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Rose Namajunas and the Difference a (Dark) Year Can Make

Jeremy Botter@jeremybotterMMA Senior WriterDecember 10, 2015

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 09:  Rose Namajunas waits backstage during the UFC Fight Night weigh-in event at MGM Grand Garden Arena on December 9, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

The weeks that followed Rose Namajunas' loss to Carla Esparza a year ago were dark days.

Gaze back on it now, with the benefit and weight of time in equal measure, and that night might feel like a foregone conclusion.

Of course it was too much, too soon.

Of course Esparza would use her wrestling to dominate Namajunas.

Of course Esparza would be the first Ultimate Fighting Championship strawweight champion.

Of course the humiliation would be very public, even more than usual, since this was a culmination of an Ultimate Fighter season, and since people had been watching in ever-growing numbers—more numbers than in many previous seasons of the declining show, and a big reason for that was because of Namajunas.

But back then, in the moment, things felt a whole lot different. And not just to Namajunas. We all watched "Thug" Rose go into the TUF house as an inexperienced young fighter with a world of potential and a charisma wholly unique to her. When she emerged from that cocoon in the Las Vegas desert, she was a star in the making.

She was, in the words of UFC president Dana White, someone who could be the Ronda Rousey of the UFC's newest division, the marketable anchor that would hold the new strawweights in place and force people to look at them the same way Rousey did when she came to the UFC.

Namajunas enters the cage last year to face Esparza.
Namajunas enters the cage last year to face Esparza.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images
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We fawned over her charm, beauty and vicious fighting style. We bought in because there was a genuine sense that a Namajunas win would have a lifting effect on everyone around her. She was the queen of a new division, and the only thing we were waiting for was the coronation.

The UFC clearly had its favorite, and it was not Esparza for a whole bunch of reasons, but mostly because Carla came across as meanspirited on the show and because she was quiet and didn't look like a model.

But the scepter indeed went to Esparza, who forcefully assumed the throne by wrestling Namajunas to the ground, and as the old MMA cliche goes, "keeping her in deep waters."

Namajunas was the better striker, and she is a fantastic submission artist. But Esparza utterly negated any kind of spectacular offense Namajunas planned to unleash with good, old-fashioned wrestling and then submitted her in the third round, for good measure.

Namajunas said all the right things afterward, about how she'd be back and how she had things to learn and how she'd be better than ever. But the simple truth was that the fall, as falls often are, was much harder than she would publicly let on. After all, there are the things that we say when people are watching us, and there are the things we whisper to ourselves when we are alone—and the space between those two things can often be a chasm.

And fighters are always getting better, anyway. Has there ever been an athlete who, upon being asked how a loss has affected him, says that his skills have declined and that he is worse for having experienced it? There hasn't.

Rose after the loss to Esparza.
Rose after the loss to Esparza.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Fighting as in life is supposed to be about overcoming adversity and learning from mistakes. At its best, it is about being wise enough the next time around the bend to avoid the thing that felled you in the first place.

And so of course it seems logical that fighters are always using their past mistakes to get better. But fighting is also a thing bursting with cliches. Fighters are always getting better. They are always facing their toughest opponent. They have never been in the kind of peak physical condition they are in right now, in this moment, after the best training camp they've ever had. 

On Tuesday, Namajunas, her fiance, Pat Barry, and their dog Mishka strolled into the MGM Grand, past the blackjack tables and early revelers, and into a swarm of people gathered just outside the sportsbook and onto a makeshift stage in the middle of them. It was time for Namajunas' open workout in front of many of the same fans who will see her face Paige VanZant on Thursday night.

VanZant is the UFC's current hand-selected golden girl of the future. She signed an exclusive deal with Reebok before either Esparza or the current champion, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, did. She's on magazine covers and does photo shoots.

And it's funny because doesn't that feel just a little bit familiar? A year ago, that was Namajunas standing right there, the future and the present. She never really asked for it, never asked to be the golden girl, was far more concerned with being comfortable as just "Rose" and not "Potentially Ronda Rousey."

