By Gareth A. Davies
Amanda Nunes and Nina Ansaroff may be he most incredible love story in UFC history, but it wont be complete until they’re both packing championship gold
It’s an extraordinary love story – the like of which fight fans have rarely ever seen. Or perhaps even understood. They say that unity is strength. The union between Amanda Nunes and Nina Ansaroff, her partner in life and love – and fighting, has become an unshakeable bond that can’t be broken. Harmony. Devotion. A life of fighting fueled by athletic desire and emotional balance.
But the start of their four-year relationship was tough love, not real love. At their first meeting, in a gym in Miami, Nunes set about Ansaroff, a new training partner, like she did Ronda Rousey at UFC 207. Ansaroff was knocked from pillar to post by the Brazilian bruiser known as ‘The Lioness’. She was just “another body” for Nunes to destroy.
Yet rivalry turned to friendship, which has melted to love. They are now inseparable. And formidable pioneers. Their partnership has not always public or talked about, but it has underpinned the rise of Nunes to the top of the UFC’s bantamweight ladder. It hasn’t been easy. So much in life is down to chance, but Nunes and Ansaroff are convinced they were destined to be together. Soul mates for a cause. And for each other.
Getting to this point as a UFC champion has been some journey for Nunes, struggling to make ends meet, the youngest of three sisters by a single mother in Pojuca, a small town 41 miles from Salvador – the capital of Bahia, in Brazil. She was always a hyperactive kid, who, it appears, may have had a problem with stillness and focus. Ivete, her mother, recognized this. From playing as a striker in local football teams, to fighting in the streets, Amanda was addicted to a physical life and sports.
Given her restless nature, and propensity to fight, her mother took Amanda to capoeira classes, where she learnt the traditional dance and martial art brought to Brazil by African slaves. She coaxed her into karate classes, boxing gyms, and the young woman began to flourish as an athlete.
Her progress was helped by the fighting spirit in her genes. They were a tough family. Amanda’s uncle, Jose Silva, was a vale tudo fighter, even cornered on occasions Amanda’s mother, who had also trained as a boxer. At 16, Amanda enrolled in jiu-jitsu, influenced by her sisters, Vanessa and Valdirene, who were also practitioners of the gentle art, under Ryan Franco.
Look back on Nunes’ journey, and the women in her life have always been behind her fighting ventures. Older siblings could see that little sister had an electricity which needed fueling. Her mother recognized a fire. And that continues today with Ansaroff in the corner for Amanda, in fights, in the gym, in domestic bliss.
The first great leap forward for Nunes, prior to coming to the USA, was a move to Salvador, as the only woman living and training in Edson Carvalho’s gym there. Amanda cleaned the mats in the morning, trained all day, immersed herself in the art form, grappled and sparred with men. And held her own. She was treasured.
It was here where she became ‘The Lioness’, given that Carvalho’s logo was two lions, and Nunes was the only female in that gym. Competing in grappling and MMA tournaments, Nunes had a run of success. But it was no way of making a real living, so she turned to MMA in 2008, losing her first fight to Ana Maria India. In 35 seconds, Nunes learnt that it was not a brawl, but an art form.
Undeterred, she bounced back, developing a reputation as a knockout artist, aggressive and heavy-handed. It was her mother, Ivete, who had always encouraged her to make her opponents feel her power and spite early in a fight. That has never changed, of course.
After reaching 5-1, Salvador was no longer where she belonged. It was now to America, where Nunes aimed to seek her fortune on the bigger shows. She moved to New Jersey, then to Miami, being spotted by Scott Coker to compete in Strikeforce. In Miami, at the MMA Masters gym, her life was to change forever. One day, in walked Nina. They became training partners. At the time, Nunes had “no social life”, she recalls.
She trained, ate, slept and rinsed again. She lived in the gym. She was also the only girl there – until Ansaroff’s arrival, the Floridian of Macedonian descent having come there from American Top Team, to train with her.
Nunes admits she was “really aggressive” with her new training partner and tried to “hurt her”. Nina, of course, is several pounds lighter, and Nunes, looking back says she saw the new girl as “a punching bag”. Ansaroff could have just walked away and gone back to ATT, but she was tougher than that. She insisted on staying. Their friendship grew, as did their respect for each other as fighters. And people.
Then something clicked between them. A chemistry far stronger than fighting styles. A mutual attraction that blossomed into a deep love. “From there, we literally haven’t left each other’s side for four years. It’s been great,” explained Nunes. There were funny moments early on, too, with the language barrier. They began communicating, for example, by Google Translate on their iPhones. “We started like that,” recalled Nunes. “I had my phone and I’d write, ‘I like you… I want to kiss you… Can I go watch a movie at your house?’”
They were the first amusing forays towards a woman who had everything for her, and a deep understanding of her being made of the same fighting spirit. They giggle recalling those first heady days. “We like to be with each other all the time, now,” adds Nunes. “Since we met each other, we never spent a minute apart.”
Soul mates. Training partners. Surely there is no greater relationship, no deeper bond? But it was not a public pairing, in the traditional sense of a couple in fight sports, like Miesha Tate and Bryan Caraway, and others. At UFC 200, though, the moment that Nunes emerged as the holder of UFC gold, a kiss and an embrace said it all.
