DENVER — Rose Namajunas is 30 minutes into a striking pad session when she yelps in pain.
Ask any coach or fighter, and they'll all tell you the same thing: Hearing that sound is a harrowing moment in a fight gym. You are overcome with about a dozen feelings all at once. Everyone goes so silent, you can hear a pin drop. And you know you're all thinking the same thing: Is it an actual injury? How bad is it? Will they have to pull out of the fight?
Namajunas bends over and clutches her right knee, wincing in pain. This isn't good. She stands up straight, takes a step and winces.
"That's it," says Pat Barry, her coach and longtime partner. "No more."
Striking coach Trevor Wittman agrees with Barry. "Time to stop," he says.
Namajunas, in the midst of preparing for an April 7 title defense—her first since taking the UFC strawweight belt from Joanna Jedrzejczyk last November—takes a few limping steps and then shakes her head. She takes off her gloves in frustration. "Wrap it up," Barry says.
"F--k," she says. "F--k!"
Namajunas' win over Jedrzejczyk in November was a near-historic upset. She was a massive underdog to Jedrzejczyk, who came into the fight with a perfect 14-0 record (compared to Namajunas' 6-3), and was considered by most an easy title defense for a champion who had ruled the division with gleeful violence for more than two years.
But Namajunas had other plans. Forgoing her greatest strength—her grappling game—she stood toe-to-toe with Jedrzejczyk. She battered her around the cage and then knocked her out. It was an emphatic performance, so much so that UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier (on commentary that night) began channeling famed WWE announcer Jim Ross.
"Thug Rose! Thug Rose! Thug Rose!" Cormier, a longtime pro wrestling fan, exclaimed.
Color analyst Joe Rogan entered the cage after the match, microphone in hand, to interview Namajunas. This is often the moment when a new champion is exultant. They're overcome with emotion and don't have the words to describe how they're feeling. Sometimes they set up their next opponent or tell the world they'd be happy to give the formerly great champion a rematch.
Namajunas took a different route.
"There's so much, like, crap going on in the media, news and stuff. And I just wanna try and use my gift of martial arts to try to make this world a better place. To change the world," Namajunas said. "This belt don't mean nothing, man. Just be a good person. That's it. You know, this [referring to her new UFC belt] is extra. This is awesome. But let's just give each other hugs and be nice, man. I know we fight, but this is entertainment."
It was her moment in the spotlight. And for the UFC, it was a potential bonanza. The promotion has been looking for a new female superstar ever since Ronda Rousey's career took a very quick dive off a very steep cliff, illustrated by the fact that "The Next Ronda Rousey" has become a title seemingly attached to any woman who can fight and has some semblance of marketability. And Namajunas fits the bill perfectly: She's young, she's attractive, and she can fight.
But Namajunas won't be The Next Ronda Rousey. Someone else can grab that mantle if they want. And good for them, if that's what they're after. Namajunas wanted no part of it that night, and she wants no part of it now.
Rousey was driven by an insatiable need to compete. She fought to prove her greatness. And when she lost, she took it as a personal affront. Namajunas doesn't feel the need to prove anything to anyone. For her, fighting is a means to an end. Truthfully, she tells Bleacher Report, if she had enough money to accomplish what she wants to do after fighting, she would retire right now.
She meant what she said that night, standing there in the cage with Rogan. Every word of it. The belt that was wrapped around her waist that night in New York City? It's hanging on the wall at the 303 Training Center, framed behind glass in a nice wooden box. She didn't take it home with her, instead choosing to give it to her team for display.
She isn't worried about the way the world sees her. She's worried about the way she sees the world.
Spend time with her, and you don't hear about the sustainability of her title reign; you hear about the sustainability of the way people live. About setting up a system to teach urban dwellers how to create and maintain livable gardens in big cities such as Denver, how to grow their own food and live off the land. About being kinder to the Earth and to each other.
When Namajunas says she just wants to make the world a better place, it's not some rote answer to a question she's asked all the time. She truly does want to make the world a better place. And not only that, but she also has a plan to do it.
