UFC 232 had a lot of the worst kinds of chaos mixed martial arts produces. The entire event was moved to Los Angeles on less than a week’s notice, resulting in thousands of deserted Las Vegas fans. Longtime favorites B.J. Penn and Carlos Condit continued spiraling downward. Cat Zingano took a toe across the eyeball. Mercy was largely absent.
So it was refreshing, maybe even exhilarating, to bear witness to the best the sport can produce as well. Amanda Nunes, the often-forgotten champion, threw caution to the wind to face off against the seemingly indestructible Cris “Cyborg” Justino, and then did the unthinkable. Nunes, who finished off Ronda Rousey in the blink of an eye in 2016, took down her second legend in similarly dominant fashion. The two fighters largely seen as the most dominant forces women’s MMA has ever seen were hardly competition for her. Rousey: 48 seconds; Cyborg: 51 seconds; total time: 99 seconds. It takes longer than that to make the bed!
That stunning achievement, coupled with a series of other impressive wins such as Miesha Tate and Valentina Shevchenko, place Nunes at the top as the greatest female fighter MMA has seen, a position few could have predicted as recently as five years ago.
Few remember it now, but when Nunes signed with the UFC in 2013, she was not looked upon as an obvious future champion. Though talented, she had exhibited inconsistent performances, flashing powerful striking alongside conditioning issues. Those struggles had led to losses in two of her three fights before entering the Octagon. Within three fights, she failed again, finished by Cat Zingano after fading late.
It was after that loss that Nunes moved to American Top Team, a shift that has paid dividends by recalibrating her style by adding some patience to her ferocity. Her athletic gifts had always been obvious, but once properly harnessed, they quickly became lethal.
Still, dominating her division is a far cry from facing the fearsome Cyborg, who herself had retooled her game in recent years to pull back on her aggression in favor of a more clinical approach. While Cyborg was once known for a wild, berserker style, she had seemingly morphed into a patient sniper. With the two essentially mirroring each other, the conventional wisdom was that Cyborg’s size and power advantage would win out.
As it turns out, Cyborg thought too highly of her size and power advantage, eschewing her recent changes to initiate a firefight. It seemed as though she did not believe Nunes could hurt her. Cyborg has spent so much time mauling her way through the featherweight division that perhaps she cannot be blamed for such a belief. After all, when is the last time she has been wobbled or hurt? The talent pool has simply not offered her many significant challenges through her reign of terror. Meanwhile, Nunes has been sharpening herself against the cream of the bantamweight crop.
In a firefight, speed and accuracy is the thing, and Nunes had it. Cyborg’s long and wide punches were intercepted by counter fire. This alone is impressive. Few fighters carry an aura like Cyborg, who has had some of the most violent finishes in MMA. It is not easy to execute while in her crosshairs, yet Nunes had little trouble doing so.
She dropped Cyborg with an overhand, then dropped her to a knee with another seconds later, then did it again, then rocked her against the fence with a right/left combo, then put her away with a walk-off right hand. It was calm, poised, clinical.
In the event post-fight press conference, Cyborg said her corner told her that Nunes got lucky, punching with her eyes closed, but that is nonsense. (And to Cyborg’s defense, she mentioned that she had not yet rewatched the fight so was going on their report). Nunes stayed in the pocket and traded and won. She hit faster and harder, and when she had the invincible Cyborg in trouble, she was unrelenting.
“She’s the best ever,” UFC president Dana White said. “How can you deny it? That’s what this fight was for, to find out. But if you look at her resume, she’s the best ever.”
While admittedly, major women’s MMA is still fairly new, Nunes is the queen. Looking backward just a few scant years ago, who saw it coming? First Rousey was the golden girl, and then Holly Holm had a moment, and then it all came around back to Cyborg, and Nunes was always on the periphery, an excellent fighter on the outside looking in. Yet a short time later here we are, her having defeated WMMA’s most celebrated and most dominating fighters, and even stealing the night from the men’s G.O.A.T.
So UFC 232 was something, huh? It featured a lot of the worst of MMA, but it also featured some of the best. In the city of stars, Amanda Nunes shined the brightest.