UFC women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes will have known the whole becoming-a-female-fighting-superstar task was one of the uphill variety. For her, there will be no handouts, no leg-ups, no endorsements, no film roles, no red carpets. Instead, she will have to rise to the top the old-fashioned way, which is to say win a world title, defend her title, presumably a lot, and keep winning and winning until the message gets home and some form of mainstream acknowledgement finally and deservedly arrives.
The long game continues this Saturday (July 8) when Nunes defends her belt against Valentina Shevchenko, a woman she has already defeated, and looks to again prove she is more than capable of headlining a UFC pay-per-view event and becoming a star in a sport still reeling from the sudden and shocking demise of ‘Rowdy’ Ronda Rousey.
A tough act to follow, it is nevertheless the accepted order of events right now. Fair? Perhaps not. But Nunes, remember, was someone largely ignored prior to her breakout win against Rousey last December and isn’t blessed with bankable X-factor, despite the fact she is in a fascinating relationship with fellow fighter Nina Ansaroff and fights in a way that can only guarantee action.
Nunes is, whether she likes it or not, living and reigning in a post-Rousey world and there will be both pros and cons to that. The benefits are obvious. She holds Rousey’s old belt, she has defeated Rousey, and, thanks to Rousey, she now stands to make good money from a sport that was by and large a closed shop for women – at least at this kind of level – before Rousey smashed down the barriers and smiled for the camera in 2013. As for the cons, the biggest drawback for Nunes is that she isn’t Ronda Rousey. Or at least that’s considered a drawback in the eyes of some; by ‘some’ I mean those who prefer blonde hair, hip tosses and arm bars; those who so desperately wanted Rousey to submit Nunes and win her belt back.
And it’s this ‘some’ faction Nunes continues to both surprise and disappoint.
Aggressive, rough around the edges and full of spite, Nunes is marching through the division and remaining true to herself, a character, the ‘Lioness’, that appeals to hardcore MMA fans but could very well fly over the heads of those only aware of women’s MMA because of Rousey’s exploits. Let’s face it, in 2017, when fight sports have perhaps never been more showbiz-heavy, Nunes hardly fits the mould.
That, however, doesn’t mean she should be overlooked or be considered a stop-gap before another more marketable female superhero comes along and swoops down to claim the belt. She should, instead, be appreciated as the brilliant fighter she is. Moreover, in this age of style and hype, her achievements, a nod to authenticity and substance, need to be viewed as a breath of fresh air.
Cast your mind back to UFC 207 and it seems the 48 seconds it took Nunes to wreck Ronda Rousey’s dreams, and the dreams of millions, was in some way a reminder that, regardless of the glitter and the sparkle and the earning potential, there is no greater asset for a fighter than fighting ability. And that, we’ve come to realise, is something Amanda Nunes has in spades.
“They promoted her (Rousey), but she knew deep down that I was the champion,” Nunes told Fighters Only. “I felt that the UFC wanted to make it easy for her. They wanted to make me second, to make her strong.
“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.”
Nunes’ title-winning demolition of Tate was another example of the Brazilian winning a fight she wasn’t supposed to win and thus soiling the script of a Hollywood fairytale. Tate, after all, had just won the UFC women’s bantamweight title in heroic style, ripping it from Holly Holm, the original Rousey slayer, and this, her first defence, was supposed to be her coronation night and reward for years of hard work and time spent in Rousey’s shadow. The ‘Cupcake’ goodwill, therefore, was at an all-time high; here she was, this woman we’d seen succumb to Rousey not once but twice, now in possession of Rousey’s old belt and putting her own name up in lights with humility, with a smile on her face, with Katy Perry and pigtails.
Three minutes later, though, Nunes had busted Tate’s nose, bloodied her face, disfigured her features and highlighted a clear disparity in skill between the two. So one-sided was the fight, in fact, and so large was the gulf in striking, it was often hard to watch.
Nunes became champion that night but did so by beating up the girl-next-door, the fan favourite, the champion the MMA world wanted to succeed. That made it difficult for Nunes to win hearts. Impressive, no question, she also seemed vicious and merciless in her pursuit of Tate’s body, face and title belt. There was no grace to the beat-down she dished out. No style or razzmatazz. It was old-school. It was violent. She let it be known a new kind of champion was in town. A different kind of champion.
“I have to win (on Saturday) and continue until the time comes when people look at me as champion,” Nunes said. “After this fight, people will start calling me champion and recognize me. But everything takes time. If you don’t have media promotion to help, you have to do this (by yourself). I’m that athlete.
“I’m the champion, I’m the best in the world. It’s not that I’m the face of MMA. I am the champion; I have to be promoted as champion. I conquered with my work.”
If you know anything about her history, you’ll know that Amanda Nunes is accustomed to work – hard work – and doing a lot with a little. As the only woman living and training at Edson Carvalho’s gym in Salvador, she cut her teeth as a fighter and learned the virtues of humility and the importance of being real and not manufactured. She did the hard yards. She cleaned mats in the morning. She grappled and sparred with men. Then, with her MMA record at 5-1, she moved to first New Jersey and later Miami, where she also happened to be a permanent resident and the only girl in the gym.
Indeed, it was while in Miami at the MMA Masters gym that she met Nina Ansaroff, a Floridian of Macedonian descent, who made the female fighter count rise to two.
This two, in time, became one.
The hope now is that something similar happens with Nunes and her reign as UFC champion. Forget Rousey, forget what the division used to represent, there’s a new ‘Lioness’ on the scene and she’s hellbent on not only keeping her belt but breaking free from the pack and becoming a single entity: The Champion.