No GOAT, now what? Resetting the MMA landscape without Amanda Nunes

Amanda Nunes announces retirement after dominant win at UFC 289 (1:21)

Amanda Nunes leaves her belts and gloves in the Octagon after announcing her retirement from fighting at UFC 289. (1:21)

Amanda Nunes sat on the postfight news conference dais for one last time with her two belts on either side of her Saturday night in Vancouver.

It's rare for an all-time great MMA fighter to retire at the top of their game. Georges St-Pierre did it, but then he returned four years later only to step away again after winning a second title. Henry Cejudo did it, but then he returned three years later and is still active. Khabib Nurmagomedov did it, and it seems like his retirement will stick where others' have not.

Nunes joined that group at UFC 289. After dominating Irene Aldana for five rounds, the greatest women's MMA fighter of all time announced she was done. She got both of her titles, laid them on the Octagon floor and put her gloves there with them.

With Nunes gone, those UFC women's bantamweight and featherweight titles will be vacant. The rankings will have new No. 1s across the board. Addressing that on the stage afterward, Nunes said something that might have come off as cocky if it weren't so real.

"[The next champion] is going to be the fake one," Nunes said. "It's going to be fake forever. Whoever gets the belt now is going to just be pretending to have it. I'm gone."

Nunes beat 11 women who had been champions in the sport at one point or another. She set just about every UFC women's record there is and knocked off fellow luminaries along the way including Ronda Rousey, Cris Cyborg, Valentina Shevchenko, Holly Holm and Miesha Tate.

When St-Pierre and Nurmagomedov stepped aside, they left a void that was fairly quickly filled. With Nunes done, things feel different. She was Atlas holding up women's mixed martial arts, at least in the UFC.

What now? Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim opine on the post-Nunes world of the UFC.

What is the state of women's MMA without its GOAT?

Raimondi: This might have been an easier question to answer a few months or a year ago. Nunes has been the face of women's MMA for more than half a decade, going back to when she destroyed Tate in the main event of UFC 200, and followed that up with a walloping of Rousey five months later. But women were waiting in the wings. And surely, there still are -- things are just not as clear now.

Shevchenko was doing at women's flyweight what Nunes had done at women's bantamweight, dismantling everyone else in her path. A third fight between the two top women's fighters seemed inevitable if they kept dominating their respective divisions. Nunes beat Shevchenko via split decision in their second bout in 2017, a very close contest where many thought Shevchenko was the rightful victor. No matter how you slice it, Shevchenko gave Nunes her toughest time in years before Julianna Peña stunned Nunes to win the UFC women's bantamweight title in December 2021.

Just when Shevchenko seemed to be the likely successor to Nunes' mantle of best women's fighter in the world, she was shocked via rear-naked choke by Alexa Grasso at UFC 285 in March. Grasso is now the UFC women's flyweight champion and the two will likely have a rematch later in the year. Shevchenko can surely return, regain the title and continue on her path. But she's also 35 years old -- the same age as Nunes -- and, if you include her time in Muay Thai and kickboxing, has been at this for 20 years. Time gets to everyone in MMA, no matter how invulnerable a fighter can seem.

Cyborg is still an elite fighter, as well. She just re-signed with Bellator, remains the promotion's women's featherweight champion and has big fights ahead against the likes of Cat Zingano and Sara McMann. But she's 37 and in her 18th year as a pro MMA fighter. Again, time is undefeated.

Kayla Harrison has all the tools to be the face of women's MMA. She's an excellent fighter, has the two-time Olympic judo champion pedigree and is charismatic. But she doesn't have a division and is coming off a loss to Larissa Pacheco in the PFL women's lightweight finals last year. Nunes' retirement means the UFC is likely abandoning its women's featherweight division, the only one Harrison could realistically compete in the promotion. That leaves the future murky.

It would be now if there were ever a time for PFL, Bellator, Harrison and Cyborg to figure out a superfight between those two. Women's MMA could use the boost.

Strawweight is the best division in women's MMA, and the UFC has a deep roster of fighters there, led by current champion Zhang Weili. After her, though, there's little consistency. Will former two-time champion Rose Namajunas make a huge comeback? Can Mackenzie Dern continue her rise?

Erin Blanchfield is only 24 years old and 5-0 in the UFC women's flyweight division. Perhaps we're talking about her as one of the faces of women's MMA in a few years. Ditto for Tatiana Suarez, who has the capability to win titles at strawweight and flyweight, and might have been in that rarefied air already if not for injuries. Grasso must prove herself as flyweight's new queen in the Shevchenko rematch. Maycee Barber is only 25 and has a chance to grab the brass ring at 125 pounds, as well.

Then there's Peña at women's bantamweight. She's the only fighter in the division who can say she defeated Nunes -- and that's nothing to sneeze at. The rest of the contenders at 135 are veterans who have been around for years. Maybe Mayra "Sheetara" Bueno Silva can beat Holm next month and become an instant player.

