Amanda Nunes vs. Raquel Pennington headlines UFC 224 this May 12, 2018 at Jeunesse Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
One sentence summary
David: The Unambiguously Gay Duel.
Phil: It’s the first championship between two openly gay fighters in the UFC, and that’s awesome, and if it’s not that exciting otherwise, then that’s OK.
Odds: Amanda Nunes -900 | Raquel Pennington +600
History / Introduction to the fighters
David: We always knew that Nunes was a killer</chemills>. It was always a question of improvement and well roundedness. Somewhere along the way she figured out a major part of it; don’t gas out. And then she continued refining her game until it culminated in a victory that required only very little of her skills—beating Ronda Rousey’s movement-less head silly. Her follow up performance was fitting for a fighter who has struggled to reach her potential. Personally I thought she lost to Shevchenko, but that’s beside the point. She’s still champion, which means she still has challengers. Pennington’s definitely that.
Phil: Amanda Nunes seemed like she was destined for glass cannon status: someone who would roar out of the gate, inflict absolutely hideous amounts of damage on people, then get exhausted and fold. Even in those losses, though, it was clear that she was doing horrifying things to people. This story from Zingano’s perspective via Jon Snowden on BR is illuminating:
”That whole first round, I just got my head caved in,” Zingano said. “I was dizzy; I couldn’t be in light for a month. I put on like 30 pounds because my pituitary gland got knocked around and my hormones were all screwed up. I had never been hit like that in a fight.
That is legit terrifying. Her path to the title didn’t exactly assuage those concerns, as she largely just obliterated her opponents, or rode quick starts to survive bad endings, but her awful win over Valentina Shevchenko showcased a new, patient Lioness.
David: Pennington is Nunes’ spiritual blue collar animal in a lot of ways. Pennington is another fighter who just didn’t have the overall toolkit to remain consistent. She looked like reality tv material, and not much else after losing to Jessica Rakoczy on the show. Since then she’s gone 6-2 in the UFC, only losing to Jessica Andrade and Holly Holm (which is kind of incredible). Even though Pennington wouldn’t get this title shot under most possible universes, we’re in the one where she did, and frankly; it’s well earned regardless of how violent the finish could be.
Phil: I always liked Rocky Pennington. She seemed like someone who combined that typical blue-collar toughness with a surprising and underrated amount of physical gifts and technical acumen. This was something which got passed over because she found herself fighting top-flight bantamweights incredibly early in her career. In an indirect way, she engineered a little part of MMA history by putting on a much-better-than-expected performance against Holly Holm. It made Holm’s eventual dethroning of Rousey that much more shocking. Since then, she became a gradually more coherent fighter, culminating in a dominant win over Miesha Tate. She was sidelined by an awful-sounding hunting injury, but frankly there just isn’t anyone with any kind of momentum at the top of bantamweight at the moment. Plus, Dana always liked her, and that helps.
What’s at stake?
David: This is literally the gayest fight in UFC history, which already makes it more awesome than usual. It’s a nice plus to see a sport of meatheads asking each other to bang get a nice, progressive moment here, but this isn’t just due representation; these women deliver violence just as eagerly as the men, straight or otherwise, which makes it mandatory viewing for MMA fans who don’t experience gay panic.
Phil: Aside from the historic aspect of the fight, not too much. Pennington gets to engineer a great upset, Nunes gets to establish herself as more of a Rousey-esque consistent presence at the top, rather than one of those playing hot potato with the belt.
Where do they want it?
David: Nunes—like her countrywoman, Cyborg—has refined her skillset over the years with an eye for a more defensive posture on the feet. As in, she maintains the range of a counter fighter, possessing few instincts for counter striking, but offsetting this potential glitch with superior athleticism and speed. Her freakish frame puts a stamp on her general ability to deliver violence on a whim, and the end result is her being the best bantamweight fighter on the planet. While she’s still a liability from her back, she’s brutal in top control. It’s crazy to think that quote above you pulled from Snowden’s piece was Zingano more or less talking about the shots she took while both were on the ground. Nunes zeroes in with a predatory snarl, regardless of position, and regardless of limitations. It’s funny. I think her offense is still largely stilted. Her movement is rigid, and she doesn’t really activate from east to west, and her punches aren’t varied. That’s the thing about MMA; efficiency doesn’t care about variance. And Nunes continues to dance with what brought her.
