Piano is an interesting art, and talented pianists are some of the most admired musicians in history for a reason. A guitarist starts with six strings. A drummer may just start with one drum. Even a saxophone only has 20 to 23 sound holes. Everyone who has ever taken a piano lesson knows that the piano is a much different instrument.
A piano has 88 keys, seven octaves, three pedals, and a lifetime of possibilities. While most piano teachers will have a student just start with Middle C and stay in that area, the whole thing is there, staring the student in the face. There is a lot going on around Middle C. It takes a lot for an individual to make it through one year of lessons, let alone play a long time. To get good at it, it takes a lot of focus and a ton of chill.
Rose Namajunas grew up doing two things: martial arts and piano. The two share more similarities than one might think. However, both have played a major role in the current UFC strawweight champ’s rise to stardom.
“It’s just the maturity process,” Namajunas told Combat Press. “A lot of learning had taken place — a lot of growth.”
The champ is referring to her MMA success here. It all started with a highlight-reel flying armbar of Kathina Lowe (then Catron) exactly six years ago. That win took her to 2-0. Now, Namajunas is 7-3 and holds the coveted UFC strawweight strap after scoring a TKO win over the previously undefeated Joanna Jędrzejczyk in just over three minutes in November at UFC 217.
After the win, Namajunas was credited for taking the high road in her last fight. Her Polish opponent is never short on trash talk, but Namajunas remained chill and focused the whole time. This was not an act. It’s what she has become through a life of martial arts and piano. When she was growing up, she did these things to take focus off a rough environment. Now, it’s who she is, and she reaps the dividends.
Namajunas trains in the Denver area with coaches Trevor Wittman, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt Tony Basile, and her longtime love and UFC vet Pat Barry. The move to Colorado from Minnesota happened just before her appearance on The Ultimate Fighter 20 four years ago.
“I still had an apartment in Minneapolis, but we also had a place here, so I was bouncing around a bit,” explained the Wisconsin native. “Who knows what the future would bring, but I can definitely see myself here for the next five years.”
In her first four years of living in Colorado and training with her current coaches, Namajunas went 3-0 on TUF, lost in the season finale to Carla Esparza for the inaugural strawweight title, and picked right back up with a 5-1 run in the UFC, including a title-clinching win that eluded her three years prior. She never lost her focus. She never lost her chill.
“Training-wise, we grew as a team,” Namajunas said. “Pat, Trevor, Tony and I figured out the formula for success in my skill set. We figured out how to get back to the basics. We built a great foundation and continued to build on that. We’re sticking to what works and always ever-improving.”
Now, it’s time to get back in the saddle. This Saturday night, at UFC 223, Namajunas is set to face Jędrzejczyk again for her first title defense. The all-too-familiar foe has been amping up the trash talk, blaming a weight cut and generally not giving Namajunas the credit she deserves for the outcome of their last encounter. The current champ couldn’t care less. In fact, at the beginning of her camp, she was more focused on de-cluttering her own thoughts.
“Literally, right now, I’m in the process of doing taxes,” Namajunas said. “This is all part of the preparation. This week is all about getting little silly errands out of the way, prepping the nest to eliminate all distractions to get into training mode. I started training with my coach yesterday, just physically getting the body ready.”
Namajunas, gracious in both victory and defeat, did not get an inflated head after her title win. Unlike some champs in other divisions, she is completely OK fighting the same opponent again. She is a professional, and she is ready to defend her belt against any opponent.
“It doesn’t matter to me who I get to defend the belt against first,” Namajunas admitted. “Just because I beat Joanna last time does not make her any less dangerous. I’m still going to approach this fight just as serious as I did the first time.”
Namajunas is in a prime position, both mentally and physically, to remain the champ. She is not an overnight success story, but the product of a lifetime of preparation. However, all of this hard work in MMA has not allowed for much piano in the last few years.
“I’ve been slowly getting back into playing piano here and there,” said the champ. “I grew up playing piano as much as I did mixed martial arts. Now that I have a home and a place to stay, I can have a more permanent piano situation versus before, when I was moving around a lot and had a keyboard. It was hard for me to get motivated and play on it. Now that I’m comfortable and settled, I’m getting back into it. I’m still a little rusty, but I can play some stuff.”
She may be rusty on the piano, but Namajunas looks better than ever in the cage. Social media blew up after her last win, because, in the age of Conor McGregor, people have largely grown tired of the manufactured trash talk. It’s lame. It’s played out. When Namajunas kept her mouth shut and let her skills do the talking, she instantly became one of the good people.
On Saturday night, the UFC 223 co-headliner will feature two of the greatest strawweight ladies in history vying for the title once again. One will be fiery and loud-mouthed, while the other will be focused and chill. For the latter, it will be another step in her evolution not just as a mixed martial artist, but as a human being.
“My number-one priority is being happy, healthy and safe over everything,” said Namajunas. “My number-one goal moving forward this year is to defend this belt and come out victorious. I want to beat Joanna for a second time. That’s my number-one mission right now.”