Heading into UFC 217, Joanna Jędrzejczyk was a huge favorite. The greatest women’s strawweight in the short history of the UFC division, the polished polish striker was garnering comparisons to Ronda Rousey – the most celebrated women’s MMA fighter to date. Specifically, Jędrzejczyk was close to tying Rousey’s six consecutive title defenses in the UFC. Discussions were had about whether Jędrzejczyk was about to become the greatest female fighter in UFC history – and MMA in general – with a win over underdog title challenger “Thug” Rose Namajunas.
But then Namajunas scored the huge upset of Jędrzejczyk, becoming the new UFC strawweight champion and turning those Jędrzejczyk-Rousey comparisons from awed to almost morbid: would the defeated Jędrzejczyk take the first loss of her career as badly as Rousey did? Is this a breaking point for her? It seems that Jędrzejczyk is now eager to prove otherwise, telling the media at the post-UFC 217 press conference: “No no, please don’t compare me to Ronda Rousey and I love her so much and we have very good relationship, but please let’s leave this b******t away.”
I understand the urge to look at Rousey and Jędrzejczyk side-by-side, but in my view the strawweight upset at UFC 217 opened up a much more compelling comparison. While Jędrzejczyk and Rousey were looked at for their similarities – undefeated, dominant streak in their divisions, tough-woman personalities, title defenses, a surprising upset KO loss – I find it much more interesting to place Rousey next to Namajunas and examine their differences.
Ronda Rousey grew up with a Judo world-champion mother, who encouraged her to start training in the sport. Rousey took to it and eventually reached very near the very top, winning a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China. After that, she used her Judo skills and great athletic gifts to start a career in a whole new sport, having her first professional MMA fight in March 2011.
Rose Namajunas’s road to MMA appears to have been a bit more scattered, with the young Namajunas studying Tae Kwan Do and Karate as a child before starting MMA training during her high school years. She then made her pro debut at Invicta FC 4 when she was 20.
Both women received much public attention due to armbar submissions, but in different ways. For Rousey, it was her signature move: she really started to gain a lot of her fame when she was about to fight Miesha Tate for the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight title in March of 2012, and afterwards, when Tate became fighter number 5 to tap to the hold of the soon-to-be superstar. Rousey won her first eight fights by armbar submission, a statistic that symbolized her dominance in the division – not only did she finish all of her opponents, but despite them knowing what Rousey wanted to do, none of them could stop it from happening. Namajunas came into view not by a sustained effort such as that, but by a fantastic one-shot move: hitting a spectacular flying armbar on Kathina Catron at Invicta FC 5 in April 2013, at just 12 seconds of the first round. The video went viral in MMA circles, and hardcore fans got their first glance of the young “Thug” Rose, her entertaining sub and equally entertaining exuberant post-fight celebration.
The two have had different career trajectories. Rousey shot to the top quickly, winning the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight championship less than a year after her debut in pro MMA. Her dominance over the women’s bantamweight division, which was absorbed into the UFC in February 2013, looked more and more impressive with every successive win. Building on her athletic ability, charisma, and looks, Rousey eventually became a worldwide celebrity, appearing in high-profile films, on WWE broadcasts (or at least one), on the covers of magazines, and even in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. At her highest point, Rousey fought Brazilian fighter Bethe Correia in Rio, and the usually-very-nationalistic Brazilian crowds actually cheered for Rousey over their fellow countrywoman. But her locomotive of a career – all parts of it, mind you, not just the fighting – came to a halt when Holly Holm beat Rousey via a devastating head kick knockout at UFC 193 in November 2015, in one of the greatest upsets the MMA world has ever seen.
Namajunas’ career, on the other hand, has been a gradual climb so far, and not stumble-free. She lost her third pro fight. She then went on The Ultimate Fighter season 20 – a season that would crown the first women’ strawweight in UFC history – won three fights in impressive fashion, but suffered a dispiriting loss to Carla Esparza in the final. Throughout her career, it seems that Namajunas exemplified a kind of collected and mature attitude. She took the losses, moved on and kept working. She became better and better, and eventually won the title in an impressive upset.
After Rousey lost, it looked as if she suffered a deep and profound mental breakdown. Her image in the eyes of the public – and, it seemed, in her own eyes – as the unbeatable titan of women’s MMA was shattered. Rousey avoided the media in the following months, later telling Ellen DeGeneres in a tearful interview that she felt so low after the fight she contemplated suicide.
Namajunas losses came earlier in her career, and she had little fame or hype around her then. That may be one reason why she, unlike Rousey, seemed to take these losses more in stride, moving on with her training, learning and getting better. It’s also worth remembering that, while Namajunas found herself in a UFC title fight in 2014 and lost to Esparza, she was nonetheless in the beginning of her career, still climbing upwards, as opposed to Rousey, who was on top of the world when she first experienced defeat, and thus had a much steeper fall.
