Staff Predictions: Julianna Pena vs. Amanda Nunes 2 | UFC 277
A rematch of one of the biggest upsets in UFC history is this weekend’s main event at UFC 277.
Julianna Pena and Amanda Nunes will stand toe-to-toe again after Pena managed a stunning upset victory in December. Pena entered the title fight as a huge +700 betting underdog but was able to overwhelm Nunes in the second round before earning a submission win.
It was a shock defeat for Nunes, who is regarded as the greatest female mixed martial artist of all time. She’ll get a chance to reclaim the UFC Women’s Bantamweight Championship at UFC 277 on Saturday night. The event is a PPV exclusive, and that means fans must order the fights on ESPN+ to watch all of the action live.
Read on for our full staff predictions for Pena vs. Nunes 2, as well as the latest betting odds.
The former bantamweight champion will enter this fight as a big betting favorite again. This time, Nunes’ odds sit at -280 with MyBookie.
A rematch of the biggest upset in recent memory, if you asked most UFC fans just a few months ago how you expected a back-to-back series between Nunes and Pena to go, most would probably give you 2-0 on the side of the former champion. Now, however, not only is this not a possibility, but the big question “Is Juliana Pena, Amanda Nunes’ kryptonite?” is the main one circulating around UFC 277.
Skillswise, Amanda Nunes should be the more well-rounded fighter. She is a solid grappler, with Judo and top game jiu-jitsu as her primary style, which coupled with her size for 135lbs, usually allows her to dominate in very physical positions. What we saw the first time the two were matched up is an entire round which was almost completely dictated with Amanda Nunes in top position, although this has largely been overshadowed in many minds due to Pena stopping Nunes on the ground in round 2. Part of the reason for this is Nunes’ ability to hit reversals on takedown attempts, Pena did extremely well on the bottom, threatening with a kimura, and wrestling up from side control into a single leg attempt. The problem is on the end of every one of Pena’s counters, Nunes had the last move, in this case using Pena’s commitment to the takedown on the cage to hit a judo toss. Nunes is the more explosive grappler, which is, for the most part, what dictated who ended up on top at the end of grappling exchanges.
Pena did a great job of keeping her knees between the two of them whenever given space and attacking something every time there wasn’t any, meaning Nunes always had to address something before ground and pound could even be considered. Nunes’ grappling style is very bully-ish, she explodes into throws and trips and looks to push her way into submission territory or a strong mount to ground and pound immediately, whereas Pena tends to consistently throw up submission attacks or cut her way into mount and then win via constant pressure. This could, in part, explain why of the two women, Pena was much fresher in the second round.
On the feet, Nunes should also be the slicker of the two, although remember she took the brunt of the exchanges in round 2. The biggest weapon of success was her low calf kicks which took Pena off her feet a couple of times in the opening minutes, and she didn’t seem like she had an answer for them. Pena stands heavy on the lead leg, both to shoot and because she tends to box rather than kickbox. Once Nunes got too hungry and began to headhunt is when the tides turned. Both ladies actually punch in a similar fashion, throwing over the shoulder and over their opponent’s guard, but when both exchanged like this, it was Pena’s jab that made it to the target quickest, allowing for a cleaner follow-up shot.
This is a strange fight to predict, as the ending was so clear cut, yet it defied so many odds. On paper, Nunes should still be the more skilled fighter, and watching the fight, this is evident when the two women are completely fresh. It’s Pena’s pressure and grittiness that allowed her to win out the dog fight in the middle and ultimately sink in the choke, but as to why Nunes wasn’t able to maintain her gas tank for even two rounds is still a question. I believe part of it was style, and the other part ego. She exploded more in round one, but she also didn’t take her foot off the gas in round two even when she was getting tagged, similar to the classic fight between Georges St. Pierre and Matt Serra at UFC 69, it was so unfathomable that the champ could lose this way, why would they back up? I think Nunes is going to come in with a new preparedness in her cardio, as well as a more measured approach, appreciation for her opponent, and a more technical gameplan, largely based on those leg kicks and tagging from a step further out.
