By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
The most famous women’s mixed martial arts fighter in the world, both now, into the future and probably for a good long while yet? Easy, that’s Ronda Rousey.
The greatest female athlete to have graced the Ultimate Fighting Championship? That’s even simpler to answer. It’s Amanda Nunes.
By the time this month comes to an end, it will have been five years since Nunes ended the combat career of Rousey and set herself on a path to being universally regarded as the GOAT.
Five years is a long time in sports, but especially so in the Octagon, where flavors of the month come and go rapidly. It’s a place where a single blow can change a career’s destiny, where champions who get too comfortable risk being quickly unseated.
And yet, here is Nunes, seemingly getting better, faster and more technically superior with each passing fight, still in the box seat and holding down simultaneous titles in both the UFC’s bantamweight and featherweight divisions.
In the build-up to Saturday night’s UFC 269 in Las Vegas, where Nunes will defend the bantamweight strap against challenger Julianna Peña, there are a couple more pressing questions. Is there currently a more dominant athlete in individual sports? And, in terms of widespread public recognition, how good is too good?
Nunes’ last defeat came to Cat Zingano in September 2014. Women had only been fighting in the UFC for 19 months at that time, and the level of professionalism and the overall standard was vastly different compared to now.
Since then, she has gone on a tear of 12 straight triumphs. She won the title at UFC’s flagship UFC 200 event, choking out Miesha Tate. Six months later, she destroyed Rousey in a historic performance, delivering a brutal 48-second knockout. Two years later she shattered the invincibility of Cris Cyborg in similar fashion, that time needing only 51 seconds.
No one in the UFC has been able to match her level of consistent excellence, or, indeed, give her much trouble at all. Even when a challenger emerges who is expected to cause some difficulty — like the technical, long-limbed Australian Megan Spencer back in March — those doubts are swiftly put to rest (armbar submission, 123 seconds).
“When it comes to Nunes, everyone in the MMA community appreciates how brilliant she is and her incredible accomplishments,” USA TODAY’s Lance Pugmire told me via telephone. “But she is almost making it look too easy. She is doing very difficult things as a matter of routine, so it naturally takes away a little of the drama. That’s not her problem — she’s doing her job, and she’s doing it better than anyone.”
Rousey was similarly dominant until her consecutive losses to Holly Holm and Nunes. But back then, women’s MMA was new enough for there to be an inherent public curiosity. Also, Rousey was a natural saleswoman, creating a larger-than-life persona that would eventually take her to the WWE and land a couple of Hollywood movie offers.
Nunes is a genuine superstar in her sport, but she hasn’t cracked the same level of crossover appeal because, in part, that side of things isn’t particularly important to her. Her dedication has been centered around becoming the best fighter in the world, not squeezing out every available commercial opportunity or social media follow.
She isn’t even the headliner for Saturday’s card — that billing goes to fellow Brazilian Charles Oliveira in his lightweight title fight against Dustin Poirier.
In a sport where notoriety equals dollars — prime example: Conor McGregor — Nunes has always prioritized her craft and has never stopped adding pieces to her game.
“When you lock the cage door everybody can become dangerous,” Nunes said, explaining how refusing to take any opponent lightly has enabled her streak to continue. “I’m going to be ready to go.
“I have the belt. I’m not going to let that belt go. I have a lot to go still. I am 34, I feel young. Let’s see the future, I’m excited.”
Nunes claimed to have enjoyed the bullish and outspoken approach of Saturday’s challenger Peña, who has tried a wide array of tactics in an attempt to rankle the champion. Problem is, it’s hard to say much to someone who can’t stop winning. Nunes is a -1000 favorite with FOX Bet, with Peña at +650.
Peña has accused Nunes of ducking her, which is a hard sell given that the champ has fought eight times since 2016 to Peña’s four, posting an 8-0 record in that span (Peña is 2-2). Peña says Nunes has weakness in her ground game despite her having beaten mat experts Tate and Sara McMann. Peña insists that Nunes’ GOAT status won’t be complete until she’s beaten her.
Peña even started publicly discussing details of a rematch between the pair — an outcome that would only happen in the event of a Peña victory or some kind of disputed victory.
Credit Peña for hyping the fight, but if there are bold prognostications to be made, one feels it should be coming from the other side.
In the UFC, anything can happen on any given night. The best-laid plans and the most overwhelming odds are upturned with frequency.
Nunes, of course, is the exception to that equation. She is the closest thing the UFC has to a sure thing.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.
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