There's a little place in Milwaukee called Gilles. It's one of those roadside stands that serve as community heirlooms, selling hamburgers and slushies on hot days. Places like Gilles invariably appear under soft focus in coming-of-age movies, the setting for a million summer jobs.
One of those kids was Rose Namajunas. And she has a menu recommendation.
"You have to get frozen custard," she said. "It's better than ice cream. I'm serious."
Gilles is still in Milwaukee. Namajunas isn't. On Saturday she'll be in Rio de Janeiro, where she will defend her UFC women's strawweight belt against hometown and betting favorite Jessica Andrade in the main event of UFC 237. It's the first main event of Namajunas' UFC career, and it could be fertile ground for a new chapter in her personal and professional story—one that might be the UFC's most compelling.
There's a lot of ground between Rio and Milwaukee, where Namajunas grew up under nightmarish circumstances. Instead of shedding the darkness and leaving it in her hometown, though, she packed it up and brought it along. She has told the story, again and again, in the process speaking out about mental health and other sensitive topics in a sport that doesn't make a lot of room in its soul for sensitivity. That has earned her fans in and out of MMA. Taken alongside her diverse skill set, her taste for violence and her unflagging competitive intensity, it has lent her a crossover credibility that's difficult to cultivate.
"I do it by just being myself," Namajunas told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "I have the biggest microphone. I just spread the good word of MMA and leading a healthy lifestyle and living in balance. ... Watch any of my fights, and you'll know. I come to fight and put on a show every time."
In a way, maybe Milwaukee isn't so far away after all. Namajunas' story is well-known to those who follow the sport. The daughter of Lithuanian immigrants, Namajunas was raised in an abusive household. Her father had schizophrenia until he died when Rose was 16.
Hard-luck stories, sadly but truly, are not uncommon among those who fight for money. Namajunas' took on new texture when—unlike many fighters—she talked about it, and in the process, she opened up about her own mental health.
"I have overcome some demons in my path," she told USA Today in 2017. "Every day I wake up and I'm [a] champion, so that's just my mindset all of the time. I think this fight could be a great [public service] announcement for mental health awareness. I think I'm a champion for that. I'm so much stronger from it, and I'm going to continue to be stronger."
That was in advance of her challenge to then-champ Joanna Jedrzejczyk, viewed at the time as nigh-on unbeatable. Following Namajunas' public statements about mental health, Jedrzejczyk attempted to turn it into a vulnerability, labeling Namajunas as "mentally unstable" as the two faced off before their fight.
But that's when Namajunas' MMA story really began. She rewrote the script of that fight when she knocked out Jedrzejczyk in 3:03 to capture the belt, hand the champ her first professional MMA loss and score the upset of the year. If that's not a feel-good story, then feel-good stories no longer exist.
From there, Namajunas was off and running. Her self-identified weaknesses and recognition of them resonated in the public imagination as surely as her shaved head, burning eyes, relentless drive and deep toolbox. She can submit you in the first round or persist through the championship rounds, as she did in winning her rematch with Jedrzejczyk.
She can bang or she can stick and move—the latter of which she'll surely need to do against Andrade, who holds distinct strength and power advantages that will gain maximum potency at close range. Those advantages are suggesting to some that the challenger may be the favorite, as Andrade is a slight -122 favorite to win Saturday, according to Oddschecker.
A psychological component is familiar for Namajunas and her supporters. It may be in play in a more explicit way Saturday, as this is her first fight following a long layoff. More than a year ago, she was caught in the middle of the infamous 2018 clash involving Conor McGregor, Khabib Nurmagomedov, a hand truck and a charter bus. Namajunas was physically unhurt but shaken by the attack. She went on to defeat Jedrzejczyk at UFC 223 that weekend but hasn't competed since.
"All the stress of what happened on the bus in Brooklyn took a lot out of me emotionally and physically," Namajunas recently told the Sporting News. "I just needed to give myself that break and recuperate. It really bothered me, and it is still an ongoing thing. I've learned that you take it one day at a time."
For Namajunas and her fans, the fight with Andrade feels like a chance for a new chapter. Namajunas perseveres through adversity by leaning in more deeply. She gets strong in places that seem broken. Staring down her problems head-on is what made Namajunas stronger. On Saturday, everyone will see whether Namajunas can deliver another master class on that strategy, honed all the way back to her days slinging frozen custard in Milwaukee and well before.
"No matter what the obstacles are," she said, "it's all about facing your fears."
Scott Harris writes about MMA for Bleacher Report.