But Rose was there all the same.

Today, it's VanZant's turn, and Namajunas is now a "test" to see if Van Zant is ready to face better fighters, to continue working her way up the ladder, to determine if the UFC will keep pushing her ever-closer to the front.

Paige VanZant
Paige VanZantMike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

You can take one look at VanZant and almost instantly see why the UFC's fixation has moved on from Namajunas. She is photogenic and young and has the best and biggest smile. White once said that VanZant has "it," and that was kinda weird because "it" felt like a cover-up for what it seemed he really wanted to say but couldn't, which was: Look at this young woman. She is smoking hot, and she also fights and she is going to make me truckloads of cash.

That was Namajunas a year ago. The UFC told us back then that TUF 20 was a show about amazing athletes looking to fulfill a lifelong dream of being a world champion. But it was hard to take this seriously when we were blitzed with commercials featuring less athleticism and more red lips, leather skirts and wet, messy hair.

And there in the center of it all was Namajunas on more posters and featured more prominently in commercials than anyone.

But if VanZant is the new standard for "it" or marketability or whatever we're calling it, then Namajunas has raged against it. A month or so ago, she got tired of her hair getting in the way of her training. It was in her eyes, and she had to constantly stop and fix up a ponytail or blow air to dislodge it from the corner of her mouth.

So one day she was just done with it, done with her dumb hair. She went to Barry and told him to cut it off, immediately. Shave it right off. Women with shorn heads aren't exactly common, and many men wouldn't react well to the love of their life marching up and demanding a shaved head. "Cut it off," she said.

Barry thought it was the most gangster thing he'd ever seen in his life. She wanted to win so badly she would cut off her hair. They drove straight to the barber, and off went her hair. Now there was nothing to get in her way.

"If my hair is what's supposed to make me pretty, then I don't f-----g want it," Namajunas told him.

Rose before Wednesday's weigh-ins
Rose before Wednesday's weigh-insMike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Now Namajunas clambers onto the stage at the MGM, gliding on all fours, up there in front of the people who, not all that long ago, anointed her as the "next big thing." She does some shadowboxing, jabbing and hooking into the smoke-tinged air. She has the faintest hint of a snarl on her face. She grapples with a training partner as Barry, loving every moment of life, encourages her while also entertaining the fans.

He leans over to Mishka, sitting dutifully by his side, and whispers something in the dog's ear. He points to Namajunas, now standing there alone, and the dog scrambles onto the stage. Namajunas assumes a fighter's stance, faces the dog, and Mishka begins barking, jumping in the air and nipping at her gloved hands.

They are sparring. It's just Namajunas and her dog up there on the stage now, and they are circling and nearly oblivious to a crowd that is now loudly cheering.

Namajunas' day is not quite over yet. She has to answer a bunch of questions about VanZant, how she feels about fighting the UFC's latest project and if she feels VanZant is actually ready for her, as though such a complex question will have a simple answer readily available.

All through the questions she has already answered 100 times, and the ones she will likely answer 50 times more, there is an ease about her that did not exist a year ago. It is a sense that she is far more comfortable now than she was back then, back when the pressure and the stakes were high, back when the lights and the cameras were fixed on her.

Back when she was selected. Back when she was "it." 

That kind of attention belongs to VanZant, at least for the moment. At least until Thursday night. Because while Namajunas may indeed be a "test" for the world to determine just how far VanZant has come, she's a whole hell of a lot more than just that. Because she has been there, right where VanZant is now. She was there, and then she lost—and then she came out on the other side strong, forceful and whole.

The truth is that VanZant, well, she can't say the same. She's lost a fight before. But she hasn't been propped up, marketed, thrust into the spotlight and then defeated. Not yet.

Prepare yourself for the new Rose Namajunas, no longer anyone else's living doll.

Jeremy Botter covers mixed martial arts for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. 

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