December 12, 2014.
A night Rose Namajunas won't forget.
The setting was Las Vegas, at the Palms Casino Resort, where Namajunas and Carla Esparza fought to decide the inaugural UFC women's strawweight champion in The Ultimate Fighter 20 Finale. In the main event, a 22-year-old Namajunas and 27-year-old Esparza fought to etch their name into MMA history.
Charles Oliveira – the reigning lightweight champ and UFC 274 headliner – was in the co-main event on that card. But the spotlight was on the Namajunas and Esparza (18-6 MMA, 9-4 UFC), and each started the fight aggressively. Esparza was consistently a step ahead of Namajunas (11-4 MMA, 9-3 UFC) in the opening round, picking up three takedowns.
The second round ended with Esparza mounting Namajunas and landing a flurry of shots. Her pace and pressure was overwhelming for Namajunas. Ten seconds into the third round, yet another Esparza takedown marked the beginning of the end. She took Namajunas' back, capitalizing a full back mount into a rear-naked choke for the victory.
"That was the first time I experienced quitting in a fight," Namajunas said. "Not a lot of fighters will admit that."
The sight of a long-haired Namajunas, sitting on the mat with hands on her knees, stood in direct juxtaposition to the jubilation of Esparza's victorious smile. Dejected, she offered a congratulatory hug to Esparza, but the thought of tapping out ate at her. If there was a script to this fight, she thought, that certainly was not the manner in which it was intended to play. But she gave credit to Esparza, who earned her place as the first-ever UFC women's strawweight champion.
"Carla sort of gives the impression that you can walk right through her, but then she puts people in a position where they want out," Namajunas said. "I was overly embarrassed. Looking back on it, I had more fight in me, physically, but mentally I was out of the fight. That was me looking for a way out."
A lot has changed since December of 2014. Namajunas is now a two-time strawweight champ, including this current reign as the defending, undisputed titleholder. Esparza lost the belt in her very next fight to Joanna Jędrzejczyk – who eventually dropped the belt to Namajunas – and she has yet to receive another title shot. Until now. Esparza has rattled off five wins in a row, and she gets her long-awaited opportunity for the title – Namajunas' title – this Saturday's UFC 274.
"I'm carrying my loads of experience with me into the octagon," Namajunas said. "Knowing how that loss felt, and the mental stress it added on, it made me stronger."
Namajunas, who doesn't turn 30 until June, is bringing the same game plan into the rematch against Esparza. The difference, however, is her ability to execute in the cage, which has progressed exponentially since their last meeting.
"I want to punch her in the face, take her back, and choke her out," Namajunas said. "Just like the last time. That last fight seems like forever ago. We've both improved a lot, and I know I am way better at what I do."
This Saturday will mark Namajunas' first title defense since UFC 268 in November, where she defeated Zhang Weili by split decision. She now enters her second title defense, which is the same point where she dropped the belt to Jessica Andrade during her first run as champ. This reign, however, feels vastly different for Namajunas, with an inner Zen carrying her to new heights in the sport.
"I'm a rare, lucky person to get a second chance in life," Namajunas said. "Not every champion in the UFC gets a second run as champion. I'm really blessed to have this opportunity, treat it differently and more graciously, and enjoy every step of the way.
"My hunger levels have grown, but it's different now. I'm now more content with the work I'm putting in. I've figured out how to do that, and I feel good about doing my best. For me, it's all about doing my best. When I do my best, I am the best."
Undefeated in all four of her rematches, Namajunas looks to increase that number to five with a win against Esparza on Saturday.
"That's a true attribute of a real champion," Namajunas said. "You need to be able to adjust and evolve. I know that my opponents are always improving, so I'm always pushing myself and applying the lessons I've learned to the present day. This is my chance to grow as a champion."
This story first published at UFC.com.