A new era in the UFC Women’s Bantamweight division begins on Saturday with a championship fight in the UFC 215 main event that’s unlike any other in the history of the weight class.
Reigning titleholder Amanda Nunes is set to put her belt on the line against rival Valentina Shevchenko in the first championship bout for the division that does not include the participation of superstar names Ronda Rousey, Holly Holm or Miesha Tate.
For several years, Rousey and Tate were the catalysts for the 135-pound division, which was first women’s weight class introduced under the UFC banner in February 2013. Rousey had a transcendent, sport-altering run on top for nearly three years, while Holm and Tate followed with brief holds on the gold.
But then Nunes came along.
“The Lioness” smashed Tate into submission in just over three minutes to win the title at UFC 200 in July then followed up by brutalizing Rousey for a 48-second TKO to defend the belt for the first time at UFC 207 in December. Those to wins alone have given legitimacy to the argument that Nunes is the best to do it at her weight.
“I’m the champion and I’m the best in the world,” Nunes tells Rolling Stone. “I cleaned [out] this division. I beat this girl [Shevchenko] already. I beat her already, and I’m going to do it again.”
Nunes’ numbers don’t lie. Her fight with Shevchenko, which headlines Saturday’s UFC 215 pay-per-view at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, will be her ninth in the division, tied with Tate for the most appearances in history.
The Brazilian is the all-time leader in wins (seven) and knockouts (four), and she also shares a piece of the leaderboard for most victories by stoppage, all records which Rousey used to have sole possession of before she faded away from the spotlight following back-to-back losses to Nunes and Holm.
Although Nunes, who is also the first openly gay champion in UFC history, is a shameless destroyer who has a habit of quickly bludgeoning opponents before putting them away inside the first round, there’s one fight which has caused some to be reluctant in recognizing her greatness.
Nunes has only failed to stop once opponent inside the distance during her UFC career, and that’s Shevchenko. The pair met at UFC 196 in March 2016 with Nunes winning a competitive unanimous decision to set up her UFC title shot opportunity with Tate at UFC 200.
As per usual, Nunes came out of the gate strong and overwhelmed Shevchenko on aggression and tenacity. Conditioning has been the most noticeable chink in Nunes’ armor during her career, though, and it started to give her problems once again as the fight progressed.
By the third round, the momentum was sternly in Shevchenko’s favor. However, by that point, the clock had become too great an enemy. Nunes took the decision over “Bullet,” and 16 months later they have their rematch, except this time with five rounds at play and a championship belt up for grabs.
Nunes claims she’s transformed as a fighter since her first encounter with Shevchenko. She’s confident in her ability to fight hard for 25 minutes if necessary, but the ultimate goal is to end the fight as convincingly as she has against Rousey, Tate and many others.
“I beat her already and nothing is (going to) change,” Nunes says. “The only thing that’s going to change is this is going to be over. I will beat her clean. If I can knock her out, submit her or go five rounds, I will clean this and get over this.”
The tension between Nunes and Shevchenko is real. They’ve had several heated moments in the lead up to UFC 215, but are nearing their date to settle the score. Shevchenko is arguably Nunes’ last great obstacle in the division, and therefor a win would open a new world of possibilities for the champion.
Since Conor McGregor made UFC history in November by becoming the first fighter to simultaneously hold titles in two weight classes, there’s been a similar aspiration mentioned by other champions. Nunes might have the most realistic shot of being the next to do it, though, because she’s apparently capable of moving both up and down in weight.
The Women’s Featherweight (145 pounds) and Women’s Flyweight (125 pounds) are still in their infancy under the UFC banner, but having Nunes come in and vie for the title would lend instant credibility. Nunes’ name might not carry the same weight to fight fans as Rousey, Holm or Tate, but she’s proven to be a superior fighter to all of them.
She will look to showcase that again at UFC 215, which is the next step in carving out a legacy in the sport which stands on its own.
“After this fight everything can happen,” Nunes says. “I’ve cleaned out the (Women’s Bantamweight) division already. I beat all the top (fighters) before I got the belt. Then when I got the belt, I beat the best one. After the next fight, for sure I’m going to try to do something else. Maybe go down, (maybe) go up.”