Last November, in the early hours of Sunday morning, shortly after Saturday night officially ended in New York City, her message of kindness and goodness felt both jarring and comforting.
There was Rose Namajunas, fresh off punching a woman in the face enough times that she had to be pulled away by another person, advocating for being a good person, treating others with respect and making a positive difference in the world. Such a juxtaposition is the nature of mixed martial arts, a violent and aggressive sport in which some very otherwise nice and kind people compete in professionally.
Namajunas had just surprised the MMA world by knocking out the undefeated UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk in the first round at Madison Square Garden. She beat her again last April in Brooklyn, this time by unanimous decision. Her message on those two nights remained the same on Tuesday in Manhattan.
“I want to be the most influential champion, in a positive light,” Namajunas said at The Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival. “I want to change the world. I want to encourage people to be nicer to each other, to be nicer to themselves.”
Such a dichotomy of sport and life can seem conflicting at times to those who don’t follow the fights or the fighters. How can this 115-pound woman from Denver by way of Milwaukee who recites the Lord’s Prayer during stressful times compete in such a brutal sport, use the nickname “Thug” and get across her message of peace and love?
“Fighting causes you to face life head on, because you could end up seriously getting hurt, and you could hurt somebody else,” Namajunas told Newsday after the panel. “It causes both people to face the reality that we are fragile beings, but it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy ourselves in the process and punch each other in the face and have a good time.”
Namajunas said she wants to get involved with urban farms and teach children where their food comes from and how to grow quality foods. She also said she plans to continue to encourage people to engage in martial arts. They don’t need to fight necessarily, though.
“You can just hit the bag,” said Namajunas, 25, who was sexually abused in her younger years. “If you don’t want to hurt anybody, you can get your aggression out. Because everybody has some, I believe.”
The title of Namajunas’ interview panel at the event was “The Civilized Side of Mixed Martial Arts,” an apropos title for the reigning UFC strawweight champion who tries to promote positivity and kindness toward each other in a sport where many fans gravitate more toward the growing the trend of over-the-top trash talking and antics.
“I’m not the most civilized, I think just in comparison to how uncivilized people are acting in the MMA world,” Namajunas said. “I just try, like, ‘C’mon, guys, let’s bring it back a little bit.’”
Namajunas spoke during the panel about a time when people appreciated the art of fighting more than the talking, when jabs in the cage dominated conversation more than those in social media and interviews. She referenced the Forrest Griffin-Stephen Bonnar fight from the Season 1 finale of “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2005. That fight, a three-round back-and-forth battle where TV ratings grew by the round, has been credited with saving the UFC and making it a mainstream sport.
“Their fight was amazing, and it moved people,” Namajunas said, “and it wasn’t about trash talking. … It was about heart.”
Not that verbal chest-thumping and showmanship is new to MMA, or other fighting sports. But few fighters possess the necessary skillset to present their zingers with a verbal precision equal to what their fists and legs deliver. For every Conor McGregor, there are a few dozen one-liners just sitting out there without any likes, retweets, shares and comments.
“It’s great that mixed martial arts allows people to still be in touch with their animal side and duke it out in a cage, but I think it’s important, we’re still nurturing beings and we should still have compassion for each other,” Namajunas said after her panel concluded. “Almost equally so because we need our opponent in order to do what we do. We should have a higher level of respect for the person because we know they can do and they know what I can do.”