Phil: I think people are coming around to the increasingly long standing assertion that Nunes is not a come-forward brawler: she is a outfighter, albeit a tremendously damaging one with a tendency to go berserk once she smells blood in the water. She has an incredible frame for the division, allowing her to sling long, straight punches and snap kicks from places where her opponents just can’t reach her. Defensively she’s not that great, but her power and effective range do a good job of insulating her. She’s something of an empty clinch fighter, who tends to stiff-arm and reset rather than throwing offense, but her takedown and top position game is murderous, whether she’s going for topside submissions or just laying down ground and pound.
David: Pennington began her career as something of a diet-Andrade. Now she’s half an Andrade with room to grow. What started as a one-two boxer slowly turned into a transition boxer who can establish her range with authority and segue that offense into meaningful strikes that add momentum over time. She’s something of a throwback; raw mechanics fuel her game, but her constant pressure and reasonable defense keep her effective in more angles than you’d expect. She’s plodding, which will factor into this bout, but it’s not the stylistic deathknell you’d expect from her otherwise blue collar work ethic.
Phil: Originally a two-fisted brawler who lived up to her nickname, Pennington has become a much more subtle fighter over time. Her jab is the most important improvement, which she used to touch up Miesha Tate and constantly disrupt her from throwing phase-shift mixups. She’s surprisingly defensively sound as well, able to move her head and parry incoming shots, which is a rarity at this weight class where most tend to simply rely on footspeed or physical advantages, or a combination of the two. She started off her career with a reasonable amount of submission losses, but again is infinitely more capable in grappling situations than she used to be. In particular she has an effective, high-percentage clinch game where she snaps down, works for bulldog chokes and generally outmuscles her opponents. She remains a little footslow, and not the biggest bantamweight around, two things which may be major issues giving the range and power puzzle against her.
Insight from past fights
David: Nunes’ last loss won’t tell you much. It was four years ago against Cat Zingano, and that was after Nunes blitzed Zingano the likes of which she’s never been, uhh, blitzed. Shevchenko is her own unique profile and fighter, so you can’t draw much from either one of Nunes’ fights with her, but there’s something to be said for the fact that Shevchenko was able to plant her feet and have success. There’s something to be said for not being intimidated, and if Pennington can attack the body, move, and create transitions in all phases of the fight, a fighter like Nunes—who relies so much on clean offensive outbursts—might be effectively disrupted (copyright, Robin Black 2017).
Phil: I was somewhat shocked to see Pennington struggle with Correia to the extent that she did, and I say that as an unabashed Bethe fan. In particular, I think it was simply Correia’s constant in-out movement and flyswatter volume which irritated Pennington. Nunes is nothing like Correia, but it showed that Pennington’s still somewhat plodding style can be exploited using distance tools. Nunes won’t use footspeed: she’ll just use her tremendous length.
David: Pennington’s injuries remain a question mark. While you would expect a fighter to stay composed during something as rigorous as a training camp, it’s not like this sport is uniquely adept at regulating fighter health.
Phil: Has to be Rocky’s injury. It sounded like it was inches away from smashing her leg to pieces and permanently ending her athletic career, and it wasn’t all that long ago. Maybe Pennington is fine and it genuinely has healed up completely, but it wouldn’t be the first time an athlete went into a fight compromised. This is especially true for the macabre reason that if Pennington truly is compromised, she is all the more unlikely to ever get another shot like this. The physical state of her leg and her confidence are both worth keeping an eye on.
David: The biggest issue is that Pennington needs a lot of geographical help to put herself in position to gain advantages over Nunes’ reach and raw power. Amanda Nunes by TKO, round 2.
Phil: As said, I like Rocky a lot, and I’m a big fan of her improvements, but this seems like a tough stylistic matchup. How does she get her jab rolling against a bigger, rangier fighter? Despite being more powerful than she’s given credit for, she’s definitely not the hitter that the champion is. However. With that being said, the odds are completely insane. Nunes has still not really shown that she can fight at anything like a pace, and if Pennington just grits her teeth and wades into the storm, there is a major chance she can simply burn Nunes out. On balance, though, the champion’s reach, growing patience, and ability to end the fight in an instant from both strikes and submissions are too much to pick against. Amanda Nunes by submission, round 3.