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The Greatest - UFC Champions: Amanda Nunes

The Greatest of All Time.

A nickname initially assigned to – and by – Muhammad Ali, moved across from boxing to other sports, where there is often no universally accepted GOAT

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in tennis; Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in football; even LeBron James rivals Michael Jordan in some basketball corners.

So too in MMA. Each of Anderson Silva, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Jon Jones and Georges St-Pierre can lay stakes at the GOAT title, certainly as far as the men go.

But not in women’s MMA. The GOAT of women’s MMA is indisputably, undeniably, Amanda Nunes.

For a long time, the GOAT was Ronda Rousey, and though Nunes’s MMA career actually pre-dated Ronda Rousey’s, by the time Nunes made her UFC debut, Rousey had already won the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight title, become the inaugural UFC women’s bantamweight champion and defended her title against Liz Carmouche.

While others had come before her, Rousey was the one who put women’s MMA on the map. Not all that long after UFC president Dana White proclaimed that women would never be a part of the UFC, Rousey had become the organisation’s – and the sport’s – biggest star. 

But Nunes, fittingly nicknamed The Lioness, waited in the wings, preparing for the moment when she could become the head of the pride.

Still a relatively fledging sport, certainly amongst women, the talent pool wasn’t all that deep and there were few pretenders to Rousey’s throne. Indeed, Nunes was the first Brazilian female in the UFC, and it would even take her three years before she could consider herself to be a contender. But her time was coming.

In a sport as complex as mixed martial arts, where experts in jiu-jitsu, wrestling, judo, kickboxing and a number of other martial arts have to combine their skills to become the most well-rounded fighter they could, it’s hard to establish dominance in the sport, and what makes Nunes’s rise all the more impressive is that she didn’t even know what jiu-jitsu was until she was 15. 

Like many Brazilians, her initial love was football, but a lack of financial support combined with her increasing ability in MMA saw her give that dream up and turn her attentions elsewhere.

An energetic, feisty child, Nunes’s mother convinced her daughter to get involved in sport from an early age and it was always a matter of time before she would end up competing in something more combative than football.

A year after taking up jiu-jitsu, Nunes had outgrown her opponents and sought a bigger challenge. Nunes moved from her small hometown of Pojuca with its population of around 40,000 to Salvador, 50 miles south with a population of around 3,000,000 people.

Her new gym – where she was the only female – would provide a fresh challenge, as well as the nickname that would stick with her throughout her career.

Nicknamed Leoa – Lioness – Nunes began training in judo as well as jiu-jitsu and even lived at the gym, waking up before sunrise to clean the equipment for the day. 

In 2008, still shy of her 20th birthday, Nunes would embark on her first professional MMA fight. Despite losing in little over 30 seconds, the Lioness saw it as a fantastic experience. Her first professional fight in new surroundings gave Nunes the hunger to improve, and from her perspective, only naivety cost her the win.

The same year, Nunes would win a gold medal at the Pan-American Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Championship and would win her first two professional MMA fights.

The first was an onslaught of strikes from the opening bell that saw the towel thrown in after 12 seconds. The second win was even quicker. These weren’t challenges for Nunes; they were barely even fights, so the Lioness moved further afield for tougher tests.

Nunes’s next two fights saw her compete 1,500 miles south of Salvador in Curitiba, though the fights weren’t significantly harder. Despite her training in judo and jiu-jitsu, Nunes would pulverise her opponents with her fists, winning five straight fights through stoppage, though her last two fights in Brazil would see her utilise her grappling skills more.

Still, Nunes, who’d outgrown Pojuca and who’d outgrown Salvador, had now outgrown Brazil. Despite her growing reputation as a mixed martial artist and a gold medal at the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship, Nunes was near-penniless. In order to make a career out of MMA, she’d need to head to the United States.

A part of Team Carvalho from her early jiu-jitsu days, Nunes hopped on a plane with $20 in her pocket to join former coach Ricardo’s brother Edson in New Jersey.

Nunes’s record of 5-1 with five straight stoppage wins caught attention, and as she’d become accustomed to, came in all guns blazing against Julia Budd, winning in 14 seconds. 

There was a rawness and an aggression about Nunes that would see her overwhelm inferior opponents but it would be her undoing against Alexis Davis. This time, her opponent had enough to withstand the early barrage and with Nunes tiring in the second round, was beaten for the second time in her MMA career.

Nunes would bounce back with a first submission win of her career but was outclassed in her next fight with Sarah D’Alelio, losing all three rounds.

Nevertheless, with the UFC expanding its female roster, Nunes earned the call-up to the big time.

Returning to Brazil, Nunes beat Sheila Gaff, stopping future featherweight champion Germaine de Randamie in her second UFC contest.

