- Her flight was delayed, she was a heavy underdog and clearly wasn't the fan favorite. None of that stopped Rose Namajunas from earning the strawweight title belt.
NEW YORK—Rose Namajunas had the weight of the world on her shoulders on Saturday night. The fans at Madison Square Garden backed her into a corner before she even stepped into the octagon to face Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 217.
The spectators—cheering fervently when the screens inside MSG showed Jedrzejczyk and booing when they showed Namajunas—figured Jedrzejczyk would soon back her opponent into a corner as well.
Namajunas was the biggest underdog on Saturday night’s main card. Ask anyone if she stood a chance to dethrone Jedrzejczyk and their answer would probably be unanimous. No.
But Namajunas left the Garden with something other than pessimism pressing on her strawweight shoulders: Jedrzejczyk’s—no, her—black and gold UFC strawweight championship belt.
“It’s hard to describe,” Namajunas said an hour or so after she knocked out Jedrzejczyk with a left hook to the chin and subsequent blows to the head. “Kind of numb to everything actually.”
She was numb to everything all week. Her flight to New York was delayed. She couldn’t sleep with the sirens and sounds of NYC ringing in her head. Jedrzejczyk tried to seep into her skull with trash talk and intimidating innuendo from the pre-fight press conference leading all the way up to seconds before the fight itself. To top it off, the arena played the wrong walk-up song as Namajunas entered the cage.
“It’s been a rough week up until the fight started,” Namajunas said. “It seemed like everything was trying to distract me and be thrown in my face.”
When Jedrzejczyk (14-1-0) stepped into the octagon, she quickly circled it—staring Namajunas (7-3-0) down the entire time. The two got loose on opposite ends of the cage. Jedrzejczyk never relented, continuing to glare into Namajuna’s soul while the fighters were individually introduced to the crowd of 18,201.
Jedrzejczyk made a fist and held it to Namajunas’s head while the two were supposed to touch gloves in hopes for a fair fight. Namajunas? Not fazed.
“[With] everything, you’re just thinking, ‘This is not my moment.’ But I just didn’t pay attention to that. I didn’t let it stop me. “I just kept telling myself to stay calm and not pay attention to these outside things that I can’t control. The only thing I can control is myself and just keep having a positive attitude.”
Jedrzejczyk spoke at lengths this week about not only finishing off Namajunas but blowing through the rest of her career with an unblemished record. Namajunas quickly eradicated those plans three minutes and three seconds into Saturday’s fight.
Jedrzejczyk said the punch that put her on the mat surprised her. Namajunas brought the fight to Jedrzejczyk for the duration, a tactic the latter employed time and again en route to five successful title defenses. A sixth—which would have tied Ronda Rousey’s UFC women’s record—was denied by a motivated fighter.
“Big congrats to Rose,” Jedrzejczyk said. “I’m happy for her…. It was a good punch. She caught me off. I really don’t know what happened. It’s a fight, you know. We take this risk.”
Dana White, president of the UFC, was happy for Namajunas too. And like Jedrzejczyk, White was astounded by the result. He said that his sport revolves around “holy s*** moments.” The unexpected in UFC elicits enthusiasm. White’s biggest ‘holy s***’ moment of UFC 217, a card that featured seven knockouts and only two fights that went the distance? None other than Namajunas’s stunning smash.
“She really had it together. She seemed super focused,” White said. “You don’t see a lot of fights where there’s just one punch and the woman drops. You don’t see that kind of power, especially against someone that’s as good as Joanna is.
“No matter how much of an expert you are or you think you are, this sport’s crazy. You never know.”
But Namajunas seemed to know from the beginning. She knocked Jedrzejczyk down in the early stages of the fight. The former champ got up, but the new title holder knew then that the belt was attainable. A rush of anticipation flooded through her, and she mentally recited a mantra she’d stuck to all week to stay poised.
“Confidence, condition, composure, content—I am a champion,” Namajunas said.
Pat Barry, Namajunas’s fiancee and former heavyweight MMA fighter, gave Namajunas a last vote of confidence when he shouted a few words of wisdom into her ear above the deafening buzz inside MSG minutes before the fight.
“All you gotta do is just be you,” Barry said.
Throughout it all, Namajunas was always herself.
When Jedrzejczyk attempted to unnerve her, Namajunas didn’t let her. When analysts didn’t give her a shot, she didn’t listen. But when the fight commenced, she made a statement—just as she intended to. After the fight, she made another statement—one that truly sets her apart from most other champions in the sport.
“I feel like people really aren’t being true to themselves or being honest. Maybe that’s just what they feel like they need to do to entertain things but I’m just kind of sick of it. I’m sick of all the hate and anger and stuff like that. I feel like we have a duty as fighters to try to be a better example.
“Martial arts is about honor and respect. It takes a lot of courage to get in that cage no matter who you are. I try to set in an example in that way and just for the rest of the world too. I think that there’s a lot of negativity out there. Everywhere you look is just negative all the time, and I’m just trying to be that positive light as much as possible.”