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Amanda Nunes has rightfully earned her place as one of the greatest women’s fighters in UFC history

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

Mixed martial arts has a way of humbling its athletes, even its greatest stars.

Ronda Rousey found that out at UFC 193, when the seemingly invincible women’s bantamweight champion was stunningly dominated and then knocked out by Holly Holm.

Joanna Jedrzejczyk found that out at UFC 217. Just as some were beginning to suggest she’d reached Rousey levels of domination, she was separated from her senses, and her women’s strawweight title, by Rose Namajunas.

If MMA fighting is young as a sport, women’s MMA fighting is in its infancy. Rousey, despite the two horrendous one-sided defeats to end her career, is still regarded as the best, though not nearly with as much conviction now as in 2015.

Into that mix comes Amanda Nunes to defend her women’s bantamweight title on Saturday in Rio de Janeiro in the main event of UFC 224 against unheralded Raquel Pennington.

Nunes is better than a 10-1 favorite against Pennington, who because of an unbelievable series of injuries hasn’t fought since defeating Miesha Tate on Nov. 12, 2016.

Nunes enters the bout on a six-fight winning streak, which matches Rousey’s UFC run. It is important to note that all six of Rousey’s UFC wins were title fights, while only three of Nunes’ six consecutive victories have been championship matches.

But Nunes’ streak is comparable and maybe slightly ahead of Rousey’s in terms of quality of opposition. Since it began with a one-sided finish of Shayna Baszler on March 21, 2015, Nunes has scored two wins over Valentina Shevchenko and one win each over Baszler, Sara McMann, Tate and Rousey.

She’s finished Baszler, McMann, Tate and Rousey in the first round, needing only 48 seconds to defeat Rousey.

Amanda Nunes (L) of Brazil reacts after defeating Ronda Rousey in their UFC women’s bantamweight championship bout during the UFC 207 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 30, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Getty Images)

She’s clearly earned a spot in the discussion as one of the greatest women’s fighters in UFC history, at worst, it seems, as No. 2 behind Cris Cyborg.

Nunes, though, insists she’s not about to allow herself to get caught up in whatever it is that takes down some of the sport’s greatest champions. She insists that from the moment the Pennington fight was made, the only time she thought of a superfight with Cyborg, the powerful featherweight champion, is when she’s been asked about it.

“We tried to make that fight happen because it’s a big fight and the fans wanted it, but it couldn’t happen at the time so I moved on,” she said. “I am excited for this fight, for sure, because I know how tough Raquel is. This is not an easy fight. I am always motivated for every fight and I promise you I will be motivated for this one, too.”

Nunes has long had obvious physical talent that led experts to proclaim her a future star. From the moment she pulled on MMA gloves for the first time, she was a frighteningly powerful puncher.

In her early days, though, she didn’t always deliver. She’s lost four times, including once to Cat Zingano in the UFC. But an interesting pattern developed after her losses. She was defeated in her pro debut by Ana “India” Maria, who submitted her in just 35 seconds with an arm bar. Maria went on to lose her next three bouts, while Nunes won six in a row.

(Top) Cat Zingano elbows Amanda Nunes in their women’s bantamweight fight during the UFC 178 event inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena on September 27, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Getty Images)

That streak was broken when Nunes was stopped in Strikeforce by Alexis Davis. Nunes won her next fight after that loss, while Davis lost to Sarah Kaufmann. Sarah D’Alelio handed Nunes a unanimous-decision defeat at Invicta 4 on Jan. 5, 2013, but then went on to lose three in a row. Nunes, of course, then won back-to-back fights. That led her to her UFC debut against Zingano, and after a dynamic first round, Nunes was gassed and Zingano stopped her in the third. But strangely, Zingano lost her next three while Nunes went off on a six-fight losing streak.

So the four fighters Nunes lost to have gone 0-9 in their next nine bouts after defeating her, while Nunes went 15-0 after losing to them.

It’s almost as if Nunes took something out of each of them after they fought, though she just shrugs.

“A loss can be good or a loss can be bad,” Nunes said. “I try to learn every time I have a fight, whether I win or lose. I want to be better the next time out. But I think I’ve gotten to a point where my confidence is good and I believe in myself and I have a good team supporting me and helping to make me better.”

A win would set Nunes up for the superfight with Cyborg, which UFC president Dana White still says “is the fight to make.”

While there may not be a more dominant MMA fighter than Cyborg this side of Jon Jones, Nunes’ success against the elite opposition she’s faced has taught her a lesson.

“The media pissed me off a lot when I fought Ronda,” she said. “It hurt me. ‘Ronda. Ronda. Ronda. Ronda.’ That’s all I heard. What about me? I was the champion in that fight, not Ronda. I just used that to make me stronger. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. Do the work and always push to get better and you know what? You can do very special things.”

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