One-hit wonder ... or new regime?
Julianna Pena will make her first 135-pound title defense against former bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, a rematch booked not long after “The Venezuelan Vixen” shocked the world with her second-round submission win over “Lioness” to close out 2021. Now Pena gets to prove her first victory was not a fluke when they run it back atop the UFC 277 pay-per-view (PPV) event, scheduled for this Sat. night (July 30, 2022) from inside American Airlines Arena in Dallas, Texas. Before that five-round grudge match gets underway, the promotion will ask Brandon Moreno and Kai Kara France to spend 25 minutes slugging it out to crown a new interim flyweight champion while current champion, Deiveson Figueiredo, spends the next few months in timeout. Heavyweight hurters Derrick Lewis and Sergei Pavlovich, along with light heavyweight contenders Anthony Smith and Magomed Ankalaev, will also see main card action this weekend in “The Lone Star State.”
Before we start breaking down the five-fight main card, which also features an important flyweight showdown between No. 4-ranked Brazilian bruiser Alexandre “The Cannibal” Pantoja and No. 6-ranked Californian Alex Perez — who are both battling for a potential shot at the 125-pound title — take a closer look at our comprehensive preview and predictions for all the UFC 277 preliminary card action by clicking here and here. The latest UFC 277 odds and a complete betting guide for the “Pena vs. Nunes 2” event can be located here.
Let’s get to work.
135 lbs.: UFC Bantamweight Champion Julianna “Venezuelan Vixen” Pena (11-4) vs. Amanda “Lioness” Nunes (21-5)
Julianna Pena shocked the world last December ... well, the MMA world anyway, since I don’t think people who are digging through the rubble in Ukraine give a shit about the UFC women’s bantamweight title. But for us regular folk it was a pretty big deal. And rightly so, since Nunes was (and in many people’s eyes still is) the greatest female fighter in history. The Brazilian not only defeated, but violently finished Ronda Rousey, Cris Cyborg, Holly Holm, and Miesha Tate and holds two victories over pound-for-pound dynamo Valentina Shevchenko. There is no other resume like that in women’s MMA and one loss to “The Venezuelan Vixen” doesn’t erase that history, despite our collective recency bias. But what about two losses? It could just be that Pena is a bad matchup for Nunes, with her scrappy, in-your-face style and never-say-die attitude. You can beat the shit out of Pena but you’ll never break her, which is why the former Ultimate Fighter (TUF) champion was able to weather an early storm from “Lioness” at UFC 269, then wait for the befuddled champion to run out of gas in the second stanza. Without taking any credit away from Pena, let’s not pretend this was a masterful performance of patience and skill, a la Holm-Rousey at UFC 193. This was about as sloppy as it gets — but as they say, winning ugly is still winning.
I was one of the few media mouthpieces to predict a Pena win by submission but that prediction was predicated on a couple of presumptions. I believed that Nunes, like so many champions before her, was convinced she was invincible (and why not, with her trail of bodies) and probably mailed it in for most of her camp. It also helped that I was at American Top Team (ATT) when Nunes was (cough) “in camp” and watched her show up at the gym with her wife and baby, bounce around the premises while everyone fawned over her godlike presence, then leave with her gear and never come back. I doubt that was an isolated incident. She wasn’t just resting on her laurels, she was damn near hibernating on them. Now that Nunes recognizes her own mortality — and suspect conditioning — I would expect a much different version of the 34 year-old Brazilian. We also have to take away the element of surprise, something that factored heavily into the Pena offense. No question the wrestling will come into play the second time around, I just don’t know if it’s going to be the great equalizer Pena fans want it to be. Opponents are just 1-for-10 in takedown attempts against Nunes across her last five fights and “Lioness” has a slightly higher takedown average than Pena with roughly the same accuracy — spanning more fights.
I’m picking Nunes in the rematch because you don’t know whatcha got ‘til it’s gone; meaning, I believe the former champion — despite her myriad post-fight excuses — is obsessed with getting her belt back. I know the MMA fanboy’s favorite buzzword is “exposed” but let’s be real here: Nunes is the superior fighter and is more skilled in every area than Pena, whose win was less about skill and more about capitalizing on a rare opportunity against an overconfident champion (Amanda at the Bat?). That doesn’t mean “The Venezuelan Vixen” is a tomato can, it just means there’s a difference between “good” and being the best that ever did it. Now the onus is on “Lioness” to go out there and prove it on Sat. night. She has a new camp, a new attitude, and something she hasn’t had in a very long time: the need to prove she’s best fighter at 135 pounds. I certainly like her chances.
