Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Featherweight queen, Amanda Nunes, seeks to regain her Bantamweight belt opposite upstart rival, Julianna Pena, this Saturday (July 30, 2022) at UFC 277 inside American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.
Safe to say UFC 269 was an absolute disaster for Nunes. The then-reigning pound-for-pound queen was seen as unstoppable, but she honestly looked flat-out mediocre in a decisive loss to an underwhelming contender (watch it here). Whether the cause was a case of injury, lack of motivation, or simply an off-night is all speculation and up for debate, but it’s clear that Nunes cannot afford another similar performance this weekend.
Nunes rose to incredible heights for a reason, and now we’ll see if she can still access that greatness. Let’s take a closer look at her skill set:
Anytime a dominant champion loses in brutal and unexpected fashion, it’s important to avoid being too reactionary. Often, there’s an initial surge of “They were never that good in the first place,” a sentiment which is usually nonsense. Still, it does have to be admitted: Nunes’ overall game has always been more about raw strength and power than technical prowess.
Nunes is a fighter with a few simple weapons that she’s made work incredibly well. Nunes game relies on short combinations of the jab and cross that make the most of her range. She’ll stick her opponent with a long strike or two — both Nunes’ jab and cross pack a serious punch — before pulling back a step. If her foe tries to answer back with strikes, Nunes will bounce back in with a one-two combination.
Touch, pull and return is one of the most basic striking concepts, but Nunes applies it very well mostly with just the jab and cross (GIF).
In her knockout victories opposite Ronda Rousey and Cris Cyborg, Nunes proved just how uniquely devastating her overhand is. The technique is simply enough: Nunes drops her weight, takes her head off the center line, and loops her punch over the top (GIF). It’s the impact of that blow that made Nunes a champion, as opponents tend to feel her right hand once and then lose confidence of consciousness.
Very few, if any, women can ever hope to trade shots with Nunes at a one-to-one and come out on top.
Aside from an improved gas tank, the biggest change to Nunes’ game that brought her to the title was range control. Rather than seek the clinch, Nunes has stayed behind the jab and remained long far more effectively. This was first quite noticeable opposite Miesha Tate, as “Cupcake” was forced to take bad shots from way outside of range due to Nunes’ crisp jab and long cross. Against a more skilled striker like Valentina Shevchenko, Nunes’ range advantage was key. She pretty diligently hung back, flicking out jabs, front kicks and inside low kicks. It didn’t make for an entertaining fight, but a win is a win.
This is also the portion of her game that really fell apart against Pena. When she rushed early and didn’t get the finish, Nunes never reset and started working at distance. She stayed in the pocket and swung, which Pena countered wisely with her dipping jab.
Overall, Nunes’ kicks have improved a ton as well over the years. Her low kicks have always been brutal, as evidenced by her stoppage opposite Shayna Baszler (GIF) in 2015. It’s only grown more effective, as Nunes digs to the calf as well, notably against Raquel Pennington. The rest of her kicking arsenal has improved as well, as those snap kicks are pretty damaging.
Nunes did great work at range against the crafty Holly Holm, who likes to lead with side kicks, often using them to take an angle and follow up with her left. However, Nunes was able to counter brilliantly by timing Holm when she chambered her knee, blasting the boxer with a high kick from the open side (GIF).
Lastly, Nunes does nice work in the clinch. Her strength allows her to yank around her opponent from the collar tie without much difficulty, helping her set up knees. In addition, a failed trip can be converted into offense against an off-balance opponent.
Physicality is very helpful in kickboxing, but it’s dominant in wrestling. A Judo brown belt, Nunes can overpower most opponents in the clinch, but she’s also able to grind for a double-leg takedown against the fence if necessary.
In the clinch, Nunes very often looks to trip her opponent. While fresh and at her sharpest, Nunes will aim for small foot sweeps or a subtle outside trip. This is where she does her best work, as Nunes definitely has the technique to land these takedowns. Alternatively, Nunes can dig her underhook deep into a body lock and lock to force her foe to the mat, which is most effective when chained with one of the aforementioned trips.
In the second match with Shevchenko, a double-leg in the fifth round likely secured Nunes the split-decision win. Shevchenko was briefly put on the mat after a failed throw, but Nunes transitioned into a double-leg as the Russian athlete went to stand. Shevchenko defended well with an underhook, but Nunes did an excellent job of continuing to drive into the fence. Eventually, she was able to narrow Shevchenko’s stance, lock her hands, and complete the shot.
In the de Randamie rematch, Nunes repeatedly took her foe to the mat almost at will. Part of that is simply because de Randamie is not a very technical defensive wrestler, but Nunes still did a nice job of driving through double legs and stepping back with a dump to finish single-leg shots.
Once on top, Nunes is generally pretty devastating. She does an excellent job of gaining posture, as she generally avoids sitting back on her knees even while in guard. Because of that, she’s proven to be effective from all positions with her ground strikes and does a lot of damage from there.
In guard, Nunes quickly finished Sheila Gaff in her Octagon debut. After forcing her foe to the mat, Nunes did not allow her opponent to control her posture, stepping up onto one foot and framing with her arm. Once that space was created, Nunes was able to drop hard elbows and end the bout (GIF).
Opposite Cat Zingano, Nunes showed off her full ground and pound display, particularly in the first round. From guard, Nunes dove in with heavy right hands and postured within the guard admirably. She also stepped up to a leg in half guard to deliver hard elbows, a frequent technique for the Brazilian (GIF). Finally, when able to advance past her opponent’s guard, she did an excellent job of controlling while landing hard shots.
A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, Nunes has finished four of her opponents via submission. Three of those submissions came via rear-naked choke and all four came from back mount, so there’s a definite pattern to how Nunes secures finishes on the mat.
After rocking her opponent, Nunes does an excellent job of jumping into back mount and looking to finish with the submission. This was the case in her bouts with McMann and Tate, but the latter stoppage in particular showed some nice technique.
From turtle, Nunes secured wrist control on the far arm — a devastating strategy that is becoming more and more common — and stood over her opponent. Tate was unable to do much but absorb punches from this spot, so Nunes really forced her to give up the hooks. With wrist control and hooks, Nunes was able to easily hip in and flatten her opponent out. That’s the worst position in the sport, meaning the choke was all but locked up at the point (GIF).
Against Megan Anderson, Nunes’ power punching resulted in a terrible takedown attempt from the Aussie. Nunes landed high in mount and immediately started punching. Rather than get smashed from mount, Anderson made the understandable decision of trying to belly out and keep moving. As she turned, Nunes adjusted her high mount into a reverse triangle. That’s a difficult strangle to finish, so Nunes wisely focused on bending the arm in unpleasant fashion (GIF).
It’s also worth mentioning that Nunes does a very nice job of cutting through her opponent’s guard. She’s able to do so effectively because of her posture, as her opponents have a difficult time maintaining a tight guard while eating hard shots. With the guard loose, Nunes will methodically move into half guard and then mount, delivering hard punches and elbows the whole time.
Nunes has been put on her back rarely in her career, but it consistently has not gone all that well. She’s accustomed to physically dominating her opponents, so getting taken down is a real role reversal. Once trapped on bottom, Nunes tends to fatigue quickly and get finished.
Nunes is undoubtedly a better fighter than Julianna Pena, but that’s hardly a guarantee of victory in MMA. Really, this rematch will tell us a lot about Nunes’ future and how much more she has to give to the sport.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.
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