The longest of odds: How Amanda Nunes rose from an impoverished Brazilian town to UFC champion

From one of the poorest little towns in one of the poorest states in one of the poorest countries on earth, a place where the future is rarely worth dreaming about, Amanda Nunes wasn’t shy about sharing hers.

“One day I am going to leave here,” she’d tell anyone who would listen and plenty that wouldn’t. “I am going to visit the USA and I am going to live there.”

Such a thing required the longest of odds. Pojuca, Brazil, tucked into the farmlands of the country’s northeast, is home, too often, to poverty, inequality, hunger, drugs, crime, kidnappings, abuse, illiteracy, child labor and general misery.

“Most of the kids I grew up with [have] died already,” Nunes said. “Drugs. A couple of them were able to do some things, but most of them already died. That is what is sad. Drugs and things like that.”

It is from this place that one of the world’s most dominant athletes rose.

Amanda Nunes would not just visit the USA and not just live in the USA — settling in South Florida. She would conquer the Ultimate Fighting Championship, earn millions, pioneer for her race, gender and sexuality, headline international pay per views, star in a beer commercial, and, just recently, even become a parent herself.

She’s managed to do it all with a publicly cheery attitude, at least outside the Octagon, that belies the ferocity, muscle and skill she unleashes inside of it.

Saturday she will co-headline UFC 259, looking to defend her featherweight championship and extend her 11-fight, six-year win streak. She is, not surprisingly, a massive favorite against Australian Megan Anderson: -1100 at BetMGM.

Nunes is the best female mixed martial artist of all time, having defeated, often handedly, Miesha Tate, Cris Cyborg, Ronda Rousey, Holly Holm and others. If anything, boredom is her greatest opponent now. She even hinted at retirement last year despite being just 32.

It would be unfortunate if that’s what it took for Nunes to be fully appreciated. Among female athletes, if not of any gender, only gymnast Simone Biles can boast of greater dominance (and it’s an argument).

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 04: Amanda Nunes of Brazil poses during the UFC 259 press conference at UFC APEX on March 04, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Amanda Nunes of Brazil poses during the UFC 259 press conference at UFC APEX on March 04, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Nunes doesn’t work in women’s sports, per se. She works in the UFC, where male and female fighting are completely integrated, with major fight cards switching from one to the other and fans no less enthusiastic or entertained. Nunes’ quick submission of Tate in 2016 was the main event of the company’s signature UFC 200 card.

Yet among many mainstream media and fans, women’s MMA is either wholly ignored or written off due to the career arc of Rousey, who turned the sport into a sensation only to be exposed against improved competition. Of course, one of those exposures came at the hands of Nunes, who sent Rousey in retirement courtesy of a 48-second annihilation.

Rousey received all of the scorn. Nunes almost none of the credit.

Nunes never let up though. Years later she is still dominating, still defying the odds out of Pojuca.

“I was the only one to be able to get my dream come true,” Nunes said. “I am the only famous person … [It’s one reason why] I always remember my city, always remember what it was like growing up.”

Much of that centered around her mother, Ivete, an indomitable figure who grew up on nearby farms and worked two and three jobs to raise Amanda and her two sisters as a single mother.

“She is a strong woman,” Nunes said. “That is where my toughness comes from. I know we were poor but she made sure me and my sisters had food, clothes for school, the necessities.”

Fighting was in the family blood. Nunes’ uncle was prominent in Vale Tudo, a sort-of no-holds barred style of fighting that would take place mostly in the streets in Brazil. Ivete would work her brother’s corner and learned pre-fight intimidation is a huge advantage, a lesson eventually embraced by her daughter.

Amanda was a talented athlete, first in soccer before her mother and a sister steered her to combat sports — capoeira, jiu jitsu, Judo. In Pojuca and later the nearby city of Salvador, she was a popular member of the gym despite often being the only female. The boys respected her work ethic and determination, not to mention her near flawless jiu jitsu record.

One day Nunes decided she wanted to train in MMA, a chance to combine all her training. “It was more exciting, more challenging. I remember thinking, ‘I found my sport.’ ”

Women’s MMA was a fledgling concept at the time — a female training in it at a male gym even more unusual. Yet Nunes had so proven herself and her work ethic that the coaches and other fighters welcomed the trailblazer. “I had tremendous support,” she said.

Amanda Nunes, right, connects with Ronda Rousey in the first round of their women's bantamweight championship mixed martial arts bout at UFC 207, Friday, Dec. 30, 2016, in Las Vegas. Nunes won the fight after it was stopped in the first round. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Amanda Nunes, right, finished Ronda Rousey in just 48 seconds in their 2016 fight. (AP)

Meanwhile, her mother was relentless in trying to steer her away from the innumerable dangers that could derail not just her budding career but her life in Brazil.

“My mom was always honest with me,” Nunes said. “She always told me the good and the bad things about the world and life. And I trusted her and trusted the good things. Follow the good way and to be a good person.

“I don’t want to say I was scared of my mother, I was respectful,” Nunes continued. “She was concerned about what was going to happen. I was always scared to do something that she wouldn’t like.”

In 2008, she turned pro. By 2013, she was in the UFC and soon overwhelmed everything. She’s forever seeking a rival who would stick. Rousey never stood a chance. Cyborg and Holm didn’t last a round. Now 32, she’s run through both the bantam and featherweight divisions.

Five months ago, Nunes and her fiancee, fellow UFC fighter Nina Ansaroff, had a daughter Raegan Ann. Now Nunes’ social media accounts aren’t just menacing poses or impressive workouts, but beaming family pictures.

“She’s amazing,” Nunes says beamingly.

She promises to instill discipline and life lessons in Raegan, but on this subject, the toughest woman on earth doesn’t sound so tough.

“I’ll probably be a little softer than my mother,” she says with a laugh.

Amanda Nunes is still dreaming while living the dream. This time is not just for herself, but for her daughter.

Her goal Saturday is to finish Anderson quickly and then enjoy the moment with her child and fiancee; the latest first in an astounding life lived a long, long way from where and how it all began.

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