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The Meteoric Rise of Thug Rose Namajunas

Jeremy Botter@jeremybotterMMA Senior WriterDecember 11, 2014

Credit: Jeremy Botter

Pat Barry met Rose Namajunas when she punched him in the head.

Barry was sparring at Roufusport one day, working on his stand-up game. Out of nowhere, this tiny waif of a girl, who is now competing for a UFC championship, comes over and punches him in the side of the face.

Stunned, he turned to look at her.

"You're Pat Barry, right?," she said.

"I am," he replied.

"Well, you should have seen that coming," Namajunas said.

That's Barry's side of the story, anyway.

Namajunas doesn't remember the incident. She isn't saying it didn't happen the way Pat says it did. She just doesn't remember it.

Pat remembers a lot about those early days because he fell in love with Namajunas that first time he saw her. He was struck by her beauty, by her poise and her attitude. You can say that love at first sight is cheesy, but you can't tell Pat he did not experience it.

It took a little longer for Namajunas to feel the same way about Barry, but his charm eventually wore her down.

"I say we've been dating for more than five years, but she says two or three years," Barry says.

"We were apparently together a lot longer than I was aware of," Namajunas says with a laugh. "It took him a while to chip away at my cold heart, but he did."

They're now engaged to be married. Barry—who is methodically winding down his own fighting career—has happily assumed a role as her secretary. He takes her phone calls, helps plan out her schedule. He makes sure she has plenty of water during a long media event at the Palms. He jokingly says he plans on taking her last name when they wed, and he is fine with being known as Mr. Rose Namajunas.

"He surprises me every day with how supportive he is. I never really had that male role model in my life that treated me well," she says. "So for somebody to treat me like a queen, it is definitely a blessing."

From a fighting perspective, Namajunas has traveled a profound distance in a short period of time. A few years ago, I attended a New Year's Eve party at the Hard Rock Hotel here in Las Vegas. Namajunas accompanied Barry to the same party. When he introduced her to me, Barry said she was going to be a future champion and a superstar. He said she had what it takes to dominate her division.

I did not really believe him because I'd never heard of Namajunas and because, well, you know how these things are. Namajunas was his girlfriend, and so of course he believed she was going to do great things. Such is the nature of relationships. You believe the best about your significant other, because that's all you can see in the moment.

Turns out, Barry was right.

Namajunas faces Carla Esparza on Friday for the chance to be the UFC's first ever strawweight champion. Few expected her to be in this position when the cast of the 20th season of The Ultimate Fighter was revealed. There were far more seasoned veterans on the show; Namajunas turned pro in January 2013.

But there she was, beating Alex Chambers, Joanne Calderwood and Randa Markos to book her spot in the title fight against Esparza, who was the top seeded fighter in the tournament and a favorite to win. None of it surprises Barry, who said he saw the potential for greatness in Namajunas the very first time they sparred.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 07:  Pat Barry of the USA enters the arena before the UFC Brisbane bout between Pat Barry of the USA and Soa Palelei of Australia at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre on December 7, 2013 in Brisbane, Australia.  (Photo by Br
Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

"She threw a punch. And when it landed, I was like 'wow, that was pretty fast.' And then she hit me with another punch, and it was like, where is this punch coming from? After one round of sparring, I knew this girl was special," Barry says. "She wasn’t just someone with a good work ethic. She has an actual ability that I believe is—if we build this and feed it and let it grow—she is the evolution of the sport."

Trevor Wittman, head of the Grudge Training Center in Colorado, is Namajunas' current coach.  She joined Grudge looking for a better fit than her old gym. Wittman's first exposure to Namajunas came when he and Barry were helping Shane Carwin coach The Ultimate Fighter a few years back. Barry had video footage of Namajunas sparring and showed it to Wittman one day.

"Pat showed me the video, and I thought she looked good," Wittman says. "But the first time I met her, I knew there was something unique about her. You can see it on her face."

"I told you, I told everybody. This girl is something else. When she gets to where she needs to be, you’ll see it," Barry says. "Remember her name now because it is going to be everywhere."

Namajunas has been involved in martial arts since childhood. She has taken classes in every martial art you can name, and probably a few that you can't. She started with taekwondo, then dabbled in karate and stick fighting and kempo and pankration. She was smaller than most everyone her age but acted tougher than all of them, and so the neighborhood kids gave her a nickname: "Thug." 

