Rose Namajunas turned the mixed martial arts world upside down.
“The Ultimate Fighter” Season 20 finalist marched to the Octagon as a 7-to-1 underdog and unseated Joanna Jedrzejczyk with first-round punches to capture the undisputed Ultimate Fighting Championship women’s strawweight title in a UFC 217 showstopper on Nov. 4 at Madison Square Garden in New York. Jedrzejczyk bowed out 3:03 into Round 1, suffering her first pro defeat in Sherdog’s “Upset of the Year” for 2017.
Afterward, Namajunas strolled into the post-fight press conference with an unassuming glow wearing camouflage pants and a grey hoodie, the 115-pound championship resting upon her right shoulder.
“It’s been a rough week, up until the fight started,” said Namajunas, who handled flight delays, issues with her walk-in music, sleep deprivation and other peripheral distractions in stride. “It just seemed like everything was trying to distract me and being thrown in my face. I just kept listening to my coaches and trusted in them and trusted in myself and got the job done.”
Namajunas was measured and confident. She got Jedrzejczyk’s attention early, when she floored the off-balance Pole with a right hand. Moments later, to the shock of the 18,201 fans in attendance, Namajunas decked the champion with a vicious left hook and pounced with follow-up punches until the deed was done.
“I had a feeling I was going to knock her out in the third round,” she said, “so for it to happen in the first round is great.”
It differed greatly from Namajunas’ first title fight in December 2014, when she submitted to a third-round rear-naked choke from Carla Esparza at “The Ultimate Fighter 20” Finale. Namajunas admits she drew upon that setback ahead of her second bid to capture the strawweight crown, covering an inordinate amount of distance in less than three years.
“My first title fight, I kind of felt similar walking to the cage, where I couldn’t see where I was going and there was just a lot of chaos going on around me, lots of distractions, lots of things to pull away my focus. I even almost tripped on the way to the stage. It got to me,” Namajunas said. “This time, I just related back to that experience and was like, ‘I can just breathe and I can counter this by just staying calm and not worrying about it.’”
All the ingredients came together against Jedrzejczyk, the woman who had shouldered the pound-for-pound mantle following the swift and unexpected fall of Ronda Rousey. The 30-year-old American Top Team representative was shaken but defiant in the immediate aftermath of her failed encounter with Namajunas.
“This happens to the greatest, but I will keep my head up,” Jedrzejczyk said. “I’m not the champion anymore, but I will be back -- stronger. I’m still a professional athlete. I’ve been doing this for half of my life, 14 years, so definitely, I will keep my head up and take this as a champion ... as a former champion.”
Jedrzejczyk used all the tricks of the trade to try to rattle Namajunas in the weeks leading into their encounter. None of it worked. However, the ever-confident Polish muay Thai machine scoffed at the idea that her emotions played a role in her downfall.
“I never take fights personal, and I’m not emotional when I’m fighting,” Jedrzejczyk said. “Everything went so smooth during this camp. It was a very long camp. For 13 weeks I was training with American Top Team. Just a big surprise, big surprise. This is what happens. Big congrats to Rose. I’m happy for her, but I’ll be back stronger. This was not personal. The things that happened before the fight have nothing to do with this fight. It was a good punch. She caught me. I really don’t know what happened, but it’s a fight. We take this risk.”
At least one prominent American Top Team stablemate, former opponent Valerie Letourneau, agreed with Jedrzejczyk’s assessment that overconfidence was not an issue.
“It’s always been her attitude, but she is a different person in the gym,” Letourneau told Sherdog.com in an exclusive interview. “She’s not cocky in the gym. She’s close to everybody. She’s coming to the gym riding her bicycle. I don’t see her this way. This is what matters the most to me. She’s been training so freaking hard. This is something that inspires me from Joanna -- is how hard [she trains] after beating almost everybody in the division. She didn’t take this fight lightly. That’s not the reason why she lost. She didn’t train like she was overconfident. That’s all I can say.”
Meanwhile, Namajunas has begun to settle in as champion. The 25-year-old hopes to use her new platform to promote a spirit of humility among fighters.
“There’s just been a lot of trash talking and things like that and people that I feel like aren’t really being true to themselves or being honest,” she said. “Maybe that’s just what they feel they need to do to entertain things, but I’m just kind of sick of it. I’m sick of all the hate and anger and stuff like that. I feel like we have a duty as fighters to try and be a better example. Martial arts is about honor and respect. It takes a lot of courage to get in that cage, no matter who you are.”
Sherdog’s year-end awards were voted upon by a panel of Sherdog.com staff members and contributors: Jordan Breen, Tristen Critchfield, Chris Nelson, Mike Fridley, Brian Knapp, Eric Stinton, Todd Martin, Jordan Colbert, Josh Stillman, Jesse Denis, Edward Carbajal and Anthony Walker.