A Tough Ask for Rose Namajunas

A Tough Ask for Rose Namajunas

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As strikers go, Jessica Andrade is crude. If Joanna Jedrzeczyk owns a striking toolbox that can be wheeled around like a suitcase and opened up to reveal shelf after shelf of well ordered kit for specific situations, Jessica Andrade swaggers through the halls of the strawweight division with a claw hammer hanging from a piece of yarn, and the yarn is also her belt. In the lofty pursuit of striking knowledge it is all too easy to pretend that winning on grit and toughness and monstrous power counts for less than winning on anticipation, timing and economy of motion—it doesn’t. Jessica Andrade has a left swing, a right swing, and an occasional inside low kick, but it hasn’t stopped her from running riot at 115 pounds.

When Joanna Jedrzeczyk swung at Rose Namajunas’ feints in their first fight, she worried that she had given something up, shown her hand. A great striking mind can lead to a degree of paranoia and a level of perfectionism, fighters like Jedrzeczyk don’t like being made to swing at nothing and don’t like wasting their best looks. So when Namajunas feinted Jedrzeczyk into a tizzy in their first fight, Jedrzeczyk took her finger off the trigger and suddenly became a sitting duck for Namajunas’ attacks. Jessica Andrade is not worried about letting the opponent know what she’s going to do—anything you throw at her she is going to reach to parry with her right hand or lean straight back away from and then come in swinging with her left. She is completely honest about what she intends to do, and everyone seems capable of dealing with it, until she’s made a few dozen attempts and it has become apparent that there will be no ebbs and flows to the pace of this fight, it will be all Andrade unless you can stop her.

In her best performances Andrade is an attrition fighter and one of the changes that most improved her as a fighter was her adoption of body work. Andrade used to be a Wanderlei Silva clone, all windmilling for the head and reaching for double collar ties, but by lowering her sights a few inches she has found far more success. You will have read it a thousand times before but nobody in this game is hitting the body enough, except maybe Andrade. There are no clever set ups, it is just more windmilling but to the body this time. This body work, combined with her relentless pressure and ability to take seemingly anyone’s best shots without flinching at strawweight, are what make her such a fascinating match up for Namajunas.

You cannot fully understand the intrigue of this match up without a third player: Joanna Jedrzeczyk. When she was the champ, Jedrzeczyk handled Jessica Andrade and indeed carved out her place as the strawweight great with a trilogy of title defences against Andrade, Claudia Gadelha, and Karolina Kowalkiewicz. Those women all have different skills, but each was going to go straight after Jedrzeczyk and try to hit her or take her down. Jedrzeczyk’s lateral movement and excellent takedown defence allowed her to avoid most of the trouble against these fighters, and the constant forward movement of the opposition meant that the scoring percentage of Jedrzeczyk’s jab shot through the roof. When Jedrzeczyk met Namajunas, her jab went from a reliable ramrod connection to almost a non-factor. Namajunas’ game is drawing the opponent out into lunges towards the centre of the cage and countering, she had no desire to plough in behind her face and suddenly Jedrzeczyk was trying to land a meaningful blow on mosquito netting instead of a heavy bag.

Yet we haven’t seen that style of fighting that Jedrzeczyk used through her three most notable title defences from Namajunas. Namajunas is an in-and-out fighter who likes working with her back to the middle of the cage—plenty of room to fall back into and plenty of space in which to score counters. Time and measure. Letting her work like this isn’t an act of kindness of course, Paige Vanzant tried her usual bum rush tactics against Namajunas and quickly changed her mind after tasting Namajunas’ crisp right hand. The one fighter who bit down on her mouthpiece and walked in anyway was Karolina Kowalkiewicz.

Kowalkiewicz started the fight getting outclassed over long distance exchanges. She would reach, Rose would slip, and a right hand or a left hook would clatter her over the head. When the two fell into a clinch towards the end of the first round, Kowalkiewicz scored a couple of knees to the body and the air went right out of Namajunas. In the second round, Kowalkiewicz immediately pressed in and fell into this clinch in spite of Namajunas’ counter fighting, and from there it was all downhill for Namajunas. The clinch fighting slowed her feet down and then, in turn, she could not avoid further clinch fighting. In the Kowalkiewicz fight and in the second Jedrzeczyk fight, Trevor Wittman reiterated between rounds “do me a favour, stay out of the clinch please.”