Prediction: Nunes def. Pena by technical knockout
125 lbs.: Brandon “The Assassin Baby” Moreno (19-6-2) vs. Kai Kara France (24-9, 1 NC) for interim flyweight championship
Brandon Moreno and Kai Kara France first met as part of the UFC 245 PPV event back in late 2019, which isn’t exactly ancient history, but both fighters went on to rack up five more bouts before securing this flyweight rematch. It’s a little strange to book an interim title fight when current champion Deiveson Figueiredo is able to compete, though I guess I shouldn't be surprised with the decision after what happened with Francis Ngannou the year before. Moreno defeated Kara France by way of unanimous decision in their first go-round but it was hardly a blowout. Two of the three judges (and most media outlets) scored the opening frame in favor of the Kiwi and the latter two rounds for Moreno. Regardless, it was a fun fight and now we’ll get an extra two rounds to establish the superior fighter.
In the two-and-a-half years since they first met, Moreno is 3-1-1 with one championship victory to his credit. His last three fights have all come against Figueiredo and this is one of those rare occasions where a fourth would make sense, considering they are split in victory and tied with a draw. Kara France is the winner of three straight with two knockouts and managed to capture four his last five. His most impressive victory during that span came over Russian “Bullet” Askar Askarov at UFC Columbus back in March, though it doesn’t appear his momentum has done much to sway the bookies. As of Friday morning, “Don’t Blink” (horrible nickname, sorry Kai) remains a +180 underdog.
I would expect a close, competitive contest though I’m leaning toward Moreno because he’s endured two 25-minute title fights over the last two years against the most dangerous fighter in the division. In order to make a case for Kara France beating Moreno we have to demonstrate a more rapid evolution over the last three years. In my opinion they have both improved at a similar rate, though I can’t help but wonder if Kara France hasn’t fallen in love with the KO punch after notching two knockout wins in 2021. Moreno is not perfect and we’ve seen him give away rounds in the past, but he’s also a scrappy competitor who can brawl with the best of ‘em. No third UFC title for City Kickboxing, who will be going home empty handed this weekend in Dallas.
Prediction: Moreno def. Kara France by unanimous decision
265 lbs.: Derrick “The Black Beast” Lewis (26-9, 1 NC) vs. Sergei Pavlovich (15-1)
It's hard to be critical of a fighter who breaks the promotion’s record for knockouts (13) but our job here is to analyze combatants with a critical eye, not gush for their highlight reels. You can marvel at “The Black Beast’s” heavy hands so long as you also recognize that Lewis has been knocked out six times himself, including last February’s destruction at the hands of Tai Tuivasa. We also can’t overlook the fact that Lewis is easily outclassed by more technical strikers. Mark Hunt, Junior dos Santos, and Ciryl Gane all made him look amateurish and he was getting pieced up by Alexander Volkov prior to his epic, third-round buzzer beater. Lewis turned 37 last February and has a history of back problems, so in many ways it’s hard to predict which version of “The Black Beast” will show up on fight night. His most impressive victory for me was his headlining knockout over Curtis Blaydes, because it demonstrated a patient, calculated approach that followed a very specific gameplan. Perhaps’s that’s why some of his knock-down, drag-out brawls can be so frustrating because they have a tendency to take precedence over a legitimate display of skill.
Sergei Pavlovich has been a breath of fresh air in the heavyweight division, which always feels like it’s one year away from going bust, at least in terms of promising talent. It wasn’t that long ago when Chris Daukaus was 4-0 with four knockouts and Ciryl Gane was favored to beat Francis Ngannou for the heavyweight title and welp ... came up snake eyes on that roll. Anyway, Pavlovich has come along nicely in the last couple of years, rebounding from a debut loss to Alistair Overeem to capture three straight victories, all by way of first-round knockout. The counter to that, of course, is the level of competition put in front of the 30 year-old Russian. I’m not sure anyone is breaking out the party hats for a stoppage over Marcelo Golm or Maurice Greene and the once-durable Shamil Abdurakhimov is now 40 years old. It's also worth pointing out that Pavlovich has not attempted a takedown since going 0-2 against Overeem. I doubt that will change on Saturday night, though a Lewis takedown probably wouldn’t surprise me, depending on how the fight plays out on the feet. I know I made a big stink about Lewis getting beaten to the punch against fellow heavyweight strikers, and that danger is just as prevalent against Pavlovich, but until I see the Russian replicate his success against someone inside the Top 10, I have to invest in the proven commodity. Lewis is not without his faults, but he’s done a lot more — against a lot better competition — than his Rostovian foe.
