The women's 135-pound crown has been the MMA hot potato since Holly Holm ripped it from Ronda Rousey at UFC 193 in November 2015. Including Holm, there have been three new champions in the span of 14 months. Holm was submitted by Miesha Tate in her first defense, and Tate was dispatched by Amanda Nunes in her first defense. Nunes is the first person since Rousey to successfully defend the strap, as she obliterated the formerly dominant champion at UFC 207 in December. The question facing Nunes now, then, is whether she will be able to establish a new reign of supremacy, or will her stay atop the division be similarly short-lived?
The problem for the women's bantamweight champion, whoever that has been since UFC 193, is that none of them has been well-rounded. Rousey badly lacked striking defense or the ability to change tack. Tate was able to exploit Holm's inexperience on the mat once she was finally able to drag her there. And Nunes took advantage of Tate's hittability early in fights with her crushing power. This fatal flaw - having a glaring weakness that the right opponent would expose - could include Nunes.
That question might be answered this Saturday (January 28, 2017) at UFC on FOX 23. Nunes' next challenger for the bantamweight title will likely announce herself in the main event, as top-ranked 135ers Julianna Pena and Valentina Shevchenko collide. A win for either woman, particularly a decisive one, could convince Nunes that she has unfinished business at bantamweight before she chases a belt in the newly formed featherweight division.
Does either woman possess the skill set to beat the champion?
Nunes' Strengths and Weaknesses
Let's start with Nunes and her strengths. Undeniably, she has developed into a lethal striker. She is also a strong clinch fighter, both with strikes and takedowns, boasting a brown belt in judo. And she is a dangerous submission artist, with her black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. "The Lioness" is particularly fearsome in top position, capable of unleashing thunderous ground and pound.
What, then, is the deficiency that the right foe could potentially exploit in Nunes' game? With one loss in the Octagon and another close call, at least one must exist. We saw one limitation to her all-offense, all-the-time strategy in her recent decision win over Shevchenko. Nunes sealed a competitive first round with a late trip takedown. She then caught a Shevchenko kick early in round two and spent the rest of the round pounding her from top position. But round three exposed a problem of Nunes': she tired badly. "Bullet" got her own takedown on the exhausted Brazilian and clearly took the frame. Two more rounds could have seen her emerge the victor.
Nunes' only UFC loss came to former top contender Cat Zingano, again in the third round. In addition to cardio being a weakness, Zingano and Shevchenko were both able to have success when they planted Nunes. "The Lioness" was much less dangerous from her back.
So an opponent able to avoid getting smashed on the feet or taken down, able to push a high pace in the later rounds, and capable of threatening with takedowns of her own could give Nunes trouble.
The Contenders' Pros and Cons
Both women are coming off the most significant victories of their careers. Former "The Ultimate Fighter" winner Pena emerged victorious as an underdog from her UFC 200 bout with Zingano. "Bullet", meanwhile, took a convincing five-round decision from former champ Holly Holm. Both of them showcased what makes them among the best bantamweights in the sport in those fights.
Pena was able to control - and largely beat up - Zingano in two of their three rounds in the cage together. In addition to wielding ferocious ground and pound herself, Pena mixes in submission attempts more frequently and is a little craftier off her back than Nunes. She also has outstanding cardio. "The Venezuelan Vixen" has uncorked extended barrages of strikes on the ground without showing any sign of slowing down, and she has maintained a high pace for 15 straight minutes in the past.
But Pena's striking is, frankly, not good. I would even call it Rousey-esque. She relies on aggression and pressure, charging relentlessly forward and counting on her physicality to wade through counters and force her opponent to retreat. Sound familiar? Jessica Eye lit her up with a counter combination at the end of the second round in their fight. And Jessica Eye is no Amanda Nunes. Unlike Rousey, though, Pena adjusted. She barely struck with Zingano, initiating clinch and grappling exchanges at every opportunity, and Zingano obliged her.
Shevchenko, meanwhile, soundly outstruck a very technical striker in Holm, the former boxing and kickboxing champion. Shevchenko, a former Muay Thai champ in her own right, is a pure counter fighter, and she tagged Holm with right hooks repeatedly in their 25-minute headliner. She was able to pull off such an impressive feat with her masterful control of distance. Shevchenko was largely able to step just out of range of Holly's kicks while landing her own, and she landed better punching combinations when Holly closed in on her.
But Shevchenko showed chinks in her armor in her loss to Nunes. The judo black belt wrestled Sarah Kaufman (and Nunes in round three) well, but when she herself was taken down, her defense and get-ups left something to be desired. The striking output of "Bullet" can also be unimpressive if opponents refuse to come to her, and she will spend too much time waiting on them.
Shevchenko already demonstrated that she would be a tough matchup for Nunes. She showed she can survive the early onslaught from "The Lioness". Doing so again would likely net her a championship, as rounds three, four, and five would start to swing dramatically her in favor. With her ability to compete on the feet and in the clinch, I give Shevchenko an excellent chance of seeing round three again, and therefore, taking the strap.
Pena, too, could pull it off, but it's less likely. Without the threat of her striking to keep the champion honest, Nunes could focus solely on avoiding the clinch in the early rounds, just as she was able to do with Rousey. But Pena's more diverse wrestling attack could aid her where Rousey's reliance on clinch takedowns doomed her. And in top position or in the later rounds, again, the pendulum would swing decisively in the direction of the challenger.
Saturday's main event is a critical showcase for Shevchenko and Pena, but it is just as important for Nunes. The outcome could determine whether she continues to reign as champion.