It stuck. 

Her first exposure to mixed martial arts came one day at Roufusport.

"I saw the MMA classes and thought, 'I'll do that, too,'" she says. "And they had guys like Pat and Eric Schafer who were making it a career, and that inspired me to do it. And now, here I am. There weren’t a lot of women doing it at the time, but I thought I had the talent to potentially help make it a big sport for women."

Namajunas made her amateur debut on August 7, 2010, fighting on a local card in Milwaukee. She won that fight and then won three more amateur fights before turning pro and signing with Invicta FC. She beat Emily Kagan in her debut and then turned herself into something of a YouTube sensation with a spectacular flying armbar submission of Kathina Catron.

The real surprise about that flying armbar? Before that moment, she'd never attempted it.

Namajunas lost to Tecia Torres—a veteran with far more experience—in her next bout. And then the UFC came calling; they signed the majority of Invicta's strawweight division and announced they'd usher them into The Ultimate Fighter house. The prize for winning the season: the first UFC strawweight belt.

Before the season began airing in September, UFC president Dana White claimed that one of the women on the cast had the potential to be the next Ronda Rousey. He was talking about Namajunas because she has the perfect mix of fighting skills, looks and poise. The interviews come easy to her because she has been on stage since the days she participated in beauty pageants as a kid. She is confident and gives honest answers and has charisma by the boatload.

In short, she is a promoter's dream.

"She has star power. If you put all those things together, she has it all," Wittman says. "You can see it on her face. It makes a coach's job really easy."

Her stint in The Ultimate Fighter house only increased her confidence. As they tend to do when stuck in a house together for six weeks, the fighters eventually devolved into silly teenage behavior. They formed cliques and called each other names. They created a group of outcasts and then relentlessly mocked them.

But Namajunas mostly remained above the immaturity. Early on, she joined in, but when others started getting offended, she took a step back. She was in the house for a reason and says that her time among the women helped build confidence in her own sense of independence. She'd always relied on herself in the rest of her life, but she'd always had her coaches to fall back on when it came to the fight game. During those six weeks in Las Vegas, she learned to trust herself.

"It's important to be able to fall back on those coaches," Namajunas says. "But you’re also in a sport where you’re in there by yourself."

When he picked her up from the airport, Barry says, Namajunas had changed. Her time in the house had built her confidence—making it to the finals probably did not hurt—and he could see it on her face and hear it in her voice.

"I had to re-learn how to talk to her. I didn’t understand anything she was saying," he says. "She came back different. She grew as a person and as an athlete, as a student and as a daughter."

And now she faces Esparza, a strong wrestler who will no doubt be heavily favored to win the fight. Critics will say it's too much, too soon for someone with just three professional fights, but Barry disagrees.

"There was a point in time when I would have agreed," he says. "But she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be right now. She has exceeded my expectations."

Carla Esparza and Rose Namajunas
Carla Esparza and Rose NamajunasCredit: Jeremy Botter

Wittman, who has trained plenty of mixed martial artists over the years, says that Namajunas has more potential for greatness than any fighter who has ever come through his gym. Wittman is a coach who appreciates the cerebral aspect of fighting, from game plans to the brain gymnastics fighters must do to prepare themselves for battle. And despite Namajunas' penchant for flashy submissions and her deadly guard, Wittman says her best trait is her mental strength.

"As a coach, I think that’s the most important thing. You can win with technique. But with the mental aspect, you can reach greatness," he says. "It’s so cool to see her cry before a fight because she can look at herself in the mirror. She understands that fear is a natural thing in this sport.

"But she turns fear into belief. She is just so unique when it comes to that. She doesn’t waste her energy on the outside of the cage. She’s ready under the lights."

Barry hands Namajunas a bottle of Smart Water, and she prepares to face off with Esparza in front of a group of assembled media. Dave Sholler, the UFC's public relations director who skyrocketed to fame when Jon Jones manhandled him during his infamous brawl with Daniel Cormier a few months back, is in no danger of a repeat performance with Namajunas and Esparza.

Namajunas walks across the stage and goes nose to nose with Esparza. They turn to pose for photos, and the smile that was on Namajunas' face when talking about her relationship with Barry is gone. Her fists clench and she grinds her teeth.

Thug Rose has arrived.

All quotes were obtained first-hand. 

Jeremy Botter is a lead mixed martial arts writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter