Photos by Dan Shapiro
Rose Namajunas is taking her turn on the Hollywood red carpet, walking through a sea of lights and cameras in a full-length, off-green gown.
She paces slowly, relishing in the limelight of her upcoming run on The Ultimate Fighter, which premiers tonight. But if Namajunas had it her way, this UFC strawweight from Milwaukee would be far away from the buzz and hype of the reality TV press tour, possibly on a remote farm somewhere.
Just ask her fiancée, UFC veteran Pat Barry.
“She grew a potato. She grew a fucking potato… it came out of the ground,” emphatically explains Barry, who later declined an invitation to eat the homegrown tuber.
The youngest member of the TUF 20 cast, Namajunas is wise beyond her 22 years, demonstrating a rare poise and maturity for a woman who would have just graduated from university had she chosen a more-standard academic track over professional fighting. Then again, there’s nothing standard about this Lithuanian-American who has been practicing martial arts since she was just five years old.
Four days prior to the TUF 20 premiere gala, Namjunas is casually lounging in a downtown LA hotel lobby, joking around with Barry. It’s been ten weeks since she began filming on The Ultimate Fighter, along with her 15 cast mates, who are vying for the UFC’s inaugural strawweight title as part of the reality competition. And while she remains hush about any important production details, at least for a few more days, Namajunas is quick to chat on the few topics she’s not contractually obligated to keep secret.
“We probably ran over the budget in the first couple weeks with just our food and all the organic stuff that we all eat,” offers Namajunas. “We’re a pretty healthy cast of fighters, so I know that we were a hassle.”
Dressed in a sleeveless white blouse, Namajunas, who currently fights out of Colorado’s Grudge Training Center, just outside of Denver, represents a new crop of female athletes, 115-pound women who can brawl and tussle in the cage, with MMA skills equal to their male counterparts.
Namajunas began her mixed martial arts career at Milwaukee’s Roufusport gym, home of UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis, who coached alongside foe Gilbert Melendez on The Ultimate Fighter. But after finally finding herself at home amidst the natural beauty of Colorado, Namajunas progressed up the professional ranks with Invicta FC, the all women’s MMA promotion that was previously the best outlet for the strawweights before the UFC opened its own 115-pound division.
Winning her first two pro bouts via submission, including a flying armbar that was a contender for “Submission of the Year,” Namajunas suffered defeat for the first time in pro competition in July 2013, dropping a decision to fellow TUF cast mate Tecia Torres.
The loss was then followed by a lengthy sabbatical from the cage, as she, along with the seven other Invicta imports on TUF 20, awaited reality TV production after the UFC bought out their contracts. The year off from competition hampered many of the show’s fighters, but not Namajunas, who reveled in her time away from the cage.
“I don’t really believe in ring rust just because the way that I train. I train just like I fight,” states Namajunas. “I don’t feel like there’s any more or less nerves going into the fight… there’s no more or less pressure or anxiety.”
Twelve months removed from her loss to Torres at Invicta 6, Namajunas packed her bags for Las Vegas, where she remained for six weeks while filming.
Separated from her teammates and support system, locked in a house full of rivals, including Torres and Emily Kagan, women with whom she previously battled, Namajunas drew on experience from Barry, her longtime paramour, who was also previously a coach on The Ultimate Fighter’s sixteenth season.
“He said just be myself, just be me. Don’t try and be a character. Don’t try and do things for the camera,” comments Namajunas. “If I just be myself, not only my personality, but also in my fighting style… everything will be successful.”
And with TUF 20 now set to air, Namajunas back to concentrating on what she knows best: fighting. The only question that remains is if she will resonate with the reality TV audience and become the UFC’s first women’s strawweight champion.
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