There’s no doubt about it at this point. Amanda Nunes has had a legendary career, and no matter what happens from here, Nunes will be recognized as one of the greatest women’s mixed martial artists to ever step into the Octagon. That was proven at UFC 232 when Nunes finished Cris Cyborg not just in the first round, but after just a few exchanges of punches. The fight was an excellent opportunity for Nunes, one where a loss wouldn’t hurt her at bantamweight, her main weight class, and a win would cement her as one of the greats. But it’s unlikely that even Nunes herself expected the bout to go this well.
Now, there’s a new challenge in front of her. Defending one belt isn’t easy, defending two is even harder. American Top Team owner Dan Lambert thinks that Nunes can do it, however.
“The divisions aren’t quite as deep. It’s not necessarily that as important for a champion to defend their title ‘X’ number of times in a year in those two divisions, I think. I don’t see why she can’t keep them,” said Lambert.
On the surface, Lambert appears to be right. The women’s featherweight division is the smallest one in the UFC, and women’s bantamweight isn’t the deepest one either. But is defending two belts really a realistic goal?
The situation at featherweight
The UFC was going to run into a matchmaking problem at featherweight regardless of who won the Nunes versus Cyborg fight. The women’s featherweight division is small enough that it’s not even listed on the official UFC rankings page. Despite recent growth, it wasn’t long ago that you could list all of the members of the division on one hand. As far as finding a compelling fight for Nunes in the division in its current state, things don’t look that good.
Holly Holm only has a 2-2 record in her last four fights, and it’s debatable whether she would be a draw from a business perspective. Holm, after all, is known for being slow and methodical rather than flashy and aggressive. Additionally, she has a bantamweight fight against Aspen Ladd coming up in March, and continuing at bantamweight would make more sense than moving back up to featherweight if Holm wins there.
Megan Anderson was highly touted entering the UFC but it doesn’t seem like she’s ready for a title shot. She was easily handled by Holm in her debut and while she did win at UFC 232, the fight ended by technical knockout early in the first round due to her opponent, Cat Zingano, picking up an eye injury from a kick. Zingano was unable to continue, and the outcome isn’t one that will boost Anderson to a title shot.
Is Yana Kunitskaya a viable option? Maybe. But Kunitskaya’s last fight was at bantamweight, and she has another fight currently scheduled for March in the same division. Germaine de Randamie was the first champion in the division, but she doesn’t have the best reputation due to turning down a fight with Cyborg in the past, and it seems like De Randamie is settling for a move back down to bantamweight rather than trying to get her belt back.
It looks like, right now, there’s no obvious matchup to make at 145-pounds. A rematch with Cris Cyborg is possible, but Nunes herself doesn’t have interest in that matchup for at least two years. If Nunes defends this belt, it won’t be until someone steps up as a worthy challenger, and that might not be for a while.
The line of contenders at bantamweight
The women’s bantamweight division is more competitive than the featherweight one right now by far. Nunes has shown no intent to move up to featherweight full time, and her next fight will almost certainly be at 135-pounds.
Interestingly, some of the same names that are contenders at featherweights are also in the running here. Germaine de Randamie is the number one contender following her win over Raquel Pennington in November, and Holly Holm is right behind her. But are either of those fighters going to provide a serious challenge for Nunes?
De Randamie already lost to Nunes in 2013, and even in more recent years, she doesn’t have a lot of elite wins. While she defeated both Pennington and Holm, the decision in the Holm fight was anything but dominant and some even argued that Holm was the real winner. Nunes defeated De Randamie by technical knockout in their first fight, and the expectation would be for the second fight to also end with a knockout. It’s hard to make an argument that this matchup would be seriously competitive compared to other ones.
Holm could also be a potential opponent in a title fight, assuming she defeats Aspen Ladd. In a way, it makes sense. Holm is well known, and Nunes hasn’t fought her before. She’s also a former champion that has a marketable comeback story. Holm went on a three-fight losing streak in 2016 and 2017 and challenging for the title would complete a big reversal of form. Stylistically, her defensive fighting might frustrate Nunes, and could make the fight last much longer than Nunes’ last outing.
The last main contender is Ketlen Vieira, who is 10-0 and last defeated Cat Zingano. A fight between Nunes and Vieira, who is a black belt in both Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Judo, is one that fans want to see. But will the UFC throw Vieira into a fight with one of their top fighters so soon? From a business perspective, it looks unlikely that they would make such a move when Vieira is only #3 in the rankings and has two other contenders in front of her. Still, her grappling could pose a bigger challenge to the more striking-oriented Nunes.
Defending two belts
So can Nunes defend at both bantamweight and featherweight, and for how long? The answer at featherweight is likely yes. Cyborg wasn’t seriously challenged by anyone else in the division, and Nunes proved herself strong enough at the weight class to take Cyborg down in the opening minutes of their fight. At the moment it doesn’t look like any of the current featherweights are going to dethrone Nunes, except for maybe Cyborg herself.
An immediate rematch, however, likely doesn’t happen. Nunes herself has said that Cyborg will have to wait for a rematch, and forcing an early one isn’t in the UFC’s interest. After all, if Cyborg were to lose back to back fights to the same opponent, it would irreparably damage her star reputation. It looks like Nunes’ first title defense, and possibly the next couple after that, will be against opponents that aren’t the best suited for the weight class, or just aren’t on the same level.
It looks like the real challenge will come from the bantamweight division. Barring a major upset by Germaine de Randamie or Holly Holm, it looks like Nunes is going to defend there, too. At least until undefeated Ketlen Vieira potentially gets a chance to put her record on the line against the champion.
There’s no doubt about it. Out of all the main challengers, none of them particularly seem like major threats to cause an upset. It looks certain that Nunes is going to defend her belts. The main thing to be determined is how many title defenses Nunes will be able to achieve, which depends largely on the featherweight division and whether or not a worthy contender emerges from the current situation.
Sports writer and photographer in Buffalo, originally from Jersey. Fan first.