When Rousey was at the height of her fame she was celebrated not just for her athletic gifts and achievements, but also for her looks. In an understandable and legitimate move, Rousey embraced this kind of attention. If I remember correctly, she actually used it in the beginning of her career to hype up her first fight with Miesha Tate for the Strikeforce championship, and took more opportunities to increase her celebrity status using her physical appearance as she became more famous. What’s curious is not Rousey’s actions in this regard, but rather Namajunas’.
As far as I can tell, it is fair to say that a large portion of the public considers Rose Namajunas to be an attractive woman. When the strawweight championship season of TUF was going on, I remember seeing the inevitable discussions on social media about which contestant was the best looking, and Namajunas’ name was generally written the most often. And yet the fighter herself never seemed to care much for her looks. Namajunas, it appears, never really gave all that much of a hoot about it. When she shaved off her hair shortly before her December 2015 beating of Paige VanZant (another fighter, coincidentally, known for using her beauty to further herself), she published an Instagram post that simply said “It’s a fight not a beauty pageant. S**t’s in my way at practice, cut it off!” and has kept the shaved-head style ever since.
Perhaps the most significant difference between Rousey and Namajunas comes down to the message they each espoused as champions. Rousey isn’t remembered as embracing a lot of causes – not many fighters (or sports figures in general) are – but she’ll probably be remembered by many for her famous “Do Nothing B***h” statement. In short, Rousey spoke to a UFC Embedded camera crew ahead of her fight with Bethe Correia, telling them that people sometimes say her body is masculine (since she has a relatively thick, muscular build). She described a type of woman called a “Do Nothing B***h” or DNB, someone whose purpose is simply to look pretty and be taken care of, and said she was raised by her mother not to be this kind of person. So far so good. But then Rousey shared her view that her body was actually the real feminine kind since she developed her body for a purpose, and strongly insinuated that the DNB body type was flawed and at least slightly reprehensible.
Rousey’s “DNB speech” was widely praised as a positive feminist message, its fans apparently missing the fact that Rousey went too far – instead of just saying her looks were not and should not be an issue, she went ahead and demonized another body type, besmirching an entire collection of humans just because of the way they happen to look. How many teachers, nurses, doctors, police officers, military members, EMTs, firefighters, and just generally good, productive, contributing-to-the-world women are there who happen to have a DNB body type just because that’s the genetic predisposition with which they were born? I’d hazard a rough and very conservative guess that it’s at least on the tens of thousands around the world. But according to Rousey, these good people are DNBs, all because they look differently from her. One of the world’s most famous athletes at the time just essentially said your figure is directly connected to your value as a person, so sorry Dr. – I know you’ve dedicated the last 15 years your life to performing life-saving surgery on children with heart problems – but according to Ronda Jean Rousey your body’s only purpose is to f**k millionaires.
Contrast that with what Rose Namajunas said in the moment when the biggest spotlight of her career was on her, after winning the championship at UFC 217. “This belt don’t mean nothing man,” the emotional new champ said, “just be a good person.” Quite a difference. Oh, and just in case you’re wondering, she did not later qualify that message by adding that to be a good person you need to look like her.
Finally, and this is basically trivial but symbolically interesting: Ronda Rousey and her husband Travis Browne are maybe MMA’s most disliked couple. Browne lost favor with many fans after he was accused of domestic abuse by his ex-wife. He has denied the allegations, and as far as I know wasn’t even charged, let alone convicted, of the alleged offenses. Nevertheless, many MMA fans haven’t looked at him quite the same since. Some MMA fans are also probably jealous of the fact that he’s now married to the object of their affection. And Rousey herself? Well, besides the fact that she’s maintained a relationship with someone who was accused of domestic abuse (never convicted), her fall from grace seems to have included a certain removal of blinders from many people’s eyes regarding the fact that Rousey, in her public persona, can be kind of a jerk. Specifically, after she beat some of her opponents (Miesha Tate after their second fight and Bethe Correia, for example), she didn’t act very magnanimously.
Rose Namajunas and her fiancé Pat Barry, on the other hand, are perhaps the most beloved pair in MMA. Barry is known for being an exciting striker with a good sense of humor, and has also been open about his struggles with addiction. Rose Namajunas comes off as the sweetest person you’re likely to meet, and she has an exciting fight style and a cool fiancé to boot. In addition, I think Browne and Rousey come off as very distant from the public and fans. This seems natural, considering Rousey’s mainstream celebrity status, but can be alienating. Namajunas and Barry are the opposite – they look like the kind of couple you could meet at the local grocery store, and when you do they’d be super nice.
Rousey and Namajunas’ are two kinds of champions, two kinds of people, and have taken two very different paths to the top. Examining both gives us a little glimpse of the diverse pool of fighters MMA attracts, props up, and eventually knocks down. Just as their climbs to the title were different, I suspect the ends of Namajunas and Rousey’s careers will be unlike one another. For Rousey, I’m guessing the end has already come; after her second title fight loss – to Amanda Nunes in December 2016 – no one has really spoken seriously about the prospect of another Rousey comeback. For Namajunas, her future in the sport looks very bright at the moment. Only time will tell.