LAS VEGAS – In her last two bouts, Amanda Nunes has needed a combined four minutes and four seconds to finish the two biggest names in female mixed martial arts history.
She’ll get a chance at a third consecutive finish on Saturday when she takes on No. 1 contender Valentina Shevchenko for the UFC women’s bantamweight title in the main event of UFC 213 at T-Mobile Arena.
Nunes won the title with a dominant performance over Miesha Tate at UFC 200. Tate had long been one of the elite fighters in the world, but she was pummeled like a newbie by Nunes, who won the belt by submitting her at 3:16 of the first with a rear naked choke after battering her around the Octagon.
It was a remarkable performance, which, despite excruciating pressure the next time out, she managed to exceed.
Nunes’ first title defense came at UFC 207 on Dec. 30 at T-Mobile Arena against ex-champion Ronda Rousey, who was making her first appearance since being upset by Holly Holm at UFC 193 in Australia.
Rousey wasn’t speaking to the media and though Nunes was, the story was primarily Rousey’s silence and what could be gleaned from it.
Nunes stewed at what she felt was a lack of respect, but performed like a grand champion when she battered Rousey around the cage and stopped her in 48 of the most one-sided seconds you’ll ever see.
It was a difficult, emotional journey for Nunes, who even now is haunted by questions about Rousey.
At the time, though, the pressure was rising and the resentment was real.
“That fight against Ronda, everything was crazy and it was surreal,” Nunes said. “It was because of who she was and her reputation. The challenge wasn’t fighting and beating Ronda the fighter; it was dealing with everything about Ronda that had been built up by the media. I was the champion, and it was like I didn’t matter. It was hard to take.”
She took a deep breath and stopped speaking for a moment. She thought about what she wanted to say, and then finished with a sentence that typified the inner battle she was fighting.
“It felt like it was me against the world,” Nunes said. “I was wondering, ‘Why is this girl all everyone wants to talk about? What about me? I’m the champion. What about me?’ It was tough, you know?”
As difficult as it was, she learned something about herself. She could perform at her highest level even when the stakes were the highest and the pressure the most intense.
And that was good news for a talented yet erratic fighter who didn’t really find herself until she moved to the American Top Team and overhauled her training.
She’s brimming with confidence now, having overcome the shyness of a rural farm girl growing up in Brazil where she frequently felt out of place.
Nunes’ joy since winning the bout has been contagious. She’s been all over social media and everyone she takes pictures with is grinning ear to ear. She’s having the time of her life, at the top of her profession and with the ability to become one of her sport’s household names.
For the third show in a row, she’s headlining an event at T-Mobile, the UFC’s home arena. She’s still asked about Rousey a fair amount – “Everyone loves to talk about Ronda Rousey,” she says. “But it’s OK. Everyone also knows who the champion is now.”
And then she laughs heartily. It’s almost as if she had to prove herself all over again against Rousey.
Her bout with Shevchenko is a rematch, and the first fight could have gone either way. Nunes dominated the early going but Shevchenko was the stronger fighter at the end.
That bout came at UFC 196, and Nunes said that though it’s only been 16 months, she’s not close to being the same fighter.
“I learned so much about myself and what it takes to not just be a fighter, but to be a champion in this last year,” Nunes said. “That gives you a confidence that you can do anything. Anything can happen in a fight, and I respect Valentina, but she hasn’t evolved the way I have.
“She wants to talk about my cardio, or this or that. Go ahead, talk all you want, girl. Go ahead and talk. When the bell rings, let’s see what happens then.”
The one thing you notice after spending any amount of time with Nunes is that she loves to laugh and nothing seems to bother her.
That wasn’t always the case – witness her barely concealed anger when she felt she was being unfairly overlooked prior to her bout with Rousey – but it clearly is true now.
“I have learned so much and I have such a great life now and everything is so good, I can’t even tell you how thankful and grateful I am,” Nunes said. “And it helps me. I’m the best fighter I’ve ever been. I have a great team and great support and it’s just better and better and better.”
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