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The Promise: Amanda Nunes’ rocky path to becoming the greatest

A look back through the tumultuous struggles that led to Amanda Nunes’ electrifying featherweight title win at UFC 232

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Amanda Nunes is one of the most accomplished fighters – male or female – in MMA history. The Brazilian power house, now concurrently the UFC’s bantamweight and featherweight champion, has delivered dominant stoppage victories of three fighters who could all be argued to be among the top five women to ever grace the sport: Cristiano “Cyborg” Justino, Ronda Rousey, and Miesha Tate. Flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko, another all-timer in her own right, suffered two narrow defeats at the hands of the ‘Lioness.’

At the UFC 232 post-fight press conference – following Nunes’ brutal bludgeoning of Justino – Dana White claimed, in response to a question, ‘You think Amanda Nunes isn’t gonna be a star after this? I fucking guarantee it. I promise you that.’

Far be it from me to imply that the idea of White pushing Nunes into stardom is vapid, empty, or even outright BS; however, no timeline of Nunes’ struggles to attain stardom is complete without mention of Dana White’s involvement. And it isn’t just the UFC President that’s seemed to hinder more than help. Nunes has pushed through every roadblock, every challenger. And in a historically great run, she has found herself demeaned or overshadowed through no fault of her own, each and every step of the way.

When a co-headliner opposite then-champion Miesha Tate materialized on the PPV card of the UFC’s second centennial event, it seemed a fittingly historic beginning for what would become a remarkable run. And when the headlining act of UFC 200 – Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier – was scrapped three days prior to the event, Nunes found herself promoted to headliner (while Cormier agreed to face former middleweight champion Anderson Silva on two days’ notice).

However, along with a returning Brock Lesnar and his drug test woes, Jon Jones’ Jon Jones-ing of the UFC 200 headliner occupied most of the pre- and post-event narrative. Whatever sentiments were spared for Nunes vs. Tate were far from kind. The bout – while enticing in its own right – was perhaps reasonably seen by many (or most) as a disappointing main event for such a monumental card. Still, and largely on the back of Brock Lesnar, it was a success on pay-per-view. And despite absolutely dominating Tate to claim the UFC bantamweight championship, Nunes received little acclaim — though she never much seemed to care about that.

UFC 207 was headlined by Ronda Rousey competing for the bantamweight title. Who her opponent would be was a mystery to many. Promotional material for the fight seemed to overlook Nunes’ existence entirely, treating her as a faceless TBD and a future former-world-champion. Even color commentator Joe Rogan publicly lambasted the “bizarre” build-up. The one-sided nature of the promotion was mirrored by the action of the contest, but not in the way that the UFC had seemingly anticipated: Nunes was on a completely different level to Rousey, and bludgeoned her around the cage effortlessly for an entirely noncompetitive 48 seconds. The vindicated champion marched around her Octagon, a finger pressed coldly to her lips as the crowd (and UFC management) looked on in shock.

UFC 207: Nunes v Rousey Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Surely this was Nunes’ moment. All of the components were there. She had dusted off Rousey and Tate; headlined two PPVs in a row that allegedly exceeded 1 million buys; she was a confident, multi-lingual individual and the first openly gay world champion, in a relationship with a fellow UFC fighter. Nunes never had to be as big as Rousey, but she had – and has – all of the parts necessary to be more than a throw-away name on a minor pay-per-view. She just needed that UFC promotional machine behind her. The TV spots, the talk shows, the outreach to the large number of people who couldn’t care less about MMA, but could very well care about Nunes’ story.

Unfortunately, after pulling out of a UFC 213 showdown against Valentina Shevchenko on extremely short notice due to illness, she found herself on the wrong end of that promotional machine.

My first-ever piece for Bloody Elbow was on this exact topic. I won’t rehash that, but I will re-examine a particular Dana White quote, in the context of his promise to Nunes:

“I think that it was 90 percent mental and maybe 10 percent physical,” White said. “She probably didn’t feel right. I think a lot of fighters have had times where they don’t feel right, and then we’ve had guys who are outright sick. ... These situations arise all the time. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a situation like today, though, where she was physically capable of fighting.

“I won’t main event that title again.”

Rather than help to establish her as a star, the UFC’s promotional outlook for their bantamweight champion had shifted from ‘The Most Dangerous Rousey Victim Yet’ to ‘Amanda the Cowardly Lioness.’

A couple of months later, Dana “main event-ed that title again” at UFC 215. The card had little in the way of name value and saw no significant promotional push from the world’s best mixed martial arts promoters. It tallied to one of – if not the – lowest PPV buyrates in modern UFC history. The UFC may have cut off its nose, but at least it got to spite its face.

And then there was December 29th’s UFC 232 PPV. Regardless of who noticed, or who cared, Nunes was intent on storming forward on a path of unending greatness. This path led her to move up in weight to challenge the organization’s most feared fighter — the aforementioned ‘Cyborg.’ It was the most meritoriously important fight in women’s MMA history, and the first ‘superfight’ between reigning female UFC champions.

Given that the dust is still yet to settle in the aftermath of that card, most who followed along closely are likely familiar with the pre-fight discussions: Jon Jones one-upped his detractors by getting in the kind of trouble that requires a PhD to knowledgeably criticize him for. And he two-upped his Nevada-bound detractors by getting the card moved to California. All while the status of the light heavyweight championship remained in limbo until just prior to fight night.

Daniel Cormier, who wasn’t even competing on the card, seemed to draw more attention than the UFC’s best female champions.

Amanda Nunes did what Amanda Nunes always does: with no fucks left to give, she walked into the Octagon, stood in front of the scariest fighter in WMMA history, and expertly beat her senseless in the one area where Cyborg has always looked the most inhuman. She out-maneuvered and out-powered the featherweight champion while clubbing her with pin-point precision. Less than a minute later, Cyborg fell face-first to the canvas. Then came shock, applause, and a promise from a vindictive promoter who perhaps finally realized, years too late, what a special fighter his dual-weight women’s champion is.

UFC 232 Jones v Gustafsson 2 Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Somewhere along the line, Amanda Nunes has been adjacent to so many other people’s asterisks that they’ve started to overflow onto her page in the history books.

Perhaps then, because of that, her greatest success is one of character: whether Dana White’s promise turns out to be true or not, Nunes likely couldn’t care less. She continued to be undeniable until she established a new ceiling for greatness. And she did it largely in spite of her own promoter, and in spite of every godawful circumstance she was subjected to. Amanda Nunes was handed nothing, fought for everything, and now holds every prize the UFC has to offer her beyond their respect — a carrot that Nunes probably never even wanted in the first place. That’s a story befitting the greatest woman to ever grace the Octagon.

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