It was like a crime scene straight out of a thriller. Smeared blood was evident throughout the Octagon. Referee Herb Dean raised Rose Namajunas’s arm while the thundering voice of Bruce Buffer shouted out her name in victory. Opposite Namajunas was the badly beaten and bloodied Paige VanZant who just saw her three-fight unbeaten streak with the UFC violently come to an end in a fifth-round submission to Namajunas.
VanZant went from a dominant prospect who steamrolled her opponents into a greenhorn, clearly lacking the necessary skills to contend in the division. She paid for it with blood and bruises.
The consensus among the MMA world was the much hyped VanZant simply wasn’t ready for such a high-level matchup against Namajunas — who also took the fight on a short turnaround. It was painfully obvious. VanZant was a very slight underdog against Namajunas. The logic was VanZant’s sheer brute strength and aggression would carry her against the more technically advanced Namajunas. That scenario couldn’t have been further from the truth.
For five rounds, Namajunas schooled VanZant in a fight that wasn’t too different from the Rousey fight – but more violent and prolonged. Like Holm, Namajunas exposed VanZant’s lack of striking technique as she turned her up and bloodied her when they exchanged. It was like a long-experienced kickboxing trainer against a day one student.
And the beating didn’t stop there. VanZant’s wrestling and strength in the clinch was another reason she was favored. But when the 21-year-old locked up Namajunas, she quickly found herself on the mat and underneath Namajunas who extended her beating.
After two rounds, VanZant’s face was painted red. Namajunas had already outstruck her 30-3. VanZant only landed 15 percent of her strike attempts while Namajunas was firing at 51 percent accuracy. But there were still three rounds and VanZant’s relentlessness gave her a fighting chance in theory. The night was just getting started and the narrative would take a slight turn.
In spite of her damage, VanZant still recklessly attacked Namajunas, showing no signs of fatigue or fear.
Namajunas put VanZant on her back again and this time and nearly sunk in a deep rear-naked choke that would end most fighters. VanZant powered out to everyone’s surprise. But all VanZant was doing was surviving at this point. It became more apparent she had no shot at defeating Namajunas and the fight was turning into a schoolyard beating. VanZant would survive several more submission attempts from “Thug” Rose, including two armbar attempts that appeared to have bent her arm. She would eventually succumb to a rear-naked choke in the fifth and final round.
VanZant was outclassed. The fightmetric graphic below gives a perspective of how lopsided the fight was as VanZant lost in every aspect except for one: toughness. The phrase “too tough for their own good” applied in spades, but you cannot fault her at all for hanging on for dear life. Namajunas expressed disappointment in her inability to finish VanZant sooner, but you just can’t finish a fighter who refuses to quit.
As much as this loss puts a big stain on VanZant’s record, her stock was not damaged too much. She got roughed up. She was exposed as still being inexperienced and lacking in technique. She tapped out. A five-round beating can mess with a fighter’s psyche.
David Loiseau was at one point a promising UFC fighter, but after getting beaten down by Rich Franklin over five rounds, he never was the same. Same can be said for Gray Maynard after getting knocked out by Frankie Edgar in their third fight, or the legendary B.J. Penn who was dominated by Edgar for five-rounds in their rematch.
But VanZant showed no signs of defeat. She was still her cheery self in the press conference and didn’t hide her wounds. She was perfectly honest about her shortcomings and was classy toward Namajunas. She was still her.
Namajunas was a massive step up in competition in hindsight. The Lithuanian-American was ranked third in the UFC’s strawweight division and is just a year removed from taking the MMA world by storm when she decimated most of the TUF competition featured alongside her. Namajunas proved to everyone she was still every bit the title contender she was when losing in the division’s inaugural title fight.
Losing to that fighter is not shameful.
VanZant’s “hype train” hasn’t been derailed, if not momentarily halted. The Team Alpha Male fighter is very young, still growing and evolving. But she is definitely far from being a contender and whether or not she’ll reach her full potential is unknown. But she already has one two of the most important characteristics of a championship fighter: heart and toughness. No matter how bleak it got against Namajunas, she absorbed a lot before quitting and willed herself out of submission attempts. She’s got plenty more room to develop the skillset necessary to compliment her grittiness.
Consider VanZant’s butt-whipping at Namajunas’s hands an initiation. A baptism of blood.
As most fighters promise, she’ll be back stronger and better. The skills she lacks can be taught but the heart she showed was all her. It’s time for VanZant to rebuilt as the MMA world anxiously waits for her next chapter.