Last weekend during UFC 261, we witnessed Thug Rose Namajunas take back the championship title for the strawweight division, in a manner almost reminiscent of “Rocky IV.”
“Though she be but little, she is fierce” perfectly describes Rose — in more ways than just her fighting. She’s exactly the type of woman we should be celebrating: powerful, resilient, and full of conviction.
Life Imitates Art?
If you’re a fan of the Rocky movies, you’ll know that in Rocky IV, the titular hero Rocky Balboa fights against Ivan Drago, the Soviet Union’s best boxer. Initially, Rocky’s best friend, Apollo Creed, fights Drago and is killed. Then, our hero goes head-to-head with Drago, not only to avenge Creed, but to defend the honor of our country.
What’s so insane about UFC 261 is that we had some form of a female Rocky, with Rose Namajunas vs Zhang Weili (sans the death of a best friend at the hands of Weili, of course). Rose fought not only for, and won, the championship title in the first round, but in her heart she fought against Communism, which brought struggle and suffering to her family, and continues to bring suffering to many today. (The Chinese Communist Party is currently keeping Uigher muslims in Xinjiang, in what is reportedly the largest mass-internment of an ethnic-religious minority group since WWII.)
With this story nearly being a female-version of Rocky, why aren’t more feminists excited about this? We don’t need an all-female cast version of the movie, when we have a similar, real-life story, with the heroine understanding what she’s fighting against.
Rose Namajunas Is an Embodiment of Toughness
While these days Rose is celebrated for her accomplishments in the octagon, she is tough in spirit. She comes from a line of fighters, and she’s been vocal in the past about respecting those who come before us. In a YouTube live session, Rose said, “Let’s not forget all of our ancestors and all the things that they had to go through in order for us to be here right now.”
Born in 1992 to Lithuanian parents, her grandparents and great-grandparents endured many trials — something that seems to serve as a foundation to Rose’s spirit and tenacity, seeing as how she herself has endured arduous trials of her own.
To live is to suffer; to survive is to find meaning in the suffering.
Rose was named in honor of her great-grandmother, who died relatively young after the death of Rose’s great-grandfather, Juozas. Juozas was an officer of the Independent Lithuanian Armed Forces, and he fought in the resistance during the Soviet invasion of Lithuania in 1939. When the Soviets won, Juozas was appointed as a commander in the Red Army, but was able to withdraw during the outbreak of the German-USSR war. However, the German occupation soon began to persecute his family, which spurred a move to Germany, but they were stopped by the German army. This caused Juozas and his wife to live in the city of Kaunas, where he would be arrested and sent to a mass-internment camp by the Soviets, after their re-occupation of Lithuania in 1945. He was released after a year of interrogations and was assassinated in 1968 by the KGB.
From there, Juozas’ grandson Artūras would face trials of his own, which in turn affected his daughter, Rose. Born in 1963, Artūras struggled with mental illness, and this was a reason for Rose’s parents divorcing when she was young. She mentioned that her father wasn’t even in her life, and because she remembers her family fighting for as long as she could remember, she’s been motivated to be a fighter and to be the best. This sentiment was made evident before her fight with Joanna “JJ” Jędrzejczyk, two years ago during UFC 223.
Despite the struggles of her family, and her own, she’s demonstrated tenacity. Rose began training as a fighter at just 5 years old, and received her black belt at 9 years old. Her stepfather encouraged her to continue fighting, and it’s since led to a decorated career, including a record of 10 wins and 4 losses in the UFC.
When asked about which experiences made her who she is today, Rose answered, “I’ve experienced some whack situations that I’m sure many others could relate to. My parents escaped the Soviet Union as refugees to America, but my father couldn’t be in my life because of his schizophrenia and died when I was 16. My mom did everything to take care of my brother and me. I’ve witnessed everything in my neighborhood and schools – robbery, arson, homicide, abuse, and even suicide. I don’t want to sound like a sob story, but ‘to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering’.”
Rose Namajunas Doesn’t Forget Where She Comes From
“Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.” We’ve all presumably heard this age-old adage. Despite this, some controversy surrounded Rose as she shared her motivations for UFC 261 during an interview with Lithuanian National Radio and TV (notice how the headline reads as her “injecting politics”).
“I was just kind of reminding myself of my background and everywhere that I come from and my family and everything like that, and I kind of wanted to educate my training partner on the Lithuanian struggle and just the history of it all, so we watched (2012 documentary film) ‘The Other Dream Team’ just to kind of get an overall sentiment of what we fight for,” Namajunas said. “After watching that, it was just a huge reminder of like, yeah, it’s better dead than red, you know? And I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Zhang Weili is red. That’s what she represents.”
While Rose says she doesn’t personally hate Weili, there’s a negative sentiment about what Weili’s government stands for. And how could there not be, when KGB agents who served a Communist government assassinated her great-grandfather? Or when her parents fled such a Communist government that took over Lithuania?
Rose stood by her word, even when it landed her in hot water. She didn’t shrink and backtrack because “activists,” celebrities, or mainstream media demanded it. Instead she clarified, and shared that these views are her own, and that the struggle is a part of her heritage, and a reason for why she continues to fight. This alone is a demonstration of strength — not the physical kind, but the kind that makes heroes out of ordinary men. In a world where you’re digitally crucified for wrongthink, there’s a lot we can take away from Rose’s demonstration.
Rose’s accomplishments during UFC 261 are fantastic, but looking at the life she’s led so far, it’s decorated and inspiring in such a way that it’s confounding that she isn’t loved by feminists or the mainstream.
Nicknamed “Thug” for her resiliency and tenacity, at 5’5” and 115 pounds, she’s a UFC champion, while still retaining a heart of gold and positive attitude, in spite of what she’s been through in life. Instead of celebrating celebrities that depict a tough woman, we can turn to real life ones, like Rose Namajunas.
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