Back in 2011, the UFC had two dominant male Brazilian champions when the promotion made its return to Brazil for UFC 134. Now, seven years and a myriad of Brazilian UFC events later there are no male champions. In fact, two women hold UFC gold and one of them will attempt to defend her title in the same arena that saw Anderson Silva dominate an outmatched Yushin Okami in August of 2011.
The Jeunesse Arena will host UFC 224 this Saturday. Amanda “Leoa” Nunes will seek to do what Jose Aldo failed to do last June, walk out of Rio de Jainero with the belt she walked in with. Nunes is one of the most impressive and underrated champions in the UFC today. She’s the only woman to defend the bantamweight belt since Ronda Rousey originally lost it. She has beat some of the toughest and most notable fighters in the division. Her previous title defense against Valentina Shevchenko showed that she is not just raw athleticism. Now the champion returns to her home country for the first time in three years as a prohibitive favorite over a determined and rugged American.
Raquel “Rocky” Pennington is the rightful contender to Amanda Nunes’ crown. Winning four fights in a row is respectable but it’s rare when an athlete comes off an 18 month layoff to fight for a world title. With most of the contenders moving weight classes, retired or just coming off recent fights, Pennington is the most fitting choice to go into enemy territory and battle for the belt. Her work ethic is solid, she has proficient boxing and a sneaky ground game but the fact that she has not stepped into a cage since the last time Conor McGregor was seen in a cage brings up some serious concerns. Pennington wasn’t unwilling to take on another top contender or waiting to see weakness in Nunes’ game; numerous surgeries and injuries have kept her on the sidelines. Time to prepare for the biggest fight of one’s life is important but when that time is severely hampered by the possibility of career threatening injuries it begs the question, what happens to one’s mental state?
The odds have already seemingly stuck a nail to the coffin of Pennington’s chances at victory but hope is not lost. Tyron Woodley also had an 18 month layoff prior to winning the welterweight strap and still dons the hardware to this day. Anecdotes and similar circumstances are all well and good but they do not win fights, however, gameplans and fighter characteristics can give a combatant much needed knowledge to fulfill their goal.
AMANDA NUNES: Athleticism
Though Amanda Nunes began her combat sports career as a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, her power is what has always stood out about her. Nunes’ power is unique, the only other fighter who has similar power is boxer Gennady Golovkin. The snappy, yet thudding power seems to strike fear and panic in many opponents upon initial impact.
Punches are not her only weapon, her kicks are very effective and versatile. Snap front kicks to push opponents to the fence as she’s landing combinations and leg kicks for when she wants to stay at range. She is adept not just at throwing intelligent combinations but at figuring out an opponent’s moves before they do. Nunes rarely throws a perfectly linear punch. Her punches always have a slight curve at the end of them because like a heat-seeking missile, they follow you.
Athleticism doesn’t just apply to Nunes’ stand-up, her ground game is greatly aided by it too. The power transfers over into her ground & pound and she can be mighty quick on the transition, especially when a girl is hurt.
RAQUEL PENNINGTON: Durability
There’s been many tough fighters in the women’s bantamweight division but few on the roster are as tough as “Rocky.” Pennington is the classic “take one to give one” fighting archetype. This has been the case since the inception of her fighting career. Though she was much more of a brawler early on in her career, that rugged quality of hers has never left.
Now with the addition of some stern boxing fundamentals, Pennington’s durability is not only a notable trait of hers but her defining characteristic. Pennington almost always gets off to a bad start. The term “slow starter” is an understatement. At least the first three minutes of most of her fights are tedious or with her on the defensive but her habitual late starts may also be a tactical choice. Opponents seem to have this idea that she is an entry level white belt on the mat and they usually tend to go for clinches along the fence which more often than not, ends with them with their back to the fence eating body punches and elbows to the face.
It’s not just a matter of being able to take a shot which Pennington is excellent at, it’s her demeanor. If Pennington is in the midst of throwing a combination her opponent’s counter is a non-issue, she will power through seemigly without even flinching. It’s a tall task to withstand the lightning in Nunes’ hands but if there’s a person to do it, it might be Raquel.
A big question about this fight will be cardio. Nunes has the five round experience but she fought at a low volume with a counterstriker who’s not known to push a pace. Pennington is a boxer-puncher who can push a pace and has no problem grounding out a fight. Though conventional wisdom says to go with the known factor in this situation, Pennington’s style and training in Colorado might be enough to hang with or even outlast the champion.
The gifted athlete versus the gritty blue collar ruffian, the underdog versus the dominant champion. A matchup that’s all too familiar. Raquel Pennington’s “Rocky” nickname really is fitting in so many ways. Looking to fulfill her own Rocky moment you can rest assured that she will leave it all in the cage, but it will not be enough.
The injuries she’s sustained over the past year cast a serious cloud of doubt over Pennington’s already limited chances. Nunes has remained relatively healthy but her last performance against Shevchenko raised some flags. Was that a strict one-off due to her opponent’s style or has she gotten into that champion groove and is now looking to implement a more conservative style? If the latter is true it may spell her demise. Nunes is an intelligent fighter and will most likely use a stick and move dynamic striking style in tandem with her well regarded grappling chops. Though it is sound in theory, it may be tougher in practice. Pennington will most likely lose the first 8 minutes of the fight and will probably be visibly marked up and bloodied after two rounds. Expect her to win one or two middle rounds with Nunes garnering enough of a second wind to win a contentious fifth round.
AMANDA NUNES BY UNANIMOUS DECISION.