The Lioness still hungers for gold, and she feasted heartily on Saturday night.
Seven months after falling prey to Julianna Peña, Amanda Nunes once again rules as the apex predator in both of the UFC’s heaviest women’s divisions.
The reigning featherweight champion wasn’t content to settle for just one belt. No. Nunes wanted that bantamweight crown back; she needed it.
“When The Lioness don’t get the prey for the first time, I set the trap better, and I knew I’d get the prey this time,” a beaming Nunes replied in the octagon, moments after regaining the 135-pound crown in UFC 277 main event in Dallas. “Now, we are here, making history again. Double champ again, baby!”
Even as a considerable betting favorite over Peña, whose December victory via second-round submission ranks among the greatest upsets in UFC history, doubts sprang up. Was this the beginning of the end for MMA’s female GOAT? Was the move away from vaunted American Top Team an act of desperation? Were COVID-19 and a knee injury mere excuses from a facing legend?
Here’s a new question: After the way the Brazilian mauled Peña at American Airlines Center, how silly do those questions sound on Sunday?
To hear the 34-year-old Nunes (22-5, 17 finishes) tell it in the cage, changing up her training home paved the way for such brilliance on what she called “the best day ever in my life.”
“The best thing that I did was make my gym happen,” Nunes declared. “In my gym, I feel like I’m safe. I feel like I can grow even more.”
Perhaps that growth, that evolution, was the genesis of a new approach. The wheels came off Nunes’ finely-tuned engine last time — following a strong opening frame — when she allowed herself to engage in a firefight with Peña, who has previously been known more for her dangerous grappling and submissions. The dual-champ faded, and one of her belts drifted away to the 32-year-old from Spokane, Wash.
This time, Nunes took her time. This wasn’t playing with her food, as she metaphorically has done in the past with overmatched challengers. Peña (11-5, eight finishes) had earned too much respect for such an approach. Instead, Saturday’s challenger controlled the pace, pelting Peña with the more powerful shots to set a tone for what was to come.
Round two had been Nunes’ disaster in the winter. Come summer’s runback, it was her masterpiece. She painted Peña to the canvas three times, dropping her twice with hard lead right hooks from southpaw in the first two minutes and a third time with a stiff left straight late in the round.
The southpaw stance, an admitted work in progress, was “confusing” to Peña in Nunes’ estimation.
“Everything tonight was our strategy. The main thing tonight was my southpaw [stance],” Nunes told reporters later. “I know I’m gonna catch her with that tonight. I knew she wouldn’t be able to adjust [for] that. She’s not a striker.”
Two things became clear over the final 15 minutes: Nunes hits harder than Peña, and Peña has no quit in her. A heavy elbow opened a cut along Peña’s hairline with 90 seconds to go in the third, but Nunes was forced to defend an omoplata — the first of many such attempts from the crafty now-former champ.
Despite clear success on the feet, Nunes switched to a takedown-heavy approach in the championship rounds. Even as she won every round, securing final scores of 50-45, 50-44, 50-43, a bloodied Peña never felt out of the fight. A fourth-round armbar threatened another comeback victory for Peña, who once again entered as the betting underdog — to a lesser degree this time.
“Julianna’s tough,” said Nunes, at her media availability, of the only woman to beat her since 2014. “I give a lot of credit to her.”
But Nunes proved her championship mettle in the closing five minutes, attacking with a menacing rear-naked choke in the 25th minute. She was hungry, and The Lioness wanted that mata leão — “lion killer” in Portuguese, another name for the hold she appropriately sought — but Peña proved her own fortitude in fending it off. A moral victory of sorts: She’s the only one who’s stopped the other.
Make no mistake, though. Nunes won what mattered: that delicious gold trinket she enjoyed pairing with her other one the past few years. All is right in her world again.
“I was supposed to do this the first time, but I told you guys: I didn’t know [if] I was ready for that.”
Nunes is ready now, and she let all women 135 pounds and up know it with a mighty roar.