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Sometimes results in a sport go down exactly the way the sport’s promoters would hope. In 2016, the popular Chicago Cubs advanced to the World Series to play the Cleveland Indians, with a guaranteed end to a combined 176-year title drought between the two teams. Ratings for Game 7 of that series doubled those of most recent World Series games and quadrupled others. On the other hand, sometimes things don’t break quite so well. The NBA surely would have loved to see a marquee Lakers-Clippers series in the Western Conference Finals this year and then a blue-blood Lakers-Celtics series in the NBA Finals. Instead, it got the Lakers against the much lower profile Nuggets and Heat.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship, because it exercises much more control over its matchmaking than the major team sports, can increase the odds that it will get the fights it wants. However, the promotion over time has generally forced its fighters to earn their shots. Sure, there are undeserving title shots—see: Jose Aldo—but it is by orders of magnitude more of a meritocracy than what we see in boxing. Thus, the UFC is often left crossing its fingers and hoping for the best. Sometimes Chael Sonnen beats Michael Bisping, and the promotion gets the Anderson Silva-Sonnen rematch for which it was hoping, and sometimes Gabriel Gonzaga knocks out Mirko Filipovic and Randy Couture-Filipovic is replaced by the less marketable Couture-Gonzaga bout.
For years now, it has been a struggle for the UFC to line up challengers for Amanda Nunes. The reasons are obvious at 145 pounds because there are only so many female fighters competing in that division. However, it has also become difficult at bantamweight. Once the marquee women’s division, it has been plagued by retirements and fighters moving to different weight classes. It has also been impacted by Nunes’ dominance, as she has taken out most of the top challengers in decisive fashion. She needs fresh options.
UFC on ESPN 16 on Saturday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, was designed to hopefully bring some help. The two most significant bouts on the card were both in the women’s bantamweight division. In one of them, Mexico’s Irene Aldana met 38-year-old former champion Holly Holm. Holm is the more well-known of the two, but she has lost her last four title fights. Her last fight against Raquel Pennington wasn’t exactly a crowd-pleaser. Most importantly, she was knocked out in the first round by Nunes last year. A Nunes-Holm rematch isn’t exactly a fight for which anyone is clamoring.
By contrast, Aldana had won five of her last six fights. She was coming off a highlight-reel knockout of the highly regarded Ketlen Vieira, and She had never fought Nunes. Most interestingly, she could attempt to become the first UFC champion from Mexico—a country that is something of a sleeping giant as an MMA market. Aldana was the slight underdog against Holm and would be the heavy underdog against Nunes, but she at least offered a fresh matchup.
Aldana’s title hopes will have to continue to wait after her bout with Holm, who was clearly the better fighter in all aspects of the game. She outstruck Aldana, while mixing in takedowns and controlling the fight on the ground. It wasn’t a terribly exciting fight, but it was a dominant performance that removed Aldana from the immediate title picture while leaving Holm as a less-than-optimal option.
There was, however, a second option in the form of Julianna Pena-Germaine de Randamie. Like Aldana, Pena had won five of her last six fights in the UFC. Her outgoing personality has made her stand out since her time on “The Ultimate Fighter,” and she had been featured as part of the UFC’s Hispanic Heritage month. She also has a personal story, having returned to fighting after taking time off to give birth to her daughter. There was also the positive that she hasn’t yet fought Nunes, thus making it a fresh matchup.
Unfortunately for Pena, her title aspirations took a hit against de Randamie. The unexpected submission win by the former muay Thai world champion demonstrated an added dimension to her game as her marked improvement continues. The problem? De Randamie has already lost to Nunes twice, including by a wide decision less than a year ago. Thus, the top two fresh challengers were knocked out of contention by the two most recent bantamweight title challengers Nunes defeated decisively.
That’s just the way it breaks sometimes in an unpredictable sport. Sometimes exciting possibilities open up, and other times dominant champions end up running in circles. The longer they reign, the more likely that becomes. We will have to wait a little while longer for a new challenger to emerge for Nunes at 135 pounds. Until then, there are certainly less-dynamic fighters to watch in repeat fights than the “Lioness.”
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