Rose Namajunas’ mobility is her power. She walks opponents onto shots and she avoids damage herself. She controls the pace of the fight and the timing of exchanges. All of that comes from her feet and you will notice that in between that peculiar bounce, her feet are off quite far out in her stance.

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This is a common theme in fighters from point fighting backgrounds or who operate a very in-and-out style—one leg is behind the centre of gravity and drives the fighter in, the lead leg is always well ahead of the centre of gravity so that they can leap back out again. Someone who fights out of say, Donald Cerrone or Jorge Masvidal’s stance would struggle to emulate the kind of in and out bursts of Kyoji Horiguchi or Stephen Thompson for instance. A longer stance affords better forward and back movement but a shorter stance allows for better lateral movement and gives the fighter more freedom to pick up his or her lead leg. For reference, Jedrzeczyk’s stance against Andrade was mostly kept short and her side stepping was almost constant.

In the second Namajunas - Jedrzeczyk meeting, low kicking almost changed the result of the bout. Jedrzeczyk was able to time good kicks to Namajunas’ lead leg and through the third and fourth rounds Namajunas’ mobility rapidly diminished. This let Jedrzeczyk score her jab, work combinations, and get to the body with her right straight and left hook—something which had previously been almost impossible. Namajunas pulled the fifth round back by performing a gutsy change of tack—walking in and exchanging with Jedrzeczyk instead. That comeback doesn’t mean the position of that lead leg is not precarious, though Namajunas is well aware of that herself and has scored a great many counter right hands by stepping in on opponents as they kick her leg. Paige Vanzant, Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Jedrzeczyk all experienced this.

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Notice that Namajunas is braced and heavy on her lead leg, expecting this kick. This is a common intercepting counter among point fighters because the leg is such an appetizing target. Generally the best results for the kicker are gained by forcing the point fighter to move first (with feints or punches), and then kicking the leg as it is the last thing to leave range.

But we mainly bring up stance length because straight retreats are probably not going to be the order of the day against Andrade. Jedrzeczyk’s masterful handling of Andrade stemmed from almost never taking a step straight back and constantly circling around the Brazilian bull. There was seldom a moment in that fight where Jedrzeczyk wasn’t shuffling off to one side, and you probably noticed that her feet were much more underneath her than Namajunas’ generally are. Fortunately, no one in Andrade camp seems to have gotten across to her yet that the inside low kick would make getting in on opponents considerably easier, but whether Namajunas can circle and angle change as well as Jedrzeczyk was able to remains to be seen.

One trick that Jedrzeczyk used to cut a tight angle in a small space, but which can be used by fighters in longer stances as a standard means of angling off (see Raymond Daniels, MVP) is an L step or switching classical side step. The lead leg is retracted into stance at the same time the rear foot steps off to the side and then the fighter walks through or side steps off. It’s a jaunty little step but it effectively pulls the fighter back into his stance if he is too close to his opponent or starting from a very long stance. In fact Namajunas used a more leisurely version of the same step to change up the angle on Kowalkiewicz in some of their exchanges.

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Or for those of you who appreciate doodles of feet:

The left foot is withdrawn into the stance and the right foot is thrust out to the right, while the fighter turns on the ball of the left foot.

The left foot is withdrawn into the stance and the right foot is thrust out to the right, while the fighter turns on the ball of the left foot.

And for those who, upon seeing how cool this technique is when Joanna does it, want to try it themselves: here’s the two main options you have to follow it.

After performing the L-step the fighter can either step across himself and break into a run—a la Alexander Gustafsson—or bump his left foot up to his right and begin skipping out sideways.

After performing the L-step the fighter can either step across himself and break into a run—a la Alexander Gustafsson—or bump his left foot up to his right and begin skipping out sideways.

But putting the ringcraft aside let’s return to the body attack. There are plenty of fighters who really can’t take a body shot well and we never find out because body work is so rare in this sport. BJ Penn visibly winced any time Matt Hughes or Georges St. Pierre touched his body, and badly overcompensated for St. Pierre’s body jabs, but few thought much of it. Just the other month Ben Askren finally achieved the clinch along the fence against Robbie Lawler, ate a knee to the solar plexus, and broke the clinch to retreat—before realizing that his entire purpose to that point had been to secure the clinch. Rose Namajunas’ reaction to the body work of Karolina Kowalkiewicz was one of the worst I have seen in the cage. In the space of a couple of knees, Namajunas went from spry to sluggish.

