The life and career of Rose Namajunas is an open book and it’s a moving tale.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s No. 4-ranked strawweight keeps little in reserve when discussing the tumultuous journey she has been through to reach her current position of being one win away from claiming the title.
“I grew up with lots of anger, frustration and violence in my heart,” said Namajunas, who will challenge defending champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 217 at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Saturday. “In my childhood, I was (sexually) abused. There was a lot of drugs and violence around me. I come from a place of lots of turmoil.”
That turmoil has driven Namajunas (6-3 MMA, 4-2 UFC) throughout her time in mixed martial arts, but the difficult times did not end with adulthood.\
Namajunas, 25 and the daughter of Lithuanian refugees, experienced a rough upbringing in Milwaukee, Wis. For recent fights, she has been accompanied by Mishka, an emotional support dog, to help her deal with issues relating to her mental struggles.
Her relationship with fiancé and former UFC heavyweight Pat Barry, 38, has not been trouble-free, either. Barry battled alcohol issues and prescription pain medication addiction at the end of his time in the octagon and blames himself for holding his partner’s career back.
“Go back to any of Rose’s performances that didn’t seem quite right,” Barry recently told fighting podcast the MMA Hour. “She should have been world champ two years ago. It was me.”
Namajunas wants her experiences to be a source of inspiration for those going through their own mental dilemmas. She has not detailed the extent of the childhood abuse she suffered or the perpetrator, but getting to the point where she can talk about openly about it is hugely impressive.
“I have overcome some demons in my path,” she said. “Every day I wake up and I’m (a) champion, so that’s just my mindset all of the time. I think this fight could be a great (public service) announcement for mental health awareness. I think I’m a champion for that. I’m so much stronger from it and I’m going to continue to be stronger.”
Her words came on a UFC conference call to promote the fight, and prompted a response from Jedrzejczyk that not only drew widespread criticism but was perceived to step past the unspoken boundaries of pre-fight trash-talk etiquette.
“You are mentally unstable and you are broken already,” Jedrzejczyk snapped. “And I will break you in the fight.”
For Namajunas, the perfect payback would be taking the belt. Such an outcome would be an upset, but not an almighty one. Neither would it be the first time Namajunas has knocked off one of the big names of the division.
In fact, she may be the primary crusher of UFC president Dana White’s dreams for the strawweight ranks.
In Dec. 2015, Namajunas slammed the door on the upward progress of pin-up Paige Van Zant, a fighter the organization hoped could enjoy crossover mainstream appeal on account of her looks and personality.
Then there was Michelle Waterson, one of the featured athletes in the ESPN's The Body Issue and also in line for a fast-tracked title shot. Waterson too, got choked out and submitted by Namajunas.
Next up is Jedrzejczyk, who is bidding to equal Ronda Rousey’s women’s record of six UFC title defenses on Saturday and – with Rousey retired – is perhaps the biggest female star in the sport.
But Namajunas doesn’t pay too much attention to that, or the possibility of defeat. She sees herself becoming a new kind of champion, one who embraces her weaknesses and uses them as fuel. And who talks louder with her performances than with her words.
“It boils down to what my reason for fighting is,” she said. “If I’m not fighting for a good reason, then your personal life starts to get messy and it’s like, ‘What am I doing this for?’
“Right now, my goal is to bring my sport back to respect and honor. There’s a lot of talking and dumb (stuff) going on, especially with all of the tragedy going on in the world. This is an opportunity to show we can (empathize with) each other even if we’re martial artists.”