The identity of an athlete in the eyes of fans can switch on a dime. It only takes one incident to cause irreparable harm, and whether avoidable or not, that’s what happened to the reputation of UFC Women’s Bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes following her last-minute withdrawal from Saturday’s UFC 213 main event.
Nunes entered UFC 213 fight week with everything on her side. She just obliterated Ronda Rousey, arguably the biggest star in mixed martial arts history, in a mere 48 seconds in December for her first title defense. That came as a follow-up to a first-round submission of Miesha Tate perhaps the second biggest female name in the sport’s history, to win the belt in July 2016.
“The Lioness,” who is the only Brazilian female champion in UFC history, has proven to be a wrecking ball inside the Octagon. Her contributions, however, extend out of it as well. Nunes is the first openly gay champion in UFC history and has broken down previously untouched barriers for the organization.
Nunes said just days before her anticipated UFC 213 rematch with Valentina Shevchenko, which was scheduled to take place at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, that she’s never been happier with her life and was ready to put another spectacular performance.
Then fight day arrived.
Just over three hours before the first bout on the UFC 213 lineup was scheduled to begin, news broke that Nunes was in a Las Vegas hospital receiving treatment for the second time in two days. Details were scarce, but shortly after it became clear the fight was in jeopardy, confirmation her title bout with Shevchenko was off arrived.
UFC President Dana White was the first to publicly comment on the situation, and he didn’t paint his champion in the best light, claiming that Nunes was medically cleared to compete, but had decided with her team that she wasn’t feeling good enough to do so.
“She started to not feel good, so we took her to (the) hospital,” White said on SportsCenter. “(The doctor) did a full evaluation, and she was medically cleared to fight. She weighed in at the ceremonial weigh-in (Friday) and squared off with Shevchenko, then went home last night.
“This morning, (Nunes) called again and said she didn’t feel good. So they brought her back in (to the hospital) and started running tests on her, and she said she didn’t want to fight … she didn’t feel good and didn’t want to fight. She was medically cleared to fight, was checked and everything was fine, but she said she didn’t feel right.”
More so than the overwhelming majority of its athletes, White has been the face of the UFC for much of his time as president. He has a legion of followers willing to buy into his every word, even if there’s a precedent of him relaying falsehoods to best serve either the UFC’s or his own personal interests.
The impression left by White was that Nunes could have fought, but for reasons unbeknownst to him, decided not too. He said he’s never encountered such a situation, and piled on after the event by revealing to the media that Nunes would not receive a single dollar of her contracted $210,000 purse. Shevchenko, meanwhile, will apparently get in the neighborhood of $70,000 for her troubles.
White’s frustration in losing a main event on fight day is understandable. Between scrapped promotional materials, merchandise and the legal obligation to offer ticket refunds, the financial blow stemming from the situation is severe. Nunes is still the champion, though, and publicly shaming her seems counterproductive when she’ll need to be promoted again a few months down the line. That’s White’s style, though, so his response was of little surprise.
Shevchenko added more fuel to the idea that Nunes was reluctant to fight her when she claimed the champion “backed out” after cutting too much weight ahead of the contest and failing to rehydrate properly. Nunes did nothing to tell anyone different, until late Saturday night she put out her first comment, albeit with not much context to help her cause.
Sorry to all my true fans. The fight will be rescheduled and I will be back at 100%. ? Essa luta vai ser remarcada e estarei 100% pic.twitter.com/8WEttqMUgM
— Amanda Nunes (@Amanda_Leoa) July 9, 2017
By the morning after UFC 213, the belief Nunes was “scared” to fight or was “ducking” Shevchenko had marinated across a noticeable portion of the UFC fanbase. Nunes has loyal supporters who will stand by her no matter what, but the voice of those upset echoed much louder with an endless stream of negativity across all of Nunes’ social media platforms and any stories related to her situation.
— Justin Golightly (@SecretMovesMMA) July 9, 2017
Those who immediately decided how they felt about Nunes situation after her withdrawal will be hard to turn back the other way, even after she revealed her side of the story on Sunday afternoon.
Nunes wrote in a statement that a longtime issue with “chronic sinusitis” was the culprit behind her decision not to fight. She was in fact medically cleared, but said the entire situation was not as simple as White and Shevchenko made it out to be.
— Amanda Nunes (@Amanda_Leoa) July 9, 2017
At UFC 213’s post-fight news conference, White continued to display frustration toward Nunes and called her issue “90 percent mental.” Nunes said she’s fought through distress before, but in this case it was too much to deal with and she opted to pull out of a fight for a non-injury related reason for the first time in her nearly 10-year career.
Competing in a regular UFC fight is a high-pressure situation. Adding in the stakes of a championship bout against dangerous opponent like Shevchenko is a difficult task when operating at maximum capacity, much less while dealing with an ailment. If Nunes had fought and lost, she not only parts ways with her title, but all the perks that go along with it such as greater pay and exposure. Moreover, there’s no guarantee of a rematch.
The insinuation Nunes would go though an entire training camp and make weight, only to shy away from another potentially prestigious moment and six-figure payday is not only hard to believe, but it’s an unfair question of integrity for an athlete with no history of such behavior. Nunes made a choice which served her best in the long-term. The concept she’s afraid to fight is difficult to grasp considering she’s not only beaten Shevchenko once in the past, but has competed on bigger stages against more famous opponents since her March 2016 victory over “The Bullet.”
Unfortunately, though, the damage to her reputation has been done in the eyes of many fans and UFC boss White, who said he would never put Nunes in a main event position again. The fight with Shevchenko is being tentatively targeted for UFC 215 on Sept. 9th, and whether unjust or not, Nunes seemingly has a long road ahead before regaining the goodwill of her promoter and many followers of the sport.