With "UFC Embedded" cameras in tow as Rose Namajunas finished packing in her Colorado home earlier this week for a journey to Jacksonville, Florida, where she'll look to regain her women's strawweight title at UFC 261, chief training partner Chico Camus delivered a poignant synopsis regarding the unique (and sometimes frustrating) arc of Namajunas' career.
"When she does her best, she's the best," Camus, a former UFC flyweight, said. "She's prepared and it doesn't matter, [but] it's Rose against Rose every time. She's the best in the world and she has got the mind, body and soul all in one place. When the stars are aligned, there is not a woman in the world I think that can beat her, especially at 115."
The key element to that equation, of course, is the phrasing describing Namajunas' wildly inconsistent Octagon past that includes some of the most tantalizing performances in 115-pound history -- including her first-round knockout of defending champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk in 2017 -- typically offset by defeats marred by a lack of focus.
At 28, Namajunas is very much in the midst of her physical and mental prime and has been so alarmingly good at times that there's reason to suggest we still haven't seen the very best of her inside the cage. Yet because we have seen her self-implode so spectacularly on the brightest stage, including her knockout slam defeat against Jessica Andrade that cost the Milwaukee native her the title in 2019 and led to honest discussions regarding retirement, it's difficult to know exactly what to expect.
As she enters this weekend's title bout against Weili Zhang (21-1), China's first UFC champion who is riding a 20-fight win streak, Namajunas is a slight betting underdog. So how does she summon the very best of herself in order to avoid any regrets?
"Lots of honesty, self-reflection, lots of hard work -- there is a million things you have to do," Namajunas told "Morning Kombat" on Wednesday. "I'm focused on the task at hand, being in the present moment and controlling myself. I'm just focusing on performing and doing my best and when I do my best, I am the best."
Namajunas' unique career path saw her compete in the inaugural UFC strawweight title bout in 2014 at just 22. Technically, her third-round submission loss served as Namajunas' UFC debut and the finale of season 20 of "The Ultimate Fighter," although she scored a trio of exhibition wins during the reality series.
For those keeping score at home, Namajunas doesn't often go out of her way to watch video of the Esparza fight these days, comparing it to "like looking at an old picture of you when you were in high school where you maybe had a funny haircut or some weird clothes." Considering Namajunas has gone on to sport such an iconic and aero-dynamic hairstyle, she no longer even looks like the same fighter.
"It was such a pivotal moment in my career and it was responsible for making me the person that I am today," Namajunas said. "It's a moment I am super grateful for but I don't know if I go back and watch it all that often."
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But the see-saw plot of Namajunas' career would only continue from there. A subsequent three-fight win streak was snapped in 2016 when she dropped a split-decision to future title contender Karolina Kowalkiewicz during a time that would be later revealed as mentally taxing given longtime fiancee and coach Pat Barry's battle with substance abuse.
The fact that her record was just 6-3 entering her first meeting with Jedrzejczyk is mind-boggling, as is her current mark of 9-4 considering Namajunas' stance as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport today and one of the greatest strawweights in history.
But if Namajunas can pinpoint a reason why her next three-fight win streak, which included a pair of victories over Jedrzejczyk, was so violently snapped against Andrade, the answer surrounds how she viewed the UFC title and why the negative feelings she developed while holding it led her to a mid-fight panic in which she no longer wanted the pressure of being champion.
This time around, Namajunas reports that she has a much healthier view of what the UFC championship actually represents, which has led her to be rejuvenated in her quest to regain it.
"I just remember what [UFC president] Dana [White] told me a long time ago, that the belt is the key to everything," Namajunas said. "That's basically what it is, it's just a tool. It's the product of me performing my best and doing my best. I know it can open many doors to future goals and visions that I have. It's hugely motivating. It can be viewed as a materialistic thing but it's also a tool. It can be used and it can be misused very well, it just depends on the person using it.
"I have learned to be more grateful. I have learned to have a healthy perspective on life and be more positive. I have a clear vision of what it is I can do with it and what I want to do with my life moving forward."
Almost two years removed, Namajunas admits she was 100% serious about potentially finding a new profession after the Andrade loss but the rematch last July went a long way in helping her slay the personal demons. A split-decision win over Andrade at UFC 251 showcased much of the technical brilliance Namajunas has been known for under head coach Trevor Whitman but it also forced her to walk through hell in the final round as Andrade badly hurt and bloodied her.
"I learned that I am super tough, I am super strong," Namajunas said. "It was scary, crazy, fun, exciting -- all of those things, all in one. It was just a huge maturing process for me."
The 31-year-old Zhang endured through her own moment of truth in March 2020 when, seven months after she dismantled Andrade in 42 seconds to commandeer the title, she was forced to outlast an inspired Jedrzejczyk over five rounds of a fight so dramatic and violent that it was instantly hailed the greatest female bout in the sport's history.
Yet instead of talking about how great of a matchup Zhang-Namajunas is expected to be this weekend, the pre-fight narrative took a hard left turn when Namajunas shared publicly her motivation was centered upon defeating Zhang as a way to protest the negative treatment her family endured while escaping communism controlled Lithuania during the time of Soviet reign. Although Namajunas made it clear she wasn't attempting to personally attack Zhang, the politically tinged comments -- including her use of the "better dead than red" anti-communism slogan that gained currency in the 1950s -- were received negatively across the board, including accusations of racism.
"I wasn't talking about Weili specifically or personally her. I was literally just referencing a documentary 'The Other Dream Team,'" Namajunas said. "It's kind of the media's job to make things bigger than they are. It definitely wasn't my intention but I don't have any control over that. I was just being myself and just talking about my family history and the whole reason I'm in the United States and why I'm an MMA fighter.
"I wouldn't be here without all that stuff, it has nothing to do with her. I never said anything about China or her culture like that."
Zhang has largely dismissed Namajunas' comments publicly and said she didn't take offense. Either way, it will be interesting to see given Namajunas' wavering psyche inside the cage whether the entire episode has a negative effect on her performance (or whether it serves as extra motivation for Zhang).
If Namajunas has learned anything from the ups and downs of her career, it's that she can only be focused on herself in order to have the best chance to be her very best.
"I know that we all have a different path in life and just because my path is a little bit crazy and unorthodox and in front of lots of people, no matter what if I wasn't going to be an MMA fighter, I was going to be the best I can be," Namajunas said. "If I was going to be a garbage woman or a mail woman, I was going to do it to the best of my ability. The fact that I have this opportunity to be a fighter and inspire people and to change the world through mixed martial arts, it's a huge blessing."
So what will prove to be the difference in her defeating Zhang and winning back the UFC strawweight title?
"My vision and my belief in myself and my control over my emotions," Namajunas said. "And having faith in my higher power that whatever will be, will be."