Nunes was then given perhaps the biggest opportunity of her career to date – a bout with Cat Zingano. Zingano at the time had an 8-0 record and was the number-one contender having beaten Miesha Tate and was a win away from a fight with Rousey. A win for Nunes could similarly put her in the title picture.

Nunes started the better in her typical aggressive manner and wasn’t all that far from finishing the fight, but Zingano held on and would dominate the second round. Ultimately, the superior fighter had more in the tank and would win via TKO in the third and final round. 

Nunes had lost her fourth MMA fight, but it proved to be the making of her. The loss sparked change for Nunes, and it would be the last fight she’d lose for more than seven years.

Nunes made the move from New Jersey to Florida to join the more renowned American Top Team and knew after her defeat to Zingano that a mentality shift was needed if she was ever going to fight for a title.

The gung-ho approach that had taken her to the UFC had taken her as far as it ever could. Nunes learned that she could train as well as was humanly possible, but that it’d all be for nothing if she didn’t learn to better control her emotions in the Octagon.

The change in gym paid off instantly. Nunes was more composed against Shayna Baszler, landing a right kick to the knee that buckled her opponent and ended the fight. Even Nunes’s celebration – gesturing to calm down – was reflective of the new approach.

Between the win in her next fight over Sara McMann and the fight after that with Valentina Shevchenko, the landscape of women’s MMA had changed immeasurably – and permanently.

Ronda Rousey, then the greatest female to ever do it, who commentator Mike Goldberg claimed didn’t have “a close second” after her previous win over Bethe Correia and had transcended the sport, featuring in a Showtime documentary, modelling for ESPN and appearing on late-night talk shows, had been beaten by Holly Holm in a defeat that shocked the world. 

Rousey was in no condition for an immediate rematch, and Holm would lose the title a couple of hours after Nunes would defeat Shevchenko on 5th March 2016.

Rousey, still not ready to return to the Octagon, wouldn’t get the rematch with Holm nor the trilogy fight with long-standing rival and new champion Tate. This was Nunes’s time, and it was on the grandest stage of all.

At UFC 200, on a card packed with stars, the late removal of Jon Jones saw Tate v Nunes bumped up to top billing.

There were valid questions over Nunes’s stamina. Her wins had come early; her losses had come late. Even against Shevchenko, the Lioness tired towards the end, but she’d done enough in the first two rounds to secure the win. And these were all over three rounds; suddenly Nunes was thrown into her first five-round bout.

The questions around Nunes’s gas tank could be reserved for a later date. Nunes lit Tate up from the off; the champion’s face painted crimson in no time at all. The methodical yet relentless striking from Nunes prompted Tate into a half-hearted takedown attempt that would lead to a rear-naked choke just seconds later. 

Another bantamweight title fight; another new champion. Holm beat Rousey; Tate beat Holm; Nunes beat Tate; Nunes would then beat everyone else.

Having spent much of her MMA career looking up at Rousey, suddenly it was Rousey looking up at Nunes. The former champ – and still-recognised GOAT – would make her long-awaited comeback 13 months after the devastating defeat. Nunes may have been the champion, but Rousey was still the star. At the ceremonial weigh-ins for Conor McGregor’s fight with Eddie Alvarez, Rousey returned to the stage to much fanfare.

Nunes would later reveal her unhappiness at the attention Rousey received in the build-up to the fight as opposed to the champion, but Rousey was the main attraction; Nunes would have to do her talking in the Octagon, and that’s exactly what she did.

Rousey was 13 months removed from her knockout loss to Holm that left her unconscious, but the way she set about ostensibly trying to beat Nunes you could be forgiven for thinking she was 13 seconds removed. The former champion went on a reckless kamikaze mission trying to out-box a boxer. 

It took less than 60 seconds for Nunes to make her first title defence and the now-undisputed champion, who was hurt by the attention given to Rousey in the build-up, shushed the crowd in celebration. While understandable and perhaps even warranted, it was a move she regretted and even apologised for.

Holm, Tate and Nunes had all won the women’s bantamweight title, but Nunes was the only one to make a successful defence – doing so against (and ending the career of) Ronda Rousey. Her title wins were no flukes.

Many fighters win titles; a lifetime’s work to reach the pinnacle of the sport, but from there, what drives a fighter? Your life’s dreams have been realised; your life’s work has paid off – now what? For many, nothing. The motivation isn’t what it was; they’ve climbed the mountain, now time for the long, unceremonious trudge back down. 

For others: legacy.

Nunes would face Shevchenko again and her stamina finally would be tested. A first fight that went the full five rounds and it could’ve gone either way. As it happened, Nunes out-pointed Shevchenko in a razor-thin split decision.

