UFC strawweight title challenger Rose Namajunas courted controversy recently when she told an interviewer that a source of motivation for her upcoming fight with Zhang Weili is that Zhang is Chinese and that this, according to her logic, meant that Zhang represents communism.
Namajunas further explained that she felt driven to fight against communism because of her Lithuanian ancestry. She added that some of this inspiration comes from the sports documentary The Other Dream Team, a movie about the Lithuanian men’s basketball team competing at the 1992 Summer Olympics.
Lithuania was occupied by the USSR between 1940 and 1990. During that time Lithuanian culture was suppressed and thousands of Lithuanians were forcibly relocated to work camps in Siberia. Many of them would never return.
China was not part of the USSR. Zhang has not publicly expressed any views that demonstrate an ardent belief in communism or China’s ruling Communist Party. Given that China is an authoritarian state where dissidents face exile, imprisonment or worse, it is impossible for Zhang to publicly express any views that are contrary to her nation’s official policies without fear of repercussions.
Namajunas has attempted to soften her claims that included “better dead than red” and “Weili is red” by saying that her comments were not directed to Zhang personally. She also speculated that we don’t know Zhang’s beliefs because she “may be being told what to say.” Namajunas has spoken about this controversy again, this time with with TSN’s Aaron Bronsteter.
With Bronsteter Namajunas repeated that her comments about Zhang and what she represents was “nothing personal against her”.
Rose Namajunas provides some context to her recent comments about Zhang Weili. pic.twitter.com/r0lGYuLVUi— Aaron Bronsteter (@aaronbronsteter) April 21, 2021
“There was nothing personal against her or her coach or anything like that. It has nothing to do with her really. It’s all my internal battles and my internal struggles. And yeah, I might have some little triggers here and there and maybe some generational PTSD. Literally I was just talking about myself and my journey and The Other Dream Team and, yeah, definitely wasn’t intended to be directed at her. I mean, every opponent that I face, I’m facing my own fears, facing my opponent and my opponent is standing in the way of my dreams and so those can be, yeah, that’s just the mentality I go after a fight with and it has nothing to do with her as a person.”
Namajunas was also asked about her family history during the time of Soviet rule.
“I had an ancestor of mine who was a knygnešys, like a book smuggler, who was responsible for keeping the Lithuanian language alive. There was also my great-great uncle who survived being sent to Siberia and came back and he ended up being one of the first groups of cardiologists in Lithuania. And then he wrote this whole family history book on all the different things that happened with our family and then, you know, and my father was also refused to be in and to fight for the Soviet Union army and he got put in a mental institute instead because he refused. So, you know, that’s unfortunate that that’s what people had to go through, but at the same time his stubbornness and his refusal to accept oppression is a big factor into why I’m so stubborn and sometimes I can be hard to coach, you know, but it’s also what makes me such a strong fighter and it’s something that I carry with me throughout my career.”
The knygnešiaĩ was a network of traffickers who transported Lithuanian language books into Lithuanian-speaking areas of the Russian Empire, defying a ban on such materials that was in place between 1864 and 1904. The Russian Empire was a monarchy that stood from 1721 until the Bolshevik led October Revolution of 1917. In that revolution the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, deposed and executed Tsar Nicholas II, along with his wife and five children, to establish what would become the Soviet Union.
In response to Namajunas’ comments Zhang’s coach Ruben Payan Jr. recommended that Namajunas “humble” herself and not “jump to conclusions”.
Zhang vs. Namajunas happens this weekend at UFC 261 in Jacksonville, Fl. That event will be the first UFC event to feature a sold out crowd since the COVID-19 pandemic halted live audiences in March 2020.