There was a time, not that long ago, when Amanda Nunes had lapped the field by such a margin that you almost felt sorry for her opponents when a fight was booked.
Those days are long gone, even though on Saturday in the main event of UFC 277 at the sold-out American Airlines Center in Dallas, Nunes righted the wrongs and regained her championship by defeating Julianna Peña in a bout that was much more competitive than it seemed on the surface.
Nunes won by scores of 50-45, 50-44 and 50-43 to regain the women’s bantamweight belt she’d lost when Peña submitted her at UFC 269 in December in Las Vegas.
Nunes dropped Peña three times in the second round and was 6 of 8 on takedowns in the five-round fight. Nunes had 11 minutes, 48 seconds of control time in the 25-minute fight and Peña had none. Each fighter had one submission attempt.
See those numbers on paper and you get a shrug of the shoulders and don’t think about it beyond that.
But Peña showed she’s perhaps the toughest fighter in the UFC as she absorbed an incredible amount of punishment but never stopped trying to win. Because she did submit Nunes in December with a rear naked choke in the second round in Las Vegas, one could never look past her efforts on Saturday.
She tried triangle chokes and a rear naked choke and an armbar and a Kimura. Nunes had great submission defense and got out of them, and that’s one of the reasons why she’s clearly the greatest female fighter this sport has ever seen.
But seven months earlier, Peña reminded us of what was possible, and so it had to be in the back of everyone’s mind on Saturday in the rematch. Nunes knocked Peña down an incredible three times in the second round, but didn’t follow her to the ground on any of those occasions.
Nunes knew. She knew that was the one area that could cause her problems, even though she has a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
So Nunes fought cautiously, strategically, and didn’t go to the ground with Peña until the fourth when she switched her plan and began to grapple more. And when she did, Peña began to threaten.
The performance didn’t get her much love from her boss, UFC president Dana White. She didn’t earn a post-fight bonus, as Fight of the Night went to Brandon Moreno and Kai Kara-France and the Performances of the Night were awarded to Alexandre Pantoja and Drew Dober.
Just being dominant as she was over a great fighter like Peña would seemingly be enough to win her, at worst, a Performance of the Night bonus, but White was strangely cool on her effort.
“Two things: I think Julianna is tough as nails and her will to win is second to none,” White said when asked at the post-fight news conference his impressions of Nunes’ performance. “She wanted to win. As dominant as Amanda was, and she was dominant tonight, I didn’t think it was close any way, shape or form. It was a complete shutout, but she still looked a little gun-shy to me.”
White went on to mention the way Nunes performed when she won the featherweight title from Cris Cyborg at UFC 232 in Los Angeles on Dec. 29, 2018. She hurt Cyborg early in the stand-up and stood her ground and flurried until Cyborg could go on no more.
But there were a couple of differences between that fight than Saturday’s. First, Nunes was fighting a woman who had taken her best punches and then submitted her. Even if it were only subconsciously, that had to impact her. More importantly, the 2018 version of Nunes was 30 years old. This version is 34 and age is without a doubt a factor.
Now, don’t take that as a suggestion that Nunes is ready for the glue factory, because she’s not.
Nunes is also a married mother now, which is another factor. Before her daughter, Raegan, was born, all that mattered to Nunes was fighting. But now, she’s got something else taking some of her attention away from fighting.
She said in the Octagon on Saturday that she wants to take a vacation and some time away from the cage, and no one could deny her that. She’s been an active champion and she deserves time away.
There’s thus a chance that she’ll be 35 the next time she fights, given her birthday is May 30. But even if she’s not, she’ll be very close to that birthday. Of the 11 people who hold a UFC title today (Nunes has two), they are grouped in age from 28 to 35.
So that would suggest she’s on the back side of her prime. Now, Nunes is so good, there are only a handful of fighters who could fairly compete with her.
Peña, obviously, is one of them. So, too, is flyweight champ Valentina Shevchenko, who lost a pair of close decisions to Nunes at bantamweight.
But who else? Nunes beat Cyborg in 51 seconds, but a rematch between them is no slam dunk in Nunes’ favor. But Cyborg is now with Bellator and there is zero chance she’ll ever fight Nunes in the UFC again. Kayla Harrison might be one who could beat her, but Harrison fights at lightweight, so the only weight she could meet Nunes would be at featherweight, and she’s with the PFL, so again, almost no chance of a fight between them being made.
So you have to wonder what Nunes will think after a few weeks of rest when she has time to reflect upon her career. She said before the fight that she wants to fight until she’s 40, and that won’t be until May 28, 2028, however, it’s never wise to hold fighters to things they say prior to an important bout.
Does she survey the landscape and realize there aren’t many fights out there that make sense? Perhaps.
At bantamweight, the top contender is now Ketlen Vieira. No one who saw her fight Holly Holm would consider her a serious threat to beat Nunes. Who else? Holm? Irene Aldana? Raquel Pennington?
Nunes has beaten most of them and the pickings are slim.
She could come back and defend the title a few more times and rack up a couple of $2 million or $3 million paydays. That money, of course, would come in handy.
But there is really no fight save a rubber match with either Peña or Shevchenko that would get her blood boiling.
Walking away as the unquestioned GOAT wouldn’t be the worst thing, though Nunes showed Saturday she still has a lot left to give.
But she’s no longer a kid, and it’s going to get tougher and tougher to hit the level she did on Saturday.
This one bears watching. It’s no shock if she fights again, but it would also not be a stunner if she walks away rich, healthy and clearly, unquestionably, on top of the game.