But that plan takes money, and she doesn't have enough money yet, so she keeps fighting. But only long enough to get to where she's going.
She has a magic number in mind, and once she reaches it, she's gone. And she won't miss it at all.
She won't even look back.
Namajunas has her knee checked out after practice. The doctor confirms what Barry and others already suspect: The quad muscles have locked up from exhaustion, limiting her knee movement. It's a byproduct of working her muscles too hard. There's no injury; she just needs a break for the rest of the day, and maybe the next day as well.
It is a familiar refrain. Overtraining is a constant worry with Namajunas.
One of the biggest jobs for Barry, Wittman and 303 Training Center owner Tony Basile is keeping her from hurting herself by going too hard on any particular day. "There's always tomorrow," Barry will tell her, and they'll go hiking or take their dog, Mishka, out into the expansive grassy area behind their home to toss tennis balls.
There was a time not so long ago that her knee locking up would've sent her spiraling out of control. She's always had issues with control, or at least with not being able to control everything in her life.
"Something as simple as today, my knee locking up, I would have sat down and cried," she says.
She wasn't in control of her mind.
Namajunas was born to Lithuanian parents in Milwaukee.
Early life wasn't easy for her. The family's neighborhood was a rough one. Gunshots often rang out during the night. An acquaintance of Namajunas' was stabbed to death on the street near her house. She has spoken openly of sexual abuse she suffered and the violence she witnessed as a teenager. Her father, who died when she was 16 years old, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Like many who are formed in the fire of a violent upbringing, Namajunas turned to martial arts to channel her rage, her fear and her pain.
She began training in taekwondo at five years old and discovered its calming effects on her. For others in her class, martial arts was about competition, or about feeling tough, or standing up to a bully. For Namajunas, it was about the moment, or a combined series of moments. It was the process that mattered, not the result. It was about the peace she'd often sought but never found in the outside world. She was a natural at combat sports and accumulated trophies left and right, but they meant nothing to her.
"I never kept them. They were meaningless," she says. "It was more about the experience and knowing I accomplished it rather than having this materialistic thing."
It wasn't until after her third professional fight, against Tecia Torres in Invicta Fighting Championships, that something deep inside Namajunas clicked. She'd won all her amateur bouts and her first two professional fights. She was feeling confident—perhaps too confident.
"I was going in like, I just want to f--king fight," she says. "I don't care about all the extra bulls--t. I had no game plan. I just went at her."
The lack of a game plan cost Namajunas. She dropped a unanimous decision to Torres.
It was a moment for Namajunas to take stock, both of herself and of her surroundings. Why was she fighting for a living? What did she want to do? She decided, for the first time in her career, to set some goals.
She'd never cared about being the champion. "I didn't need the belt to validate me," she says. "I knew I could beat anyone." But now she made it her goal to hold a championship in either Invicta or the UFC by the end of 2017.
There were days she'd wake up and think, I am slow. I am weak. I am stupid. I am out of shape. And those thoughts drove her further down the well of doubt, taking up headspace before, during and after training, building a wall that seemed impossible to overcome. But something had to change.
She started reading books. She'd been a voracious consumer of the written word since childhood, but like everyone else these days, the creep of modern technology meant she had started to read far less than she wanted. So she stopped spending her time reading social media and the depressing news and instead read books like Fight Your Fear and Win and Buddha's Brain.
From those books, she learned to "personify my negative voices that are in my head" and "flip those into a positive thing." She started journaling and doing float tanks and isolation training. And after a while, she realized she had garnered some semblance of control over her thoughts.
By the time she'd made her way to the fight against Jedrzejczyk, she was an entirely different woman. Her fears and demons, while not entirely eradicated, were under control. She'd taken to creating and repeating mantras for each fight that helped her keep those thoughts at bay, little things she could say to herself to turn her negatives into positives.
For the first Jedrzejczyk fight, the mantra was simple. Confidence. Conditioning. Composure. Content. I am a champion.
