UFC 289: Amanda Nunes switched on 'Lioness' mode after signing contract for title defense vs. Irene Aldana

UFC 289: How Amanda Nunes activated 'Lioness' mode

In the movie Air, about Nike’s courtship of Michael Jordan, Sonny Vaccaro tells the Jordan family in one memorable scene how, after a superstar reaches the top, there is this desire to then tear them down.

And that’s kind of where it seems that UFC double champion Amanda Nunes finds herself.

On Saturday at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, in the main event of UFC 289, Nunes will defend her women’s bantamweight title against Irene Aldana. Nunes is 22-5 in her MMA career and has finished 17 of those 22 wins.

She didn’t just beat, she obliterated a pair of legends, Ronda Rousey and Cris “Cyborg” Justino, in a combined time of 99 seconds.

She has a 7-1 record against former UFC champions, avenging that loss when she regained the belt from Julianna Peña at UFC 277 on July 30 in Dallas, Texas.

She’s 10-1 in UFC championship fights and she’s finished five of her 10 title-fight victories in the first round.

“Amanda is an amazing talent,” Aldana said of Nunes.

And yet, despite everything, there is a notion that Nunes isn’t the same as she once was. UFC president Dana White did an interview with ESPN last year before UFC 275 in Singapore. He was speaking of how rich Nunes has become off of her fight career and said, “She is not that hungry savage she was when she started to take this run at becoming a world champion.”

Anthony Smith, the light heavyweight contender and highly regarded broadcast analyst/podcaster, said on "The MMA Hour" he thought it was time for Nunes to retire.

He wasn’t urging her to retire but rather pointed out there’s not much more to be done once you’ve hit the top of the mountain.

“Is it weird that, at times, I look forward to Amanda Nunes’ retirement?” Smith said. “It’s a very weird sentiment I have. Sometimes when I see her in these fight weeks, in these interviews, and she’s dragged her whole family there, and then she gets in and she fights — sometimes I almost feel bad for her.

“Like, just go enjoy your life, and just go have fun. Like, stop doing all this s***. Because a lot of times she doesn’t seem to always enjoy it that much.”

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA - JUNE 06:  Amanda Nunes of Brazil poses during a First Nations Welcoming Ceremony at Musqueam Community on June 06, 2023 in Vancouver, British Columbia. (Photo by Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC)
UFC women's bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes is -320 to defeat Irene Aldana Saturday in their title fight in the main event of UFC 289 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia. (Jeff Bottari/Getty Images)

There has been plenty of discussions online about the possibility of her walking away from the sport she has ruled for so long.

In a conversation with Yahoo Sports, though, Nunes shrugged off such talk.

“I love what I do and I love everything that goes into it,” she said. “I love training. I love fight week, all the activities and the interviews and the things we do. And I still love to [fight]. You put in all of this hard work to prepare and get yourself to a certain point, and that’s the reward, the fight. I love it.”

Nunes is as easy-going out of the Octagon as she is violent inside of it. Peña seems to rub her the wrong way, so Nunes doesn’t have a lot good to say about her, but she’s otherwise mostly positive and upbeat.

She intimated she looked past Peña, which she said cost her the championship, but said the moment she signed the contract to fight Aldana she turned from Amanda into “The Lioness.”

“When you get to this level, you don’t see easy opponents,” she said. “Maybe, there are some whose style is a little more difficult for you than someone else, but when you’re at the championship level, all you are seeing is highly talented and motivated opponents. Irene has a lot of talent and I know she’s motivated to win this belt. There are a lot of fighters from her country [of Mexico] who have done it [and won UFC titles] and I know she wants to join them.

“But I am not going to give this belt up. I worked so hard for it and I sacrificed a lot of things to get this. I’m as [prepared] and hungry as I have ever been.”

She was asked at UFC 289 media day Wednesday about her comments after the loss to Peña that she would consider retiring. She reiterated what she told Yahoo Sports, that she was fully engaged and not planning to retire.

But it’s an emotional sport and unexpectedly losing takes a toll. Mike Babcock, who led Team Canada to gold medals in Olympic hockey in 2010 and 2014 behind the play of Sidney Crosby, referred to Crosby as “a serial winner.”

That’s probably a great way to describe Nunes, who manages to find different ways to win against the best opposition in the sport.

“I love what I do and I love to compete,” she told Yahoo Sports. “The competition really drives me. These girls, like Irene, are coming to take something I have that I’ve worked so hard for. And so it pushes me and I have this desire to prove to anyone who doubts me, 'I’m Amanda. I’m still here. And I’m going to do this.'"

She’s human, and she’s had a few hiccups along the way, but it’s largely been a decade of greatness.

Anyone who doubts her does so at the risk of being made to look foolish.