The fans’ voices don’t lie.
A sellout crowd of 15,862 let out a deafening roar Saturday night when Amanda Nunes knocked out Cris “Cyborg” Justino in just 51 seconds in the co-main event of UFC 232.
It was a historic win, as Nunes became the first woman in UFC history to become a double champ. The UFC bantamweight champion added the featherweight belt to her collection by vanquishing the long-invincible Cyborg, the latter’s first defeat since 2005.
The crowd’s roar was as sustained as it was loud, reminding this observer, who has been cageside for live MMA events since 2006, of legendary moments like Randy Couture coming out of retirement and defeating Tim Sylvia for the heavyweight title in Columbus in 2007; and Georges St-Pierre’s hometown welterweight title win over Matt Serra in Montreal in 2008.
This sort of reaction says the people are ready to embrace Nunes as a breakthrough star. Now it’s up to the UFC to make good on its second chance to push the greatest women’s mixed martial artist in the young sport’s history.
Make no mistake about it: The UFC thoroughly botched making Nunes a star the first time around in 2016. The company’s misfire with Nunes, in hindsight, was the first hint that maybe new UFC owner WME/Endeavor didn’t quite have a handle on the intricacies of its new product just yet.
Nunes won the bantamweight belt with a first-round submission victory over the popular Miesha Tate at UFC 200 in July 2016, the final event before the announcement of the company’s sale from Zuffa LLC to WME.
Her first title defense was a bout with Ronda Rousey at UFC 207 on Dec. 30, 2016. Rousey is a WME client, and in a rookie move, the company made Nunes all but invisible in the buildup to the fight, focusing all of the hype on the return of the transcendent, pioneering star.
The old regime wouldn’t have let this happen. There would have been plenty of hype for Rousey’s return, sure, but also with the understanding if Nunes won, which was a very real possibility, they’re going to have to run with Nunes moving forward. So Nunes would have gotten her fair share of publicity in the buildup of the fight.
Nunes made Rousey look like a rank amateur that night, chasing her from the sport with a 48-second TKO, and there was no Plan B. WME came across as petulant as its fallen star. WME is a titanic Hollywood agency, but it used none of its promotional muscle to get Nunes publicity following her title win.
Things got worse before they got better. Nunes pulled out of her UFC 213 title defense against Valentina Shevchenko the morning of the fight due to a chronic case of sinusitis. UFC president Dana White, as part of his ongoing, self-defeating habit of tearing down the champions who are supposed to drive his business (see: Woodley, Tyron), ripped into Nunes, questioned her heart and said she’d never headline another show.
“Never” turned out to be two months. Nunes vs. Shevchenko was rescheduled for UFC 215 in Edmonton, and was bumped up to headliner when the original main event of then-flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson vs. Ray Borg fell out two days prior. UFC 213 was a sellout and a success as a live event, but, surprise surprise, the general public didn’t go out of its way to buy Nunes as a headliner on pay-per-view just week’s after the person with the company’s biggest megaphone went out of his way to trash her.
UFC 215 did an estimated 100,000 PPV buys, one of the lowest numbers in the company’s modern history. It’s a number some critics — whose knowledge of the fight business has all the depth of a desert dry lake — have used to discredit Nunes. But those critics utterly lack context: Not only was Nunes hurt by her promoter’s ill-considered words, but UFC 215 was just two weeks after the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor boxing match. Millions of fight fans had just paid an extra-large sum of $100 a pop to watch the spectacle. No fight card was going to draw big numbers two weeks later, regardless who headlined.
But that was then and this is now. A fired-up White obviously senses he has a chance to start fresh with Nunes.
“This is the type of fight that builds legacies, and you realize, you have to find out who is the best in the world?” White said at the UFC 232 post-fight news conference. “We are able to do that tonight. It was an incredible fight, and, look at Amanda Nunes. You think Amanda Nunes isn’t going to be a star after this? I [expletive] guarantee it. I promise you that. The place went crazy for her.”
Great. Now, here’s White’s chance to back up his words. Let’s see WME/Endeavor use a smidgen of their muscle and take advantage of the buzz off Nunes’ victory. Nunes is a trailblazing, out LGBT athlete. Why not get her on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” where Rousey has appeared so often? Why not get Nunes out on an intensive promotional tour, as the company did under previous ownership after Holly Holm defeated Rousey in 2015?
Some fighters take longer to turn into stars than others. Anderson Silva is a beloved legend now. For the first half of his 2,457 days as middleweight champ, though, he was often consigned to two-title-fight double bills due to his lack of drawing power. But Silva kept finishing his opponents in exciting fashion, and his popularity grew.
Just like Nunes did with Rousey, Tate and Cyborg. The UFC shows plenty of old fights as shoulder programming in their TV deals. Getting Nunes’ biggest wins into rotation in their new ESPN deal would be a good first step.
And Nunes has a promotional tool all her own, if the UFC wants to go there: Let her defend both of her titles as long as she wants. Conor McGregor was stripped of his featherweight belt soon after winning the lightweight title. Daniel Cormier defended the heavyweight belt while also holding the light heavyweight title, but relinquished the latter ahead of the Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson rematch before the UFC could strip him.
But if Nunes can do what no fighter accomplished, regardless of gender, and go on a sustained run defending two UFC belts? That’s the stuff from which legends are made.
All the ingredients are there for Nunes to finally become a star. She has the résumé. She has the highlight reel of fantastic finishes. The Forum crowd let the UFC know the people are ready to accept her as a star.
Now it’s on the UFC to make good on its second chance.
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