Nunes would reach the fifth round in her next fight with Raquel Pennington, this time getting the stoppage before the final bell after carving the challenger’s face wide open. 

Nunes’s greatness had long been established. Next up: legendary status.

While Nunes was undoubtedly the best bantamweight, Cris Cyborg was undoubtedly the best featherweight. Undefeated in 21 fights since her MMA debut 13 years earlier, Cyborg had won all three UFC title fights in convincing fashion. 

Despite all her wins and title defences at bantamweight, Nunes – as she had been in five of her last six fights – would go off as the underdog,

Cyboirg’s legacy has since been tarnished by the Nunes defeat, but it shouldn’t be forgotten how highly thought-of Cyborg was at her best. A Strikeforce champion who’d moved to Invicta FC by the time Rousey was champion and not joining the UFC until after Rousey had hung up the gloves, the long-awaited fight between the pair never materialised.

Nevertheless, MMA fans were treated to Cyborg v Nunes.

Nunes wasn’t one for trash-talking, but the animosity between her and Cyborg was real. Nunes felt she wasn’t being adequately supported in Brazil, forcing a move to America that became an adopted home. Cyborg claimed Nunes was a traitor who’d turned her back on her home country; Nunes argued the opposite had happened, and that Brazil had turned her back on.

With almighty venom in her fists, Nunes threw down from the off, swinging wildly like her early days in MMA. 

Cyborg, too, came out swinging and the fight could’ve gone the other way, but it was Nunes whose shots landed cleanest. A series of devastating lefts and rights put Cyborg down three times in a 40-second spell that would create history. 

Nunes would add the women’s featherweight title to her bantamweight crown, becoming the UFC’s third simultaneous double champ and the first female. 

The untethered fighter who held a modest 9-4 record was now 17-4 and a two-weight world champion and it was hard to see who would beat her.

Nunes’s next fight was against Holm, whose only wins in the seven fights after beating Rousey were against Bethe Correia and Megan Anderson. Holm would fall victim to the head kick she knocked Rousey out with, and Nunes made her fourth consecutive title defence, which she’d extend to seven with wins over De Randamie, Felicia Spencer and Anderson.

But very few champions go through a title reign unscathed. Almost all of the game’s greats have come undone eventually – Anderson Silva, Israel Adesanya, Demetrious Johnson, Matt Hughes – and Nunes was no different.

It had become hard to even make a case for Nunes’s opponents. She’d conquered the bantamweight division and no one was even to take the title at featherweight. Enter: Julianna Pena.

Pena had promised to take the fight to Nunes, but the first round was almost all Nunes. The second round, however, changed everything. With simple boxing, Pena outstruck Nunes, jabbing away and keeping herself out of trouble. Nunes had no answer, and when Pena moved for the takedown, Nunes fell to a rear naked choke. Her five-and-a-half-year reign as UFC women’s bantamweight champion (a reign that surpassed Rousey by two years, even when including her Strikeforce spell) was over. 

If Rousey’s defeat to Holm was the biggest shock in UFC history, this surpassed it. 

But the Brazilian was all class in defeat, taking it like a champion. Now a mother, Nunes was just happy to see her daughter in the immediate aftermath, but the prospect of a rematch was never far from her mind.

When a dominant champion loses their title, it’s hard to know what to expect in the rematch. Anderson Silva broke his leg against Chris Weidman and never really recovered; Israel Adesanya knocked Alex Pereira clean out. 

Nunes would return with a vengeance.

She’d been five rounds before but had never been so dominant. Pena lost every round, and even lost one or two 10-8 depending on which scorecard you read. The Lioness was back on her throne.

The trilogy fight was made but an injury to Pena saw Irene Aldana step up. Nunes again went five rounds and it felt almost fitting that in her final fight, Nunes, who had so long been questioned for her lack of staying power, would win the fifth and final round 10-8. 

It was as resounding a win as you’ll see in MMA, signing off her career not with a question mark like some or an exclamation mark like others, but a convincing, if understated, full stop. Nunes had never been a flashy fighter, just someone who consistently went about their business, building a legacy with the minimal of fuss, quietly racking up title defence after title defence.

12 title fights across two weight divisions, 11 wins, four knockouts, two submissions, and wins over Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate, Holly Holm, Valentina Shevchenko and Cris Cyborg. All of the greatest female fighters in UFC history and Nunes beat them all.

Only Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre and Demetrious Johnson held titles longer than Nunes.

After Rousey’s ignominious dethroning in November 2015, it was unclear who’d take the mantle.

It would be Amanda Nunes: The Lioness; the GOAT.

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