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UFC 224 available for order on Amazon Prime (Prime Video PPV)
The Ultimate Fighting Championship women’s bantamweight division was forever changed in November 2015, when Holly Holm head kicked Ronda Rousey into oblivion at UFC 193. The only champion the 135-pound weight class had ever known hit the canvas to a deafening roar. Rousey’s undefeated record, aura of invincibility -- and, soon after, her career -- came to an end that day in Australia.
While the image of Holm’s foot slamming into Rousey’s smushed face remains enduring, the latter’s work in building the division should not be dismissed. She not only essentially started the division for the UFC but brought an unprecedented amount of viewership to women’s MMA. Her opponents grew in popularity by proxy, particularly Miesha Tate, Cat Zingano and Amanda Nunes. When Rousey left for World Wrestling Entertainment, she left behind a well-known cast of characters to lead the division.
Now, it seems as if Nunes has unwittingly dismantled much of Rousey’s good work. The Brazilian won the bantamweight title by obliterating Tate at UFC 200, then ran through Rousey and sent her packing. Tate returned for one more listless performance against Raquel Pennington, but her competitive fire seemed drained -- or stamped out by the 40 significant strikes she landed against her.
This is not to disparage Nunes for wiping the floor with Tate and Rousey; she was merely beating the opponents placed in front of her. Pioneers in MMA are often displaced in brutal fashion. There has been a steep drop off in terms of entertainment value when you compare Rousey’s perceived invincibility and Tate’s grittiness to Nunes’ methodical march through the weight class. What is left is a weird, boring middle ground that doesn’t appeal to fans.
It’s hard to determine how Nunes’ reign will be viewed historically. Many of the common complaints the public has with fighters have been fairly or unfairly connected to Nunes -- withdrawing from a fight due to a sinus infection did her no favors -- over the past few years. Some fans have tuned out the champion, and when fans tune out a champion, they tune out an entire division.
Nunes’ greatest crime, though, is failing to take a champion-versus-champion superfight against Cristiane Justino. The eyes of the MMA world would have been thrust upon the 135-pound division to see if Nunes could move up in wait to conquer the seemingly unconquerable “Cyborg.” It’s a tantalizing hypothetical matchup, and seeing as though both women are Brazilian, UFC 224 in Rio de Janeiro would have been the perfect place for it.
For a time, it really seemed as if the fight was going to happen. Nunes tweeted on Jan. 5 that a bout with “Cyborg” was one in which they “could both leave their marks on the sport.” UFC President Dana White was also on board, saying in a Yahoo! Sports interview that “it is the fight to make.” The only person not feeling it was Justino, who preferred to “build the [women’s featherweight] division” by slaughtering any 145-pound volunteer the UFC could find. However, this seemed like a slight impediment, with fans hoping the UFC might sweeten the pot to make Justino-Nunes happen. Then out of nowhere, Nunes changed her tune. She claimed she wanted to face two top contenders, Pennington and Ketlen Vieira, before tackling a fight with “Cyborg.” With that, UFC 224 became a speedbump on the road to UFC 225, or just another event in the long Ultimate Fighting Championship calendar.
Full disclosure: I’m a Pennington fan. I’ve liked “Rocky” since she caught my full attention in her rematch with Jessica Andrade. With that said, she doesn’t stand much of a chance here. She lacks an elite skill necessary to upset Nunes, and I can’t see her matching the champion’s intensity. Aside from a Matt Serra-type miracle, reality does not offer Pennington much hope. The UFC seemed to say as much through its marketing, with the Joe Rogan voiceover promos pushing the “she’s tough” narrative. In UFC hype talk, that means “she might last all five rounds.” A Nunes win doesn’t help her, the promotion or the division.
At least Pennington challenging Nunes makes sense in terms of meritocracy. Vieira is 10-0 and testing herself against increasingly tough competition, but her best win was a split decision over Zingano at UFC 222. Granted, it should not have gone down as a split decision -- Vieira was a step ahead throughout -- but Zingano was coming off of an almost two-year layoff and hadn’t won in four years. Beating her shouldn’t be the key to a title shot. A No. 1 contender spot? Perhaps. A title shot? Not a chance.
It’s a shame, really. Back when Holm dethroned Rousey, the future possibilities seemed limitless for the division. There were a number of contenders for Holm, an instant superstar, to fend off. However, the 135-pound weight class has stagnated, becoming something of an afterthought when compared to the strawweight division. At least we know who’s to blame.
Pressley Nietering is a third-year student at Clemson University.
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