Prediction: Lewis def. Pavlovich by knockout
125 lbs.: Alexandre “The Cannibal” Pantoja (24-5) vs. Alex Perez (24-6)
Alexandre Pantoja made a run at UFC superstardom as part of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 24 back in summer 2016, but fell to Hiromasa Ougikubo by way of unanimous decision in the tournament semifinals. The promotion saw enough good things from “The Cannibal” — backed by an outstanding run on the international circuit — to bring the Brazilian into the fold the following January as part of the UFC on FOX 23 card in Denver. In the five years that followed, Pantoja compiled a record of 8-3, which is nothing to sneeze at, but his inconsistency (as well as his loss to current flyweight champion Deiveson Figueiredo) has kept him from the 125-pound title. The good news, at least for the 32 year-old “Cannibal,” is the division is still in a rebuilding phase after nearly imploding back in late 2019 (thanks Mick!) and Pantoja has been able to retain his spot in the flyweight Top 5. Back-to-back wins over Manel Kape and Brandon Royval have positioned Pantoja for his long-coveted title shot, assuming he can first get past Alex Perez this weekend in Dallas.
Perez is seated two spots below Pantoja at No. 6 in the official flyweight rankings. The Californian followed a similar path into UFC, punching his ticket by way of first-round submission as part of Dana White’s “Contender Series” back in late 2017. Also like Pantoja, the 30 year-old Perez has been thwarted by some of the biggest names in the division, including the aforementioned Figueiredo and the since-retired Joseph Benavidez. Outside of those two hiccups, Perez stands at 6-2 inside the Octagon with four finishes. Why bookies have him pegged as the +160 underdog is unclear to me, based on their respective performances, but I would guess it has something to do with his absence. UFC 277 marks the first fight for Perez since his Figueiredo loss back in Nov. 2020, though you can also argue that Pantoja has not seen action for almost a year. I’m of the opinion that Perez will be fresher and more aggressive across their three-round contest and likely steal a close decision on the judges’ scorecards.
Prediction: Perez def. Pantoja by unanimous decision
205 lbs.: Magomed Ankalaev (16-1) vs. Anthony “Lionheart” Smith (36-16)
It’s kind of amazing that a fighter with 16 professional losses, 13 of which have ended by way of knockout or submission, has a legitimate claim to securing the next light heavyweight title shot. That will require Anthony Smith, no stranger to 205-pound title fights, to turn away once-beaten Russian bruiser Magomed Ankalaev, who may also stake his claim to the winner of Jiri Prochazka vs. Glover Teixeira 2. There’s been talk of Smith or Ankalaev getting to “Denisa” before Teixeira, but that would require a spectacular finish and some post-fight chatter with Joe Rogan. I dunno, seems unlikely. Smith did an admirable job of rebounding from back-to-back losses to Teixeira and Aleksandar Rakic to score three straight wins, including last September’s first-round submission over Ryann Spann. I may have bagged on Smith for getting finished in most of his losses but he more than makes up for it in victory, scoring an incredible 19 knockouts and 14 submissions in 36 wins. In fact, his only win by decision came in his Octagon debut against Leonardo Guimaraes roughly six years back. Heading into the PPV curtain-jerker, Smith will have a once-inch advantage in height paralleled by a one-inch disadvantage in reach.
Magomed Ankalaev is one of many top talents out of Dagestan and faltered in his UFC debut, losing by way of submission to Paul Craig at UFC London back in early 2018. Undeterred, the former WFCA Light Heavyweight Champion roared back to capture eight straight wins, which ties him with Lyoto Machida for second place on the all-time list (Jon Jones holds the record with 13 straight). The bottom half of that list, consisting of names like Klidson Abreu and Dalcha Lungiambula, is nothing to write home about. The top half, however, sports victories over Volkan Oezdemir and Thiago Santos, two former light heavyweight title challengers. Granted, both “No Time” and “Marreta” have struggled in the latter stages of their respective careers, but I still rank them above Smith’s recent wins over Devin Clark and Jimmy Crute. Ankalaev also carries a “Master of Sports” title in combat sambo, which sounds great on paper but hasn’t really transitioned to the Octagon, evidenced by the fact that Ankalaev has zero wins by submission and has been tapped once in defeat. I know it sounds crazy but I think it happens a second time against Smith. Ankalaev has been fighting too conservatively over the last few fights and “Lionheart” is treating this bout like it’s life or death, which in terms of his future as a title contender, probably is. Expect the Dagestani bruiser to control most of the fight ... right up until he gets caught in a sneaky Smith submission.
Prediction: Smith def. Ankalaev by submission
MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 277 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ABC/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.
To check out the latest and greatest UFC 277: “Pena vs. Nunes 2” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here. For the complete UFC 277 fight card and PPV lineup click here.
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