With the UFC likely doing away with women's featherweight, could the promotion add women's atomweight? There are many good fighters all over the world at 105 or 108 pounds, led by Japanese prodigy Seika Izawa, Rizin's undefeated women's super atomweight champion who only started training in MMA during the pandemic.

While Nunes leaves a vacuum in her wake atop women's MMA, look no further than Nunes herself if there are legitimate concerns about the future afoot. Nine years ago, Nunes was stopped via TKO by Zingano. Two fights before that, the woman who would be the GOAT was defeated by the unheralded Sarah D'Alelio in Invicta FC.

No one was talking about Nunes as the best back then; no one was even talking about her as championship material. That means it's likely that the next icon in women's MMA is right in front of our noses now. We just don't know it yet.

What's the state of women's bantamweight without the GOAT?

Amanda Nunes' best UFC moments

Amanda Nunes had taken out Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey. The only former bantamweight champion remaining was Holly Holm. It was Nunes-Holm at UFC 239.

Okamoto: I'm not going to lie to you. It's not great. On her way out, Nunes said the belt, whoever it goes to, will be "fake forever." I'm not quite ready to say it will be fake forever, but it will feel fake for a while.

The most likely matchup for the vacant bantamweight championship will be Julianna Peña vs. Raquel Pennington, both of whom lost terribly to Nunes the last time they faced her. Yes, Peña upset Nunes in 2021, but their rematch the following year was one of Nunes' most dominant title defenses ever. Regardless of who eventually holds the belt in the wake of Nunes' retirement, it's likely going to be someone who A) lost to her already and B) would be a heavy underdog to her if they fought.

Even if we take Nunes out of it, the 135-pound female division is extremely thin. There's no other way to say it. Peña is ranked No. 1 -- and she has three wins in the last six years. Think about that. The No. 1 female bantamweight has three wins in six years. Holly Holm is still competing at a high level, but at 41, she's not exactly in her prime. Pennington is on a five-fight win streak but has lost to the likes of Nunes, Holm and Germaine de Randamie.

Speaking of de Randamie, she's expected to return to the division this fall after taking a break for motherhood, but she's also likely in the twilight of her career at age 39. There are not many exciting youthful prospects in this division right now. That's not a knock on anyone in the division -- it's just a fact. Had there been more exciting, dangerous challenges out there, I don't think Nunes would have retired in the first place.

All of this is to say ... yeah. The state of the women's bantamweight division is downright bad. The strength and depth of weight classes are cyclical, and eventually, this won't be the case. But for now, with its dominant champ riding off into the sunset, this is one of the thinnest divisions in MMA.

What's the state of Brazilian MMA without one of its GOATs?

Wagenheim: In the beginning, Brazil owned MMA. When the UFC came on the scene in 1993, embodying the vision of a legendary Brazilian combat family, the Gracies, the fight promotion ran one-night open-weight tournaments that crowned just a single champion. In three of the first four UFC events, that champ was the founding family's own Royce Gracie. The skinny kid from Rio de Janeiro subdued bigger and stronger men with a mysterious technique, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. So yes, Brazil owned the cage in every way imaginable.

That level of preeminence was not sustainable as MMA grew, of course, but even as spectacle gave way to sport and the UFC began divvying up its athletes into weight divisions, Brazil nonetheless remained boss. In the fight company's 30 years, there have been 17 champs from Brazil, some authoring multiple reigns. Several are the greatest of all time in their weight class. Among them was a sublime fighter prominent in the conversation for the greatest of all time in the sport as a whole, Anderson Silva.

Also in the GOAT conversation is Amanda Nunes, whose last act before riding off into the sunset will be to vacate her bantamweight and featherweight championships officially.

That will leave Brazil with zero UFC champions.

But don't interpret that as a death knell for Brazilian MMA. In the ESPN rankings, there's at least one Brazilian in the top 10 of all but one weight class (men's bantamweight). Women's MMA is especially well stocked with the best of Brazil, with multiple fighters in each of our three divisional rankings.

And Brazil soon could have a trio of UFC belts. Former lightweight champion Charles Oliveira showed Saturday night that he is ready and eager to take his shot at climbing back onto the throne. And two other Brazilians already are scheduled for title bouts: Alexandre Pantoja will challenge for the men's flyweight belt July 8, and Amanda Lemos will go for the strawweight title Aug. 19.

And let's remember that while the Octagon has no Brazilian champs for the time being, Bellator sure has a couple of notable ones. Patricio "Pitbull" Freire will be looking to make history Friday at Bellator 297 when he challenges for the bantamweight title, a bid that, if successful, will make him the first three-division champ in all of MMA. And with Nunes now retired, Bellator featherweight champ Cris Cyborg is the leading active figure in the women's GOAT hierarchy.

In the PFL, Brazil's Larissa Pacheco is looking to build upon last season's huge upset of Kayla Harrison. On Friday at PFL 5, she will continue her bid for back-to-back season championships.

So while Brazil no longer owns the sport, it remains a prominent presence, a hotbed that produces high-level fighters and a fervent fan base that demands nothing less. Expect none of that to change.