Nunes had busted up Tate, bloodied her and submitted her foe, and then arose as champion from a rear naked choke. Champion in front of the world. And seconds afterwards, as their lips met, no words needed to be spoken. When the entire ATT team emerged from the T-Mobile Arena and into a tent erected outside to host the post-event media conference, there was a unity between the two women that was self-evident that night.
They might not think it, see it or even be aware of it, but their relationship drew questions to Nunes about being the first openly gay UFC champion. “We never really talked about that aspect because it is what it is,” says Ansaroff. “But we now get lots of emails and messages from young women who are a struggling in their own lives, with their own sexuality, and we realize we can help. But I wouldn’t say we were really deeply aware of issues in the LGBT community.”
Yet they have become role models, and both women are embracing that. They are pioneers through endeavor, admired for the qualities they show in their brutal mixed martial artistry. We can but admire.
Nunes was honored with an Equality Visibility Award in Los Angeles last year, an accolade that “recognizes individuals who have brought greater awareness to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights issues.” She was accompanied at the awards, of course, by Ansaroff. “When people find out how strong and powerful love is, then this world will be a better place. I want to see this happen one day,” Nunes said during her acceptance speech.
“I’m going to do everything I can to support this community with a positive presence by sharing my love and showing everyone that I’m happy. My dream has come true and I want to share this with everyone and help a lot of people be themselves. I’m going to keep doing it until the world is better.”
There have been tough times together, too, such as when they moved to a troubled neighborhood in Little Haiti, in Miami, in 2013, after a spell living at Nina’s father’s home, where both were readily accepted.
Both had gun licenses and there was a firearm in the property in Little Haiti. They didn’t even wish to walk their dog at night. Crime was rife, drug deals were going on around the area. Police were constantly patrolling in the ‘naked city’. Once Nina’s father had visited, he insisted they move. They did.
But there are no regrets from Nunes from the trials and tribulations she has been through. The USA is now home. “The Brazilian people are proud of me. But I think I succeeded because I came to America. The best thing I ever did was move to the USA, to be honest. I want to live here forever.
“I feel I still have more to show. I like focusing on what I am good at – I’m a fighter. I focus on my job, and everything is coming together.”
In New York together in November at a media luncheon, and again in Los Angeles promoting her defense against Ronda Rousey at UFC 207, they exuded a gentle unity together. Nothing is forced, and they are powerful to be around.
Even when Rousey was the focus of promotion for their end of year PPV extravaganza, Nunes took it on the chin. Plenty of influential figures weighed in on the seemingly skewed promos and teasers, and through it all, the Brazilian brawler kept her dignity. “I felt that the UFC wanted to make it easy for her,” says Nunes. “They wanted to make me second, to make her strong.
“They promoted her, but she knew deep down that I was the champion. She’s not the champion any more. They wanted her to win. I even think they wanted Miesha Tate to win (at UFC 200). But what I did was I trained like a lion for all my fights.”
Quietly behind Nunes, an iron rod in her life, forever supporting her, is the powerful influence of Ansaroff, who admits she has never been calmer for the Tate and Rousey fights. “I knew Amanda would do it,” she recalls.
When Nunes and Rousey did face off in combat, of course, it took a matter of seconds for the piercing punches of Nunes to remind Rousey’s neural processes of her defeat 13 months earlier to Holm. And the former women’s star crumbled before the feeding Lioness.
As the build-up to that Nunes-Rousey title fight took place, from an observer’s perspective, the words from a conversation with Cat Zingano about Nunes resonated in my head, echoing over and over again. Zingano defeated Nunes at UFC 178, but not before weathering a brutal assault in the first round. Zingano told me she had never been hit as hard, by anyone, and that it took her many weeks to recover physically. Given Zingano’s toughness, it said so much. True to form, Nunes blitzed Rousey.
The Zingano fight, indeed, was a wake-up call for Nunes. It changed her outlook. Too rough, too raw, too committed when that siren sounds for combat. Ansaroff knew it, but they were too close for the message to come over. Ansaroff, three years older at 31, encouraged Nunes “to evolve” to think about her childhood again. Nunes now cites Nina “as a psychiatrist” and the key to her discovering calmness before fights.
Nunes began to read self-help books, listen to music, to swim and to meditate. It meant her mind would not “consume my body’s entire energy” before fights.
Apart from being fighters, they both have mothering instincts they have talked of. Endearingly, Nunes and Ansaroff would both like “to carry children” and create a family together. “That decision will come when one of us or both of us choose not to fight. You can’t do both things,” says Ansaroff. “You can’t fight, and have a baby. And right now both of us want to fight.”
“Since I met Nina it has changed my life,” explained Nunes. “I have a partner to do everything in life with. We do everything together. I am a champion, she will be a champion soon. We understand each other. When I’m stressed, she cooks for me, she makes everything easy for me. She knows about Brazilian food.”
It conjures up an image of domestic harmony, underpinned by the hardest of work ethics in the gym. Goodness knows how driven their offspring will be.
For Nunes, Ansaroff is her rock. “Nina knows everything about me. She helps me work with my emotions,” explains the champion, who admits her biggest problem is probably that Nina is still her sparring partner. “It’s hard to spar with her now because I don’t want to punch this face anymore,” says the UFC belt holder. Some sacrifices will never change. Not for the women who are champions.
*** Feature originally published in the April 2017 issue of Fighters Only ***