During the faceoff at the traditional weigh-ins, she stood completely still as Jedrzejczyk seethed across from her, not moving a muscle, her lips mouthing the words to the Lord's Prayer. When she looked at the world, she saw chaos. Donald Trump was president. A gunman had taken dozens of lives in Las Vegas a month earlier. There were protests everywhere. But when the world looked at her, it saw someone who seemed completely at peace with all of it.
"It's kind of overwhelming. I had to really create a positive atmosphere for myself, and that has to come from within," she says. "I just wish there were a little more peace in the world."
Namajunas and Barry have been together for years, sticking it out through the difficult times, and even the really difficult times, including a couple of years ago when Barry's alcoholism and opiate addiction caused him to hit rock-bottom.
Barry was helping Brock Lesnar train for his return to the UFC in Minnesota in July 2016, and one night after the conclusion of training, he went out to grab pizza. Before the end of the night, he found himself facing down his demons in a Minnesota jail, realizing it was time to make a change before it was too late. The next day, Lesnar told him to pack his stuff and go home.
He did, and Namajunas was disappointed, but she didn't let it destroy their relationship. Observing the two together, it is hard to imagine Barry without Namajunas or Namajunas without Barry.
Each morning at roughly 6:30, Barry and Basile gather on the back porch of Namajunas and Barry's townhome a few miles from the 303 Training Center. Like anyone who spends more than a few minutes with Barry, Basile is a central part of Namajunas' support system. They sit on the back porch, sip coffee and lay out plans for Namajunas' training session that day.
Today, they're discussing one of these brand-new training methods Barry has come up with where he will literally just throw tennis balls (really wing them, not just toss them) at Namajunas, who will allegedly punch them out of midair. Barry is amazed that nobody has thought of doing this before. And to be honest, he isn't really sure it's going to help, or do anything much at all. But they've been doing the exercise for a while, and Barry has a good feeling about it.
"It's got to help, right? I mean, it has to do something," Barry says.
"Hand-eye coordination," Basile says, with a knowing smile. "Like The Matrix."
"You'll see." Barry says. "It's amazing."
And sure enough, it is amazing. Late in the afternoon, after a lunch at their favorite little Thai place by the gym, everyone reconvenes back at Barry and Namajunas' house. Namajunas checks out the new batch of signature T-shirts sent to her by Reebok. She goes outside briefly and throws some tennis balls and Frisbees to Mishka.
Namajunas changes clothes and heads to the backyard, where Barry is waiting with a large basket of tennis balls. Namajunas does some stretching, which morphs into shadowboxing: A crisp left. A slow, looping left high kick. An uppercut punctuated by Namajunas' cracking voice breaking the chilly afternoon air.
"You ready?" Barry asks her. She nods. He begins throwing tennis balls at Namajunas—real heaters—and Namajunas, in her fighting stance, starts crushing them out of midair with jabs and hooks. It's the darndest thing you ever saw. And it gets even cooler when he adds in a different color tennis ball, which Namajunas has to dodge while also continuing to hit the original color balls.
It's enough to make the head spin, but Namajunas hunkers down in her stance, snapping her head left and right to dodge tennis balls, popping them out of the air with incredible accuracy.
It makes you think about how long it takes to become a believer and how Barry just has to be right, that this whole tennis ball thing has to help, because there is no way something this awesome can't help in some way.
"I told you," Barry says with a grin. "I told you!"
Everyone ambles over to help Barry gather up the wayward tennis balls, including Mishka, who both picks up more tennis balls than everyone else and places them in the proper storage container.
But Namajunas still has at least one foot in her own world. She stands in the middle of the grassy field and continues to throw punches at the invisible enemy in front of her. Her lips are barely moving, but they're moving, and she's repeating the mantra she came up with for this fight. It's a different one than she used for the first fight against Jedrzejczyk, both in words and in tone.
I am grateful. I am blessed. When I'm my best, I am the best.
If she retains her title against Jedrzejczyk, she might well start to get that recognition. And since she's young, she's attractive and she can fight, the standard comparisons will come up.
But she'll have done it by being herself.
Not by being the next Ronda Rousey, but by being the first Thug Rose.