Rose Namajunas is not the scary whirlwind of violence that Jessica Andrade is. She isn't the overpowering grinder that Claudia Gadelha is. She doesn't have the granite chin and ability to walk through punishment that Karolina Kowalkiewicz does. But she didn't need any of that, she was something altogether different and it carried her to victory over the best female fighter in the game. At UFC 217, Namajunas decked Joanna Jedrzejczyk inside a round and turned the division on its head.
In our preview we noted that Namajunas represented a change of pace from Jedrzejczyk's most significant challengers, in that she wasn't an in-your-face brawler or wrestler. Jedrzejczyk's ringcraft has been almost perfect against fighters who walk forward and try to corner her, and those sorts of opponents have served to make her already great jab even more accurate. Even when the fight was going at exactly the pace they wanted, Andrade, Gadelha, and Kowalkiewicz were always there to be hit. But nothing so perfectly sums up Namajunas's success in this fight as this not-quite-exchange:
That is the cool, calm, and usually laser accurate Joanna Champion lashing out at shadows. As the clip ends Namajunas steps in and cracks the champ clean with a left hook and a right hand. Each time you review the clip you will notice more motion and feints from Namajunas. UFC 217 was a great night for convincing feints, with T.J. Dillashaw's nice faked shot into head kick and Georges St-Pierre's constant deceptions to hide his jab, and it speaks volumes about how far this sport has come.
The difference between meat-and-potatoes striking and clever striking isn't in the few different arcs the fighter's hands and feet can traverse; it is the stuff that comes between the strikes. The previous challengers for Jedrzejczyk's crown were open books, where Namajunas was deceptive. Namajunas managed to put Jedrzejczyk on edge in a way that no one else has and dulled her reactions in the process.
Right from the get go Namajunas was out in the open and drawing Jedrzejczyk forward, managing distance and controlling when she was hittable and when she was not. A feint had the champion shooting out her beautiful jab but fall short, and Namajunas returned with a picture perfect low kick into the exposed lead leg.
Namajunas tried the same again a few seconds later, narrowly missed the low kick and immediately pounced in with a stiff right hand. And that was the story of this brief fight: when Jedrzejczyk lashed out, Namajunas wasn't there, and when Jedrzejczyk held back, Namajunas jumped in and hit her. In our preview we talked about limiting the number of exchanges because Namajunas is excellent at gliding away and returning with a crisp counter, but tends to suffer in longer exchanges. Meanwhile, Jedrzejczyk's work in combinations—as you would expect from a one time student of Ernesto Hoost—is ferocious. This sequence summed that idea up nicely:
Generally though, Namajunas did a great job of limiting the number and length of exchanges. As with any quick title fight, there are a few claiming "lucky punch," but a look at the FightMetric stats will clue you in on just how tricky Namajunas was being. In the first round against Karolina Kowalkiewicz, Jedrzejczyk threw almost seventy strikes and connected at a 40 percent clip. Against Andrade it was sixty strikes at 76 percent. Even with Claudia Gadelha sticking to her like a wet blanket through the first two rounds, Jedrzejczyk landed a decent number of shots. Once Gadelha hit her customary cardio wall, Jedrzejczyk landed a staggering amount of offense at a great percentage. The Namajunas fight took place entirely out in the open and supposedly in the dominion of the more experienced striker, but in the three minutes of the bout Jedrzejczyk threw over forty strikes, and landed just five.
Less can be more in the business of throwing fists. The more a fighter swings at air and ducks punches that don't come, the later they tend to hold off on moving the next time. Feinting scrambles the signal and slows slick counter fighters down. As their finger eases off the trigger, the real attacks start to slip through in ways they never would have at the start of the fight. Nowhere was that more obvious than when Namajunas leapt in and sent Jedrzejczyk to the floor for the first time. Jedrzejczyk flinched at a feint, began to low kick on another feint, and wound up on the floor as Namajunas ran straight through her. Jessica Andrade ran at her for twenty five minutes straight and never caught Jedrzejczyk so clean.
The end came as Jedrzejczyk was on edge and swinging at air. Namajunas let Jedrzejczyk fall short, moved back in, feinted Jedrzejczyk onto the fence, and then ducked down before entering with a left hook. Jedrzejczyk reached to parry and took the hook which sent her crashing to the canvas.
Writing this performance off as a fluke would be daft, but a rematch would certainly be intriguing if the UFC felt like granting one. Namajunas hasn't arrived at the title without trouble; she has struggled before against some of the things that Jedrzejczyk does very well. For instance, once Karolina Kowalciewicz began to hit Namajunas's body in the clinch, Namajunas faded remarkably quickly. Jedrzejczyk could improve her chances in a rematch by pressuring Namajunas and using feints to put her towards the cage. Out in the center of the octagon Namajunas maintains distance well but that is a tougher ask along the fence, where Jedrzejczyk does great work in flurries and puts in good right straights to the body. Low kicks would also be far more effective along the fence, where straight retreat isn't an option. Even without work to the legs and body, good distance fighting and quick bursts in, as Namajunas displayed, tend to become less reliable as a fighter gets puffing in the later stages. But this is all stuff to consider for another day. For now, let's linger a little longer on just how masterfully Rose Namajunas handled a great champion when many reckoned she would not stand a chance.