Pick: Amanda Nunes to win (-280 odds at MyBookie)
I’ll be the first to raise my hand and admit that I was flat-out wrong when predicting the first fight between Pena and Nunes. I did not believe Pena could be the David that toppled Amanda’s Goliath. But, I was wrong; Pena shocked the world, the oddsmakers, and the former champion when she overcame adversity to secure a second-round submission finish of Nunes. Now, in their rematch, the odds and subsequent expectations are much closer.
Re-watching their first fight, I underestimated Pena’s toughness. Not some intangible Rocky-like ability to will herself to a win, but rather, Pena’s willingness to stand and trade on the feet and when in a bad position, Pena’s willingness to risk a worse position to look for an escape. Pena showcased toughness in these exchanges but also an intelligent game plan. What ultimately cleared the path for the upset was Pena depleting Nunes’ cardio. Pena was able to weaponize her cardio through her toughness and willingness to do what others haven’t- eat shots and roll for submissions on the mat. Then, once tired, Pena’s wild and looping but effective striking baited Nunes into a brawl. Both women landed clean, powerful, and nearly fight-ending blows. Neither woman was willing to take her head off the center line and, instead, planted and threw. Pena’s left hand, her jab, and lead hook were the difference makers. Once Nunes’ was in the brawl with depleting cardio, she dropped her right hand and stopped moving her head. Then Pena teed off with her left, over and over, until she hurt Nunes enough to get her down and choke her out. Pena’s edge in cardio, brawls, and sheer will propelled her to a victory, just like so many of her previous fights.
In round 1, Nunes looked like the typical champion we’ve seen so many times before. Her power, intelligence, footwork, wrestling, and experience were on full display. She was calculated and aggressive, throwing the right strike at the right time and landing with serious power. Her trademark leg kick and overhand right combination cracked Pena early, and her top game smothered Pena for several minutes. In round 1, Nunes knocked Pena down twice, landed one takedown, and recorded two submission attempts. With the damage and control time, Nunes’ first round was nearly a 10-8. After round 1, though, Nunes fought recklessly and, candidly, like a challenger rather than a champion. Prior to Pena, no other contender has been able to withstand the power of Nunes and keep going. Pena not only withstood the power but was able to throw heat back that stunned and eventually dropped Nunes. Rather than resetting, going back to her jab and leg kick, and taking control of the fight, Nunes hunted the finish. She landed several shots that nearly dropped Pena, but Pena’s chin held up. Uncharacteristically, once Nunes’ cardio was gone, so was her well-rounded game. Nunes became a one-note power puncher that Pena’s combination of awkward but powerful striking and slick submissions had no problem defeating. Nunes fought the perfect fight, a brawl, for Pena to win, and Pena capitalized on it. To regain her title, Nunes will need to fight the way she has her whole career, with the unique combination of deadly finishing ability but high-level fight IQ.
In the rematch, Pena will likely look to fight the same way. Why change it? She beat a woman many, myself included, thought to be unbeatable. Pena will likely take the center of the octagon, fight with more confidence than before, stand and throw with Nunes early, and look to force another brawl. If Nunes goes into the rematch with the wrong mindset, the mindset that she needs to put Pena’s lights out, we’ll likely see a repeat of the first matchup. But, if Nunes goes in calmly and fights a tactful fight, Nunes is more than well-rounded, dangerous, and skilled enough to get her belt back. Interestingly, almost all of Nunes wins either end in round 1 or go the distance, and since I don’t anticipate Nunes coming out too aggressively and I expect Pena’s chin to continue to hold up, I’m expecting this fight to go to the judges. In that situation, Nunes will need to fight behind her jab, be defensively sound, and wrestle intelligently for the win. I’m expecting to see a fight similar to Nunes’ fight against Spencer, another tough-as-nails fighter who weaponizes cardio and can win brawls. Look for Nunes to fight behind her jab and leg kick early, wrestle if she gets in trouble, and win a decision.
