How the UFC's mighty have fallen -- at the hands of Amanda Nunes
Amanda Nunes winds black wrap around her wrists and palms and between her fingers as she prepares to step into the cage. A 20-foot poster from UFC 200 -- the night Nunes defeated Miesha Tate to capture the bantamweight belt -- hangs on the wall over her shoulder. Photos of her delivering blows in the octagon decorate the walls of American Top Team (ATT) in Coconut Creek, Florida.
She laughs and chats in Portuguese with some passers-by as a pro wrestling class begins in the center of ATT, Nunes' training home for the past three years. Olympic gold medalist and Professional Fighters League star Kayla Harrison and UFC strawweight contender Tecia Torres are two of the many celebrities in the building. It's three weeks before the 31-year-old Nunes is scheduled to face Holly Holm at Saturday's UFC 239 in Las Vegas. Her fight camp is winding down, and intrigue is ramping up.
Her striking coach, Vitelmo Katel Kubis, hangs a black sheet around the front edges of ATT's practice octagon. He strings a yellow chain across the back. It's a clear message: Halt, champ practice in session.
The tattoo sleeve on Nunes' right arm catches the light as she slips behind the chain. The sleeve is a recent addition. The first woman to own UFC belts in two different weight classes has a tattoo of the Nintendo-famed Mario character on her left calf -- she loves the Mario Kart video game franchise -- and a key on her left forearm. Above the key is a 200 for her first belt and a larger 232 for her second. Her partner, UFC strawweight Nina Ansaroff, has a lock on her forearm and matching 200 plus 232 tattoos. Nunes has gotten all of the tats, except for the lioness on the back of her shoulder, since she defended her belt by defeating Ronda Rousey in December 2016.
"Everything," Nunes says, "has changed."
The fight game thrives on mythos, and Nunes, the reigning bantamweight and featherweight champion, has crafted her own from the mighty falls of her discarded foes. Tate. Rousey. Cris Cyborg. No other fighter in the history of the women's division of the UFC has dispatched so many legends. She even has beaten the reigning flyweight champion, Valentina Shevchenko, twice. A fighter's reputation is her brand and livelihood. Rousey and Cyborg were thought to be invincible. Nunes is known to be dominant.
"She's willing to fight the best," UFC president Dana White says. "She doesn't just beat them. She destroys them."
If she beats the 37-year-old former champ, Nunes will have defeated every person to ever touch the women's bantamweight belt. If there were ever a claim to being the best female fighter in the history of the UFC, that would be a good one. A win against Holm also would put Nunes two title defenses away from matching Rousey's record of six.
Nunes is already in an elite club: She is one of four "champ champs," owners of a belt in more than one weight class, in the history of UFC. Conor McGregor, Daniel Cormier and Henry Cejudo are also members. None of the champ champs has ever successfully defended both titles. Nunes hopes to be the first.
"I want to keep my belts home," Nunes says. "I want to keep being the champ champ."
Near the practice octagon, camouflage spandex peek out from underneath Nunes' pink training shorts. The pattern, she says, reminds her of trees, plants and the comfort of being outside. She spent her childhood playing in a river and picking fruits at the tops of trees in her Brazilian hometown outside of Salvador, Bahia. "I grew up in the jungle," she says.
Nunes moved to New Jersey in 2010 to "follow her dream" of becoming an MMA champion. She relocated to Florida a few years later and moved into an apartment complex next door to ATT. Ansaroff swears the place was overpriced for a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment. Now they have a home about 20 minutes from the gym. They're renovating the master bedroom and kitchen. "The two rooms we use the most," Ansaroff says.
Nunes recently got her truck painted tan and put in a new hydraulic suspension. She no longer wants for money. For someone who once lived in a gym, that's a big change. "I came to this country with 20 dollars in my pocket," Nunes says.
Being a champion -- especially one with a growing profile -- means more money. She was paid $100,000 plus a $50,000 performance bonus for UFC 200. Against Cyborg at UFC 232, Nunes pocketed $350,000 plus another $50,000 bonus. With the UFC's sponsorship deal with Reebok, every time Nunes steps into the cage, she gets $40,000, the maximum amount under the deal reserved for champions. It's not the $3 million the UFC paid Rousey at UFC 207, but $400,000 is a far cry from what she made on her first fight.
After most fights, Nunes likes to return home to Brazil to spend time with her family. She will stay as long as her schedule allows, often for weeks at a time. "She wants to go back to her house with the chickens and her pig and to put her feet on the soil," her head coach, Conan Silveira, says. "A lot of people would get lost on the way up. They lose their focus because it's a lot of lights."
It's tempting to point to the truck, the house, the tattoos and the money as examples of how Nunes could be distracted by her newfound fortune. Her truck might have a new coat of paint and a fancy new suspension, but it's the same Ford F-150, camouflage seats and all.
"I want to be a normal human," Nunes says. "A people's champion."
After beating Cyborg in December, Nunes told a Brazilian news outlet that she considered retiring. She has since recanted. In a recent interview with ESPN's Brett Okamoto, Nunes said she had been a bit intoxicated for that previous interview. At ATT, she admitted that things had changed within the bantamweight division.
"I thought about retiring because the division kind of stopped," Nunes says. "But having [Germaine] de Randamie and Aspen Ladd will determine the next contender."
Nunes doesn't retreat from the community around her. Between answering questions, fighters and visitors pass by to say hello. She greets each one of them. A guy comes by and offers her a sweet treat, a little ball of chocolate. She waves him off. "I'm on a diet," she says.
