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Why it's so easy to root for Amanda Nunes, the UFC's unpretentious champ-champ

·Combat columnist
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LOS ANGELES — Amanda Nunes is a meticulous saver. After each fight, the UFC women’s bantamweight and featherweight champion makes sure to put a large chunk of her paycheck into a savings account.

She wants to be a mother someday and dutifully saves for her baby’s arrival.

Nunes grew up in extreme poverty in Brazil, and knows what it is like to go without. When she moved permanently to the U.S. to pursue a full-time MMA career, she was so broke that she had to live at the gym.

She’d mop the floors and clean the toilets in exchange for a bed and a roof over her head. But she had no money and never knew when she awoke in the morning if she’d be able to eat that day.

She so desperately wanted to fight, and believed in herself so completely, that it was worth the sacrifice. Her life began to change for the better after her 2014 loss to Cat Zingano, which made her just 3-3 in her last six fights.

It’s remarkable, knowing what has occurred over the last five years and how she’s regarded as the greatest women’s mixed martial artist of all-time, how tenuous her career was.

But she met her fiancee Nina Ansaroff immediately after the fight and eventually she moved to the American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida. Those two moves turned her life around and set her on a path to greatness.

“My social life became much better when I started training at American Top Team,” Nunes said. “I had time to do something else outside of the gym. The schedule really [allowed me] to live normally. I would go train and then outside the gym, I had my life. I never had that before.”

Nunes is proof that when elite athletes can wipe away the distractions and be happy and comfortable, greatness can follow.

Cat Zingano, right, and Amanda Nunes during their fight, Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014, in Las Vegas. Zingano won via TKO. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Cat Zingano (R) and Amanda Nunes during their fight, Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014, in Las Vegas. Zingano won via TKO. (AP Photo/John Locher)

She was 9-4 after being stopped by Zingano at 1:21 of the third round at UFC 178, a win that led Zingano to a title shot the next year against then-champion Ronda Rousey.

But it left Nunes struggling for answers. She didn’t speak the language. She had no money and no possessions other than a few clothes and her toothbrush.

She was so far below the poverty line that living at it would have seemed to her like she’d struck gold.

“I struggled the whole time and didn’t have money to eat,” Nunes said of her early days as a fighter in the U.S. “I had to depend upon people to give me food. I still talk to all those people today.”

It keeps her grounded and helps her to remember what is important. She’s going to defend her bantamweight crown on Saturday against Holly Holm in the co-main event of UFC 239 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas (10 p.m. ET, PPV).

She wants to have children and give them the life growing up that she didn’t have. She buys gifts after each fight, but her priority is to put her money away and save it for her children.

She’s learned from others who came into money for the first time as adults and were unable to discipline themselves on how to handle it.

“I really saw a lot of things going on with people who got a lot of money and then blew it all,” Nunes said. “I read books where they talk about these people blowing their money. I’ve always followed that. I’m not going to be that person that people talk about me like that. I didn’t have anything when I was young growing up and I had struggles in my life.

“But I’ve worked hard for this money that I have. I’m going to keep it and I’m going to save. I’m going to invest it very well. I want to have a family, and I have to have my baby’s money right to the side. I am taking care of my money very well. Nina helps me a lot.”

That’s why she’s so easy to root for. Despite her success, there is no pretense about her. Her entourage is Ansaroff and that’s it.

She’s down-to-earth, easygoing and doesn’t need designer clothes or expensive jewelry to make her happy.

One of the things she bought herself was a 32-foot RV, so that she and Ansaroff could explore the country. Nunes loves to get off the beaten path and see the world around her.

It doesn’t hurt that the RV also gives her a sense of anonymity.

Or, at least she thought it might. While there is a crush of cameras and reporters and autograph-seekers around her frequently at fight time, she’s discovered that her fame extends beyond the major population centers.

She drove once in the RV she purchased after her win over Cris “Cyborg” Justino in December at UFC 232 and told Ansaroff they’d be able to easily blend anonymously in the background and enjoy the solitude.

“I told Nina, ‘Nobody’s going to recognize me here,’” she said. “I threw my fishing line in the water and I heard, ‘Amanda!’ I was like, ‘No way!’”

That’s what happens when you knock out Cyborg in just 51 seconds and become one of only four fighters, along with Conor McGregor, Daniel Cormier and Henry Cejudo, to hold two weight-class titles at the same time in the UFC.

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 12:  (L-R) Amanda Nunes of Brazil and Holly Holm face off during the UFC Seasonal Press Conference inside State Farm Arena on April 12, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Amanda Nunes will defend her bantamweight title against former champ Holly Holm on Saturday in Las Vegas. (Getty Images)

The five greatest women’s MMA fighters ever are probably Nunes, Cyborg, Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate and Valentina Shevchenko. Nunes is 5-0 against that group and knocked out Cyborg and Rousey in less than a minute each.

But while she cried after beating Rousey because so little of the spotlight was on her and so much of it was on Rousey, she said beating Cyborg was her most notable victory.

“I feel the Cyborg fight was huge for me, for my body, for my brain, for my career,” she said. “I beat the most dominant woman on the planet. I became the most dominant woman on the planet. You look, in the lead-up to that fight, nobody wanted to fight that woman. Everybody was scared of that girl. I was always asking Nina, ‘Why are people scared of her?’

“Yeah, she’s powerful, but this is MMA. You’re supposed to be able to handle those challenges. … This is MMA. You’re not supposed to be scared of anything.”

Perhaps the only thing Nunes is afraid of is losing everything. But if she keeps fighting with the passion and intensity she has over the last four years, that will never be a worry, either.

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