Pick: Amanda Nunes by decision (+330 odds at MyBookie)
It is difficult to look past the last fight when assessing Pena v Nunes 2, as neither fighter has fought since one of the largest upsets in UFC history. So, rather than choosing to completely ignore or entirely focus on the first fight, I will do my best to learn from the most recent bout while understanding the rematch will likely take a different shape.
The largest anticipated difference will stem from the now challenger, Amanda Nunes. In her last bout, Amanda showed a poor gas tank and, more surprisingly, an ability to get overwhelmed by pressure. Improving her gas tank will certainly be her main, and I foresee said focus accompanied by her staying in the bantamweight – as opposed to moving up to featherweight as she has frequently done between her bantamweight bouts – will greatly aid in her gas tank being better than it was last time around. With the perceived belief, I further anticipate Amanda handling the pressure of her opponent far better than last time, as she lacked the cardio necessary to implement footwork, and quite frankly, I believe Amanda lacked the preparation, given very few women have the guts to confidently enter range whereby Amanda can land herself.
If the necessary changes are implemented, Amanda does have the skills necessary to win the bout. This statement does not need to be said, but I do feel it is important to repeat the obvious, as many people write off fighters who have an unexpected blunder. So, while it may seem obvious to state that Amanda is the most dangerous fighter to stand against given her power accompanied by her having the grappling necessary to keep the fight standing – so long as her cardio allows – I do believe it needs repeating given doubt looms over her until proven otherwise.
While Amanda’s doubt is somewhat justified, given she did, in fact, lose her last time around, the doubt over Pena is perhaps unwarranted and even disrespectful. While I understand the doubt is far more geared towards people believing Amanda had the worst night of her life, thus allowing her opponent, Julianna Pena, to earn the victory, I do ultimately believe props should be awarded to Pena for showcasing a hole in the GOAT’s armor.
Pena shocked the world by having a combination of unadulterated confidence in herself mixed with a fantastic game plan. The latter is important to analyze as I foresee this game plan being far more difficult to implement in this fight, as the core of the said plan was rooted in surprise. The interesting part of the surprise was not unique strikes or antics, rather, surprising Amanda by putting forth immediate, rapid pressure.
Using consistent forward pressure while throwing in relentless combination allowed Pena to weaponize her cardio on the feet – quite unique to do. While the strikes lacked significant power, the frequency of strikes chipped away at the durability of Amanda, and thus, allowed her to greater increase the probability of getting it to the mat. Once there, Pena was able to implement perhaps her best skillset, her submission game. I say perhaps rather than absolute best skillset because Pena has lost via submission twice in her career and has 5 of 12 wins by submission (a good but not staggering number), but I do believe Pena has turned a corner on the mat of recent note given her last two fights were finished by submission, and she looked great while there. In total, while Pena lacks the high-end skills of Amanda, she has proven she can beat anyone, thus, making her a legitimate threat in the octagon.
It is quite interesting that the unknown commodity in this fight is the former two-division champion and likely GOAT of female MMA, Amanda Nunes. This is because she looked nothing like herself last time around, so the question looms whether her last fight showcased her entering her glory years as a fighter or if her last fight was merely an anomaly. Given Amanda’s lack of adversity up to that point accompanied by bouncing around divisions taking a toll on her body, I am in the camp that the performance seen in her last fight will not be seen in this.
Ultimately, I anticipate Amanda will enter the octagon with respect and a more measured approach. Meanwhile, I anticipate Pena coming into the octagon with more to lose, thus not fighting with the same “carefree attitude” she had in her last fight, which I believe greatly aided in her success. Because of this dual anticipation, I expect Amanda to put forth a dominant performance in the same fashion she has in nearly every one of her 16 UFC fights.
Pick: Amanda Nunes to win inside the distance (-120 odds at MyBookie)
Michael Pounders is a high school English Teacher, a boxer himself, and is a fan who loves, gambles on, and nerds out about all things MMA.