighting. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I could have really gotten hurt. I’ve gotta stop doing this.’”
The loss to Esparza was another wake-up call that turned things around. Before she took seriously the mission of becoming a world champion, she was young and didn’t have the perspective she needed to focus her energy.
“I have multiple facets to my personality, but the fighter side, that ego or whatever that is that makes a fighter a fighter, most fighters deal with the wilder side inside of them that they’ve got to tame, or get rid of, or cement yourself to a higher power, is what kind of keeps me in check,” she said. “Otherwise, yeah ... if you don’t have anything to lose in life, you’re just going to waste it away.”
Namajunas is now six years older than Jones was when he became champion. She’s had her share of setbacks, the loss of her title being the biggest one. But they’ve been largely limited to the octagon.
“The difference between first title reign and now is I think I’m more grateful, way more aware of what it is that I’m doing and how to do it and how to make my dream come true, instead of just the blind leading the blind,” she said. “I’m more solid in life, and I’m super grateful for everything.”
Namajunas has a great history with second chances. She beat the woman who took her belt, Jessica Andrade, and defeated Jedrzejczyk and Zhang Weili in rematches. Maturity plays a big part in that. The champ learns her lessons.
“The reason I win those rematches, or at least a good contributing factor in it is, I turn the page and I know it’s a new fight,” she said. “I take what I’ve learned from it, but I keep moving forward and I still stay present, and I also know that my opponent is capable of anything.”