Rose Namajunas: ‘I got what I wanted’ out of Carla Esparza rematch at UFC 274

Rose Namajunas may not have defeated Carla Esparza at UFC 274, but she isn’t altogether disappointed with her performance in the rematch either.

Namajunas lost a split decision to Esparza to drop the strawweight title at UFC 274 more than seven years after her submission loss to “The Cookie Monster” in the UFC’s inaugural 115-pound title bout. While the first fight was eventful, the same cannot be said about the rematch — Esparza vs. Namajunas 2 has been widely criticized as one of the worst UFC title bouts in recent memory due to the lack of offense exhibited by both fighters.

In an appearance on The MMA Hour several days after the loss, “Thug Rose” explained why exactly she isn’t viewing the bout as the disaster many others have portrayed it to be.

“Just in a general sense, I will say it just basically had to do with, I have my three goals,” Namajunas said Wednesday on The MMA Hour. “My base-level goal is come out unscathed, like happy, healthy and safe. And then number two was obviously win the fight. And then … ultimately [number three] was not only win, but dominate and set myself apart from the rest of the division. That’s why I talked about it in all my interviews leading up to it.

“I literally said I’ll take what I can get though, because ultimately, for this fight, all it matters is that I’m happy, healthy, and safe, because of just the patterns in which my career’s gone and all that stuff. That’s the main thing. And so, as far as all the things I wanted to get out of this, I got base-level everything that I wanted, as far as, I got what I wanted out of it. And it’s crazy — it might sound crazy to people, because I think they look at Carla as just Carla, you know? And it’s like, no, there were many moments to get in a lot of danger.”

Namajunas’ longtime coach and fiancé Pat Barry also addressed the criticism levied at the bout and defended their team’s game plan in an hour-long conversation on The MMA Hour. Barry indicated that their strategy was designed around lulling Esparza into being the aggressor, then capitalizing with opportune offense once she did.

Barry also pointed to the same “patterns” mentioned by Namajunas regarding the ebbs and flows of her career, explaining that Namajunas has gotten badly hurt whenever she’s lost focus or gotten reckless, with her two fights against Jessica Andrade being Barry’s prime examples. For that reason, Namajunas’ team stressed the importance of staying disciplined against Esparza regardless of how unhappy the crowd in Phoenix became — and “Thug Rose” expressed a sense of personal pride at being able to do exactly that at UFC 274. “I didn’t feel like I won, but I definitely didn’t feel like Carla won and I definitely didn’t feel like I lost,” Namajunas said.

“It is kind of weird because usually when fights go the distance for me, like throughout the fight I’m thinking about, ‘OK, what are the judges seeing?’ I don’t think I was really thinking about that in this fight. I was thinking about my goals of, I wanted Carla to know, one, I wasn’t going to do what her corner wanted me to do, because they kept wanting me to come out of my game plan, and then every time I’d step forward, they’d be like, ‘Oh, there’s her foot — OK, now she’s going to do the thing, because she’s going to crack because everybody’s booing.’ That’s what basically [Esparza’s coach] said in the corner.

“So I knew that they wanted me to get flustered by that,’” Namajunas continued, “and I was like, ‘No, I’m not. I’m not. I’m saying solid and myself. Like, I’m not going to let you control me. I’m controlling myself.’ So I guess I wasn’t really thinking about the judges. In my mind, I felt like I won the fight because of all that other stuff going on. It was more of like a psychological battle for me, as far as like, ‘No, I’m going to do what I want to do.’ But I get it.

“I was pretty solid, like, ‘Yeah, I won that.’ But thinking in retrospect, I don’t know, for sure people were seeing something else.”

For the most part, the problem is that Namajunas stayed too disciplined.

The 37 significant strikes she landed over the course of the 25-minute bout were, by far, the lowest offensive output Namajunas has ever thrown in a five-round bout. And that ultimately came back to bite her when two of the three judges scored the fight for the challenger simply based on Esparza’s willingness to engage as the rounds wore on.

“One thing that I think maybe was a mistake, as far as just my mentality, was throughout history I’ve always been an exciting fighter and I’ve always been very offensive, and it’s always been to the point where coaches have to coach me back,” Namajunas said. “Like, usually they’ve got tell me to pull it back. So I was really trying to grow and evolve myself as a fighter by controlling that and not being like whatever. And so I did it too much, to the point where like now, because I think I trusted in my natural abilities for my offense, that I felt like as soon as I [wanted to turn it on], it’s going to come out, you know?

“As opposed to continuing to, like, visualize that and really work on that as much. I put more priority — like, usually my training camps go like, I work on taking care of my defense, game-planning wise, and then as I get closer, I’m just winning and I’m just thinking about offense. Whereas I kind of did it sort of backwards this training camp, where it was like a mixture of my offense and defense, and then as I got closer, I just got paranoid about the defense, that I was like, ‘I’m putting all priority on that.’ And then it sort of just like, I was like, ‘But when I get there, I’m going to eat. Like, my body’s just going to take over.’

“I was training the opportune moments to do those type of things, but the emphasis wasn’t on that, and I guess I kind of overly believed in my ability to do that without actually putting that effort in. So that’s maybe one mistake. But there’s all adjustments that you can make.”

While the listless nature of her setback at UFC 274 is likely to drop her out of the title picture for the foreseeable future, Namajunas ultimately knows she still has plenty to be proud of.

The 29-year-old is already a two-time UFC champion who holds wins over the majority of the division’s top contenders, and there’s still plenty of time left to add to her story.

“You can never take away what I’ve done, you know?” Namajunas said. “I am a champion and I’ll always be a champion.”

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