Champions carry a heavy burden and Rose Namajunas was no different

We’ve seen fighters cry, run out of the cage unexpectedly and even demand an immediate rematch after losing the UFC title.

Not Rose Namajunas.

The former strawweight queen flashed a smile after being knocked off the mountaintop by Brazilian contender Jessica Andrade. It was the same mountain Namajunas had dedicated her life towards climbing. The impossible expectations, endless training hours, ups-and-downs, disappointments and breakthroughs all the way up to defeating Joanna Jedrzejczyk in back-to-back title fights—it was all a weight to be carried by Namajunas. Not only did Andrade relieve her of the UFC title, but she relieved her of the burden of being a champion.

“It’s just a huge pressure of my shoulders,” Rose Namajunas said after the fight at UFC 237, when speaking with commentator Jon Anik.

Most were taken aback by the comments considering how spectacular Namajunas looked in the actual fight. The striking display she put on in the first round was at the highest level you will ever see in the sport—male or female. She was a sniper sticking behind her jab and picking apart Andrade’s defense from long range, but it was her meticulous footwork and crisp combinations that truly highlighted the evolution of women’s MMA. Everyone tuning into the UFC 237 main event knew they were witnessing something special—perhaps even a young Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre and Jon Jones sort of moment.

Namajunas looked like she was destined to scale the pound-for-pound rankings and reign indefinitely over the strawweight division. Then came the slam heard ‘round the world. While fighting off a kimura submission against the fence, Andrade hoisted Namajunas as high as she could go and dropped her on her head.

And just like that, it was over.

An impressive championship run, albeit a short-lived one, didn’t ruin Namajunas’ sudden appreciation of the view from the bottom. She might have taken a different path, but she made the same climb as Andrade, stood on the mountaintop and at some point decided she had seen enough.

Being a UFC champion comes with the celebrity spotlight and a larger paycheck, but it also comes with more expectations and commitments heaped on top of everything else that led the fighter up the mountain. It’s a soul-sucking, roller coaster ride that can leave some fighters on empty after the first defense. That’s the truth that comes with sitting on the throne, and it’s one Namajunas may or may not miss.

“I’ve been hearing that [there could be a rematch],” Rose Namajunas said at the post-fight presser, via “I definitely was whooping her butt, there’s no doubt about that. I just kind of like, I don’t know, we’ll see if I’m still interested in this. …I’m not gonna make no decisions right now, I don’t know. It’s just hard to keep having fun with this.”

There is so much more to life than throwing on a pair of four ounce gloves and punching another human being in the face, and Namajunas seems intent on exploring those options. It isn’t easy getting up early every morning and constantly doing the grunt work to prepare to compete against the best fighters in the world. Being a champion is even more demanding considering you’re constantly facing the No. 1 contender in your weight class. It’s the reason why ridiculously long championship runs like we’ve seen from Demetrious Johnson, Silva, St-Pierre and Jones are so rare.

Being a fighter is hard, but being a champion is even harder.

“The week leading up to the fight, you’re very stressed,” St-Pierre said well over a year ago. “It’s unbelievable. And I don’t like that part of my work — I hate it. Especially, it’s mostly the waiting part. I love fighting when I’m in the gym and I train with a guy. I love exchanging knowledge, I love training. But when I’m fighting, the pressure of it, it’s crazy. It’s unbearable. I hate it.”

The waiting part that St-Pierre speaks of alludes to the anxiety that comes with the unknowns of stepping in the cage. It’s easy for armchair experts to be desensitized from the pounding of flesh and bone-on-bone contact vividly displayed on their television screens. Fighting is a tough way to make a living, and only the ones enduring the throes of combat truly feel the weight of that risk.

“I feel like God has really called me for the last little while, and it’s changed my spirit and changed my heart,” St-Pierre’s longtime teammate Rory MacDonald said after defending his welterweight title at Bellator 220 in April. “It takes a certain spirit to come in here and put a man through pain and stuff, and I don’t know if I have that same drive to hurt people anymore.”

The cage can be an unforgiving place for uncertain inhabitants.

Fighting is an all-or-nothing sport that encompasses risk and an unwavering bravado few athletes on the planet possess. Rose Namajunas shouldered that burden alone as a champion on foreign soil, which was an iconic feat in itself considering most champions would have passed on such a challenge. Now, rather than dragging out a career merely on the premise that she’s good at it, she would rather take a step back and reevaluate her next move.

Championships, competition, prize fighting, money, fame—that’s all only one chapter in the 26-year story on Rose Namajunas. There are plenty of blank pages still left to fill, and whether it’s as Thug Rose or just Rose, Namajunas will pen the rest of the story the way she sees fit.

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