Perhaps the most impressive thing about Rose Namajunas is that she doesn't seem to have reached her full potential as a mixed martial artist.
Second-most impressive is Namajunas is already damn good—and could easily fight another 10 years before the final verdict is rendered on her legacy.
Yet Namajunas looked as close to a finished product as we've seen her inside the Octagon on Saturday, when she dropped Michelle Waterson with a high kick and finished her with a rear-naked choke in the second round of their co-main event fight at UFC on Fox 24.
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Watch the final two minutes of tonight's co-main event as Rose Namajunas sets up her finish over Michelle Waterson. Amazing work by THUG! https://t.co/dRNUCXJ7iG2017-4-16 01:39:04
The victory has Namajunas waiting in the wings to make a second run at the women's 115-pound title, perhaps as early as this summer.
"I think this win puts me right up there in title contention," she told UFC color commentator Brian Stann in the cage after the bout. "Whoever wins the belt, I’m fighting."
Champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk is expected to defend her crown against Jessica Andrade at UFC 211 on May 13. After that, Namajunas may well get the call.
The 24-year-old Wisconsin native has only been fighting professionally since 2013 but has already squeezed a lot of living into her modest UFC run.
Namajunas emerged as the most hyped contestant from season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter in the fall of 2014 but lost the fight company's inaugural strawweight title fight to Carla Esparza in December of that year.
The defeat cooled some of the red-hot expectations she garnered while appearing on the reality television show, which was set up to crown a champion in the UFC's newest weight class.
At the time, UFC President Dana White said he thought the TUF 20 cast might include the next Ronda Rousey, and it was largely believed he was referring to Namajunas. Rousey herself called the rookie fighter "gorgeous and charismatic" and said that Namajunas had "all the tools to be the next really influential champion," per MMA Fighting's Guilherme Cruz.
All that set Namajunas up to be a meaningful figure in the fledgling strawweight division, which still needs all the engaging personalities it can get. She possesses just the right mix of the red-carpet glamour the UFC likes in its female stars and the hard-nosed pragmatism that is easy for hardcore fans to latch on to.
She's a talented, all-action fighter who has progressively established herself as must-see TV though nine total fights in the UFC and Invicta FC. Plus, her nickname is Thug Rose, for Pete's sake.
It's just that results have been mixed at times. Namajunas came into the Waterson fight already No. 4 on the UFC's 115-pound rankings but has had a couple of hiccups during her UFC run.
After her loss to Esparza, Namajunas put together three straight wins—taking out a trio of well-known names in Angela Hill, Paige VanZant and Tecia Torres. In the co-main event of UFC 201 in July 2016, however, she dropped a split decision to Karolina Kowalkiewicz.
The developing picture of Namajunas, therefore, was as a likable, naturally gifted fighter with near-bottomless potential who was still trying to make all the pieces of her impressive skill set work in concert.
Against Waterson, however, Namajunas authored arguably the most complete performance of her career. Considering it came on network television and against an opponent who was riding her own wave of mild hype, it couldn't have occurred at a more advantageous time.
The 31-year-old Waterson entered this fight fresh on the heels of her own high-profile victory over VanZant in the main event of UFC on Fox 22 in December. The former Invicta FC atomweight champion moved up to strawweight after coming to the UFC in mid-2015 and had nabbed two consecutive wins on the big stage.
That streak ended against Namajunas.
Both fighters came out of their corners aggressive with their strikes, but early in the first round, Namajunas countered a head-and-arm throw by taking Waterson's back. From there, she worked steadily to top position and spent most of the rest of the period in Waterson's guard, foiling submission attempts and dealing out some occasionally vicious ground-and-pound offense.
As the second stanza began, Namajunas edged further ahead on the scorecards, getting the better of the early striking fluries. The fight-changing exchange came a little over one minute in, when Namajunas countered a pawing right hand from Waterson with a two-punch combo and perfectly placed kick to the face.
Waterson was moving away at the moment of impact, and the kick dropped her to the canvas. Namajunas followed her down and punished the stunned fighter with more of the fast-paced ground-and-pound she'd displayed in the first. As Waterson tried to kick her off and stand up, Namajunas took her back again, this time sinking the choke that forced Waterson to tap.
"The fight couldn't have gone more perfect for [Namajunas]," White said later, per Fox Sports' Damon Martin. "I thought she looked incredible tonight, and I agreed with her after the fight—I think she’s ready to challenge for the title."
So it seems that Namajunas may be on the verge of cashing in on the hype of her early career, albeit a few years after our hopes about her were initially raised.
All that remains is for Jedrzejczyk and Andrade to settle their business.
We also don't know yet whether new UFC owner WME-IMG will think enough of Namajunas' potential to reinvest in her. So far during its short tenure in charge of the Octagon, the Hollywood megatalent agency has consistently put women's MMA front and center.
Namajunas is already clearly among the group of the UFC's promotable female fighters, though she'll need to put together a sustained run of success to fulfill her lofty potential. She would no doubt open as the betting underdog against Jedrzejczyk if it goes that way. Then again, who wouldn’t?
For either Andrade or Jedrzejczyk, however, a future title matchup with Namajunas might turn out to be the 115-pound division's marquee attraction during 2017.