Initially, nothing went right for Rose Namajunas on Nov. 4 in New York.
She arrived behind schedule for her strawweight title fight against Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 217 in Madison Square Garden.
The UFC handed her a pair of fight gloves — in the wrong size. Halfway through having her hands wrapped, the New York commission told her she needed to start over.
“The commissioner said, ‘Oh, we don’t wrap them like that,'” Namajunas said. “I was like, ‘Dang, we already don’t have that much time.’
“But then, once I started warming up, all those feelings went away and I felt like I was part of the Knicks basketball team. I was in that really nice locker room and I felt so light on my feet, so agile — just great. Superhuman at that moment.”
Very little has come easy for Namajunas, but she has spent a lifetime figuring out how to channel negative events into positive energy. She perfected it in 2017, which is why she is ESPN’s Fighter of the Year.
Namajunas went 2-0 in 2017, including a shocking first-round knockout over the previously unbeaten Jedrzejczyk. Considering the circumstances of that fight and the run Jedrzejczyk had been on, it was arguably the year’s top individual performance.
Going into UFC 217, Jedrzejczyk was one of the most feared female champions ever. Namajunas finished her in three minutes, via knockout — the first knockout of her professional career. And she did it inside the pressure-cooker setting of a historic arena on the UFC’s biggest card of 2017.
During a stare-down the day before the fight, Namajunas recited the Lord’s Prayer as Jedrzejczyk tried to intimidate her onstage. The image was powerful. Namajunas says it’s something she’s done for years.
“It was a habit for me growing up,” Namajunas said. “When I was helpless and didn’t know what to do — that was something I said to make me feel better. Now it’s way more intentional. There’s way more belief and faith in it.”
Namajunas says people tend to laugh off her descriptions of a rough upbringing in Milwaukee. To many, Wisconsin seems rather tame.
But she has memories of a schizophrenic father who wasn’t around from the time she was young because he “wasn’t safe.” She witnessed a stabbing in her neighborhood — and remembers the family garage randomly going up in flames one night.
As to why, her only guess is “people in Milwaukee like to burn stuff.”
“I just remember being unhappy in general,” she said. “You feel alone a lot of times. A lot of the people I grew up with were all in the same boat, trying to deal with their lives. Everybody had their own struggles, and that got in the way of actually making close friendships.”
Today, Namajunas has those friendships. Her team, which is based in Denver, strengthened in 2017 — as did her relationship with former UFC heavyweight and longtime partner Pat Barry, who battled addiction in 2016.
At a time when so many UFC athletes seem geared toward trash talk and bad blood to promote themselves — Namajunas wants to do the opposite in 2018.
As much as her performances in 2017 made her stand out, that message did as well.
“There have been moments in my life that chaos surrounded me and I kind of fell victim to it,” Namajunas said. “You can become attached to chaos.
“I was using that negativity as energy, rather than now putting those negative situations behind me and turning my experiences into a positive. I want to inspire people that you don’t have to fight with hate. You can fight with passion and desire to make this world a better place.”
Honorable Mention: Max Holloway
It would be unfair to not mention the UFC’s featherweight champion, who solidified his place as the best 145-pound fighter in the world in 2017 by knocking out the great Jose Aldo twice. Like Namajunas, Holloway doesn’t subscribe to trash talk and is a bit of a throwback in his obvious commitment to defending the title against all comers.