Much was made of narrow waists and the ability to take a body shot ahead of the McGregor – Mayweather fight, and while it might seem to be old school boxing bro science, you don’t need to look at Namajunas for long to realize that there isn’t a lot of her and her wasp thin waist doesn’t have a lot of padding. If she gets caught up in exchanges with Andrade, she’s going to get hit with body shots, and therein lies the most intriguing part of this fight.

There is little point writing a hypothetical gameplan for Jessica Andrade because she is an unchanging fighter. We have already said we would love to see her use low kicks to actually get in on her opponent, but she is doing just fine biting down on her gum shield and sprinting in on a straight line. If she can flatten Rose to the fence and hit one of her enormous high crotch slams, all the better. Much of Andrade’s ground game seems to be getting to side control, but it is a hard position to strike from. Khabib Nurmagomedov, Demetrious Johnson and other top side control players in MMA will look to secure a mounted crucifix, but Andrade does something a little different, she leans her weight towards the opponents head and begins punching the body instead.

For Rose Namajunas, the best plan would probably be to stay out of lengthy exchanges. This could be tricky—she has a good long jab but she uses it to draw the opponent out and score with her money punches—the right straight, the left hook and the overhand right. Often she will end up in sort of windmilling trades off the counter and her head movement tends to keep her safe, but these are the sort of positions that allow Andrade to start to work. When Andrade fought Angela Hill in perhaps my favourite women’s strawweight fight to date, Hill did excellent work with jabs and long low kicks while constantly checking the distance and pushing off Andrade’s face and chest with stiff arms, but the moment she committed to her right hand, Andrade would sprint in and chase her back to the fence.

However, Andrade also has moments where she stands on the end of her opponent’s reach and tries to pull her head straight back from their blows. This is possibly the worst defensive option available for someone who gives up a few inches in height and reach to every single opponent she faces. Claudia Gadelha hammered her with hard right hands as she leaned away, Namajunas will probably want to try the same. Andrade also reaches to palm the jab constantly which allowed Jedrzeczyk to shoot around the back of the parry with a left hook—a punch you know Namajunas has in her arsenal because that’s exactly how she knocked out Jedrzeczyk. Additionally the left high kick is a constant temptation with how Andrade’s right hand is always committed to reaching for the jab and she is often ducking down to that side.

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(Namajunas actually played on the memory of this sneaking left hook in the second fight, using the right hand lead to set up lunging left straights as Jedrzeczyk was constantly concerned with the idea of the hook sneaking around the side. The right hand lead to stiff left straight was one of Sergey Kovalev’s most consistent set ups.)

Perhaps most interestingly of all, few fighters have been as frank about their emotional and mental stumbles as , Rose Namajunas. She has openly stated that she almost didn’t make it to her title winning performance against Joanna Jedrzeczyk because of the anxiety she felt about a march happening outside of her hotel. When the McGregor Bus Incident took place ahead of UFC 223, Namajunas drew the ire or fans by threatening to drop out of her fight despite not suffering any injury. When Joe Rogan asked Namajunas on his podcast why Jedrzeczyk had called her mentally unstable, Namajunas’ longtime partner, Pat Barry cut in to insist that Namajunas is in fact mentally unstable and more of the work in the camp had been preparing for Jedrzeczyk’s mind games than anything else.

If even half of what has been said about Namajunas’ anxiety is true, could you imagine a better position to be in than that of Jessica Andrade right now? Not only is the Brazilian slugger a tough stylistic ask, she gets her crack at the belt in Namajunas first fight outside of the United States, in Rio de Janeiro in front of 15,000 Brazilian fans baying for the champion’s blood. There’s something about an arena full of people chanting “uh vei morrer” or “you’re going to die” that is a little unsettling even if you aren’t the target of it. Namajunas has quite the task ahead of her.

Testing Michael 'Venom' Page and A.J. McKee [Patreon]

Testing Michael 'Venom' Page and A.J. McKee [Patreon]

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