She could easily withdraw and choose to train in solitude. But by being present in the gym, by interacting with others, she stays grounded rather than staying in her head. That's her edge.
"When you hide yourself, you keep all the pressure for you," Nunes says.
Nunes' carefree smiles and banter give way to the focused violence of a champion whose job it is to put challengers on the floor. The noise of her fists hitting Kubis' pads reverberates like a deep bass in the practice octagon.
She knocked out Rousey and Cyborg, each in less than a minute. It was a display of pummeling fury unmatched in women's MMA. Nunes' ability to stand up and exchange strikes is what makes her so fun to watch. Kubis absorbs each blow and allows his body to fall into the fencing. At one point, his feet get caught up, and a punch from Nunes almost sends him to the floor. He laughs as he trots away from her to reset. It's clear why no one wants to be on the receiving end of a Nunes punch. She'll take you right out.
"It's not just me," Kubis says. "It's her training partners, as well."
Nunes walks over to get a drink of water. Kubis and Nunes' training partner help the fighter into a banded belt. Kubis wraps it around her waist and then hooks in each of her feet before strapping in her wrists. Every step, punch, and kick will now come with a tug of resistance.
Nunes has been criticized for her conditioning throughout her UFC career. The last time she lost a fight -- at UFC 178 in 2014 against Cat Zingano -- she faded after a good start and was knocked out. The first time she fought Shevchenko, similar criticism was thrown at her even though she won. "I intentionally made her train for five rounds in the camp," Silveira says of his strategy before the second Shevchenko fight. "I really wanted to display her as a fighter that is able to fight one, two, three, four [rounds], whatever is necessary for her to keep her position."
Nunes isn't just a knockout artist who will stand on her feet and put someone on the floor in less than a minute. She's tactical. She can go to the ground. She can go for five rounds.
When Silveira first started paying attention to Nunes, the UFC was beginning to build out its women's division. (In 2012, as a result of the forthcoming dissolution of their sister organization Strikeforce, the UFC announced it would be adding women fighters to its roster for the first time in the promotion's history.) "If it wasn't exactly 2013, it was pretty much in the beginning," Silveira says. Nunes, he noticed, already was a well-rounded fighter. She grew up playing multiple sports but started Brazilian jiu-jitsu and boxing as a teenager. By the time she started rising up the MMA ranks, she already had a solid foundation.
"She was good everywhere," Silveira says. "It's hard to see a fighter that's a complete fighter. Usually, they are good playing one instrument but are not as good playing different instruments. But she's even better than before."
It will be intriguing to see what "instrument" Nunes chooses for Holm, a champion boxer who also is dangerous with her kicks (see the head kick that knocked out Rousey at UFC 193 as evidence). Nunes has proved she can stand and exchange punches with anyone, but she also is a skilled grappler; she just hasn't won via submission since she choked out Tate to take the bantamweight belt three years ago.
What makes Holm particularly dangerous is that she has nothing to lose. Since defeating Rousey at UFC 193, Holm is 2-4. She is coming off a decision win against Megan Anderson. A win against Nunes would give Holm a second chance at UFC stardom; she would be the greatest spoiler in women's MMA history after ending dominant runs of both Rousey and Nunes.
"She's there to take a personal thing from Amanda," Silveira says. "It's through business, but it's personal."
For her second workout of the day, Nunes runs on the treadmill. With her hair pulled back in a bun and wireless headphones on her ears, her feet pound against the tread. A camera points at her, and another man stretches a long microphone toward her. She is being filmed for UFC Destined, a show that airs on ESPN+ and features fighters in the lead-up to pay-per-view matchups.
The cameras will be there for two more days, following Nunes around. Being filmed for UFC Destined is emblematic of the changed relationship between Nunes and the UFC. With Nunes' first title defense coming against Rousey, and that fight being Rousey's first since her loss to Holm, that meant almost all of the promotion of the fight centered on Rousey's return. Nunes worked hard to become the champion, but the fight was effectively about the challenger. That stung, even if the challenger was Ronda Rousey. "It was disrespectful," Silveira says.
Two years later, almost to the day, Nunes knocked out Cyborg in 51 seconds to capture her second championship belt. Nunes ran right over to White and shook his hand. The cameras had barely been turned off for the night before he was saying that Nunes was the greatest female fighter ever.
What once was a tense relationship has since blossomed into a friendship. A couple of years ago, White took Nunes and Ansaroff out to dinner at Bazaar Meat by Jose Andres in Las Vegas. White and Nunes hit it off. "I love her personally and would do anything for her," White says. "There are people who fight here that I wouldn't go to f---ing breakfast with, let alone dinner."
When White placed the two belts on Nunes' shoulders in the aftermath of her defeat of Cyborg at UFC 232, Nunes ran around the octagon in unbridled joy. She jumped into Silveira's arms, clinging to both belts. "At that moment, you really want to share it with people who worked and believed with you," Nunes says. "I hugged everyone in my corner that night. We did it together."
Hanging above Nunes' fireplace are five championship belts. Every time she successfully defends her title, she adds another one to her mantle. Regardless of what happens against Holm, those belts and what Nunes has accomplished in the past 2½ years can't be erased.
She has won eight consecutive fights. She is the only woman other than Rousey to defend the women's bantamweight title successfully.
"I've proved I'm the best," Nunes says. "I'm going to keep proving it."