Amanda Nunes draws Cris Cyborg into firefight, emerges as greatest female fighter in UFC history

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — If Nina Ansaroff ever had a concern about whether Amanda Nunes could take a punch from Cris “Cyborg” Justino, those fears were allayed when she watched her fiancee spar Dustin Poirier.

Poirier is the UFC’s third-ranked lightweight and one of the hottest fighters in the world.

“Dustin Poirier hit her pretty hard once and she was still there and was still going forward,” Ansaroff said. “I knew she could handle it. I’ve hit her pretty [expletive] hard. I’ve kicked her in the face and she keeps coming forward. I was certain she could take a hit. I was never worried about it.”

It was that ability to take Cyborg’s shots during a wild 51-second slugfest that helped Nunes to a stunning knockout victory that not only gave her the featherweight belt but recognition as the greatest female fighter in UFC history.

Nunes has beaten five women who have held UFC titles: Cyborg, ex-featherweight champion Germaine de Randamie, ex-bantamweight champions Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey and reigning flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko, but the latest one was without question the greatest.

Cyborg had not lost in more than 13 years after dropping her pro debut in 2005, then winning 20 consecutive fights. She not only won, but she steamrolled just about everyone she fought.

Few women have even wanted to consider a fight with her. But Nunes texted UFC president Dana White last year and said she wanted the fight.

Nunes just wanted time so she could add the weight she felt was necessary to deal with Cyborg’s size. She was clearly ready on Saturday. She went out and started swinging from her heels from the moment the bell rang. She went toe-to-toe with the biggest, most powerful and scariest female fighter in the world and didn’t just live to tell about it, she took her championship belt.

The fight ended in 51 breathtaking seconds, as the two traded punches that would have knocked out mere mortals far quicker.

“This is the moment I’ve waited for all my life,” Nunes said after becoming the first woman to hold two UFC championships simultaneously. She won the bantamweight belt at UFC 200 by choking out Tate, and seemed to get better each time out.

Amanda Nunes celebrates her KO victory over Cris Cyborg in their women’s featherweight bout during UFC 232 at The Forum in Inglewood, California. (Getty Images)
Amanda Nunes celebrates her KO victory over Cris Cyborg in their women’s featherweight bout during UFC 232 at The Forum in Inglewood, California. (Getty Images)

Much of it stemmed from a life-changing loss in 2014 to Cat Zingano. It was a fight Nunes could have won, and probably should have won. Losing made her re-evaluate her approach to the sport.

“That fight really changed me as an athlete,” Nunes said. “That fight against Cat Zingano, it helped me a lot to become who I am today. That fight needed to happen. I learned to be more calm and more confident and to train smarter. I used to go to the gym and do everything and go hard. I thought it was the way it was supposed to be, but it’s not. You have to train smart.”

Since that loss, she stopped Shayna Baszler, submitted Sara McMann, scored a decision over Shevchenko, won the title by choking out Tate, knocked out Rousey, defeated Shevchenko again and then knocked out Raquel Pennington and Cyborg back-to-back.

Her plan was, curiously, to draw Cyborg into a firefight. Those in her corner had to be holding their breath as the fight began, because they were each landing huge, powerful punches.

But their impact eventually took a toll on Cyborg, who came to the post-fight news conference covering her face with a pillow, joking at Rousey’s reaction after a 2015 loss to Holm.

Cyborg said she was happy with the way the fight played out and said the loss is just one of those things.

“Today was not my day,” Cyborg said. “I lost. It happens in the fight game. This is a sport. Of course I’m not happy. My heart broke. I didn’t cry, but I did everything I could to try to win this fight. I trained hard.”

They will, almost certainly, see each other again in what will be a massive rematch, but White threw cold water on the notion Saturday of immediately running it back.

Nunes was so overcome by emotion that she said she couldn’t even think of what may be next. She just wanted to get out with her family, friends and teammates to celebrate.

Cyborg, who has just one more fight on her UFC contract, has done enough in her legendary career that she deserves the opportunity to avenge that defeat. And it was clearly a critical hit with the 15,862 fans who filled The Forum after the fight moved from Las Vegas on just a few days’ notice. Tickets didn’t even go on sale until Wednesday.

“The roof came off the place when that fight ended,” White said. “That was as exciting a fight as you’ll ever see, and what made it better was the stakes.”

Nunes will clearly become one of the sport’s next big attractions after knocking out Cyborg in the manner she did.

Things went her way in just about every regard. She was having trouble with sinusitis the prior week when the fight was scheduled to be in Las Vegas. But when it was moved to California two days before Christmas, Nunes rejoiced.

Everything, she said, was going her way, because she doesn’t have the sinus issue in Los Angeles.

But it never went better for her than it did in those wild, exhilarating 51 seconds in which she shared the cage with Cyborg in one of the greatest women’s fights ever.

“Perfect,” Nunes said, beaming. “It’s perfect.”

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