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“I think what I see is, I’m clearly the best,” Namajunas told MMA Fighting at UFC 274 media day. “Obviously. It’s just a question of whether I’m the greatest in the division of all-time. And I think this is a huge step toward that for me, and that’s the big test.”
While it may be a bold statement from a champion who’s often deferred to others over the years regarding questions about her greatness, it’s also a telling sign about Namajunas’ mindset ahead of UFC 274.
In many ways, “Thug Rose” and Esparza kicked off the UFC’s strawweight party nearly eight years ago when they collided in the finals of The Ultimate Fighter 20 in 2014. The season introduced the 115-pound division to the promotion’s ranks, and Esparza stole the show in its inaugural title bout, upsetting the heavy favorite Namajunas with a wrestling-heavy attack en route to a third-round rear-naked choke.
That loss was just Namajunas’ fourth professional MMA bout, while Esparza was already a grizzled veteran who’d held Invicta FC gold. Yet even in defeat, it was clear “Thug Rose” had a bright future ahead of her. She ultimately fulfilled that potential three years later when she stunned the MMA world by knocking out the woman who took the title from Esparza, former UFC champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, with a memorable first-round knockout at UFC 217.
Since then, Namajunas has been an omnipresent figure in the UFC’s title picture. And at age 29, with her confidence soaring higher than ever before, Namajunas is ready to embrace that same pursuit of greatness she once shied away from as a younger athlete.
“Joanna, I think, is probably [who people think about] most [when they think of the strawweight division],” Namajunas said. “Just during her time, she came around at a time where the level of competition just wasn’t even close to hers. So I think that I guess what I’m looking to do is to try to set myself apart, because I’m clearly the best, but I think in the last fight maybe it was kind of close, so I’ve really been working my butt off to just make sure that I can set that distance between all of us.
“I used to hate the term legacy,” Namajunas added, “when people would talk about it or just other fighters and stuff, but I think I have a different perspective on what it really means. It’s something that, it’s very intriguing, it’s very intriguing topic, and it definitely adds a little bit of an element to motivation in my training and like, ‘Wow, look at where I’ve come and look at what all is available in front of me and possible.’ But really, in actuality, it’s just focusing on the present and focusing on just performing my best.
“When I do my best, y’all know I’m the best.”
Namajunas will put that confidence to the test on Saturday against one of the only two women to hold an unavenged victory over her.
At age 34, Esparza has found new life in the UFC. Since the 3-4 slump she suffered after dropping her title, “The Cookie Monster” has turned her fortunes around to rifle off five straight victories over contenders such as Marina Rodriguez, Yan Xiaonan, Alexa Grasso, and Michelle Waterson. She’s done so not only on the strength of her vaunted wrestling attack, but also with a more well-rounded game that’s carried her back to the precipice of becoming the fighter with the longest gap between title reigns in UFC history.
So considering their shared history together and what UFC 274 could mean for her future goals, Saturday’s challenge is one Namajunas isn’t taking likely.
“She said she’s a bigger, better version of herself, and I agree with that,” Namajunas said. “I think her traps are bigger. She’s got bigger muscles and I would imagine she’s a lot stronger, her technique has to be crisper, and I think a lot of girls maybe overlook her blitz attacks and her boxing and stuff like that. So I just make sure that I look at all of those things and take that into account for my preparations, and I think she’s just a bigger, better version of herself than she was eight years ago, and I’m ready for that.”