Nina Ansaroff could barely withstand the onslaught that was coming at her. The Brazilian mixed martial artist Amanda Nunes in full flow, hands flying with the physicality of a terror, in all-out wrecking mode. They were wearing headguards, but the fists landed to the body and head of the American of Macedonian descent like huge, crashing waves of educated violence.
Within a few days of sparring together in Miami, six years ago, Nina knew what it was like to fight the woman known as ‘The Lioness’, now the holder of the UFC’s bantamweight and featherweight titles. And it was only training. Yet within weeks, sparring together turned to friendship and then love, and they are now a celebrated, admired couple together in the fight world.
They say that behind every great man is a great woman. But behind the UFC two-weight women’s champion Nunes – the first openly gay female champion – there exists an extraordinary female partner in Ansaroff, a mixed martial arts fighter in her own right in the world’s largest MMA fight league.
Psychatrist, rock, friend, training partner… and sweetheart.
There are other notable female couples in sport: UK field hockey players Kate Walsh and Helen Richardson; Billie Jean King and Ilana Kloss in tennis, and others, and most have an understanding of each other, their needs and desires, but the bond between Nunes and Ansaroff has created an extraordinary love story – the like of which fight fans have rarely ever seen.
Or perhaps even understood. They say that unity is strength. The union between Nunes and Ansaroff, in life in love and in fighting has become one of harmonic devotion. As Nunes prepares to defend the UFC women’s bantamweight title here at the T-Mobile Arena on Saturday night against former champion Holly Holm, Ansaroff is key to the champion’s preparations, always at her side.
Victory over Holm on Saturday would cap a period in which she has beaten the very best of this women’s era. But the start of the six-year relationship between Nunes and Ansaroff really was tough love, not real love. At their first meeting, in a gym in Miami, Nunes set about Ansaroff, a new training partner, like she did in destroying the infamous Ronda Rousey, in her comeback, at UFC 207.
Ansaroff was knocked from pillar to post by the Brazilian bruiser, just ‘another body’ to destroy. Yet rivalry turned to friendship, which melted to love. They are inseparable now . And formidable pioneers.
Their partnership was not always public or talked about, but it has underpinned the rise of Nunes to the top of the UFC’s bantamweight and featherweight ladder. Nunes and Ansaroff are convinced they were destined to be together. Soul mates for a cause. And for each other.
For Nunes, Ansaroff is her rock. “Nina knows everything about me. She helps me work with my emotions,” explained Nunes, who admits that Nina can no longer be a full-on sparring partner. “It’s hard to spar with her now because I don’t want to punch this face anymore,” says the UFC belt holder. Some sacrifices will never change. Not for the women who are champions.
“Since I met Nina it has changed my life,” explained Nunes. “I have a partner to do everything in life with. We do everything together. I am a champion, she will be a champion soon. We understand each other. When I’m stressed she cooks for me, she makes everything easy for me. She knows about Brazilian food – feijao, feijoada.”
Look back on Nunes’s journey, and the women in her life have always been guiding lights. Her older siblings – Vanessa and Valdirene, who were also practitioners of the gentle art, jiu jitsu – encouraged her into the sport. But there is nothing gentle about Nunes and her raison d’être for fighting.
Her mother recognized a fire, too, growing up in Bahia, 60 kilometres from Salvador. Her mother Ivete, once a boxer herself, recognised the need in her daughter to fight.
With six MMA fights under her belt – her first professional fight ended in defeat by the way, through an armour submission after just 35 seconds – it was off to America, where Nunes aimed to seek her fortune on the bigger shows. She moved to New Jersey, briefly, then to Miami, being spotted by Scott Coker to compete in Strikeforce.
In Miami, at the MMA Masters gym, her life was to change forever when Ansaroff walked in. At the time, Nunes “had no social life at all”, she recalls. She trained, ate, slept and repeated the shifts. She lived in the gym. She was also the only girl there – until Ansaroff’s arrival.
Nunes admits she was “really aggressive” with her training partner looking to “hurt her”. Nina, of course, is several pounds lighter, and Nunes, looking back says she saw the new girl as “a punching bag”. Ansaroff could have just walked away and gone back to American Top Team, but she was tougher than that. She insisted on staying. Their friendship grew, then something ‘clicked’ between them. A chemistry far stronger than fighting styles. A mutual attraction which has blossomed into a deep love.
“From there, we literally haven’t left each other’s side for four years. It’s been great,” explained Nunes. There were funny moments early on, too, like the language barrier. They began communicating, for example, by ‘google translate’ on their iPhones. “We started like that,” recalled Nunes. “I had my phone and I’d write… ‘I like you’… I want to kiss you’ … ‘Can I go watch a movie at your house ?’ We like to be with each other all the time, now” adds Nunes. “Since we met each other, we never spent a minute apart.”
At UFC 200, though, here in Las Vegas, it was the moment that Nunes emerged as the holder of UFC gold, a kiss and an embrace between them said it all. Tunes had busted up Miesha Tate, bloodied her and submitted her foe, and then arose as 135lbs champion from a rear naked choke. ‘Mata Leoa’ (rear naked choke submission in Brazilian) for the champion who sees herself as a ‘The Lioness’. Champion in front of the world. And seconds afterwards, as their lips met, a partnership made public.
They might not think it, see it or even be aware of it, but it drew questions toward Nunes about being the first openly gay UFC champion then, and with PRIDE celebrations having taken place in recent weeks in London, New York and San Francisco, the Nunes-Ansaroff coupling has a resonance.
Yet they are not political about their sexuality. “We never really talked about that aspect because it is what it is,” says Ansaroff. “But we now get lots of emails and messages from young women who are a struggling in their own lives, with their own sexuality, and we realise we can help. But I wouldn’t say we were really deeply aware of issues in the LGBT community.”
Apart from being fighters, they both have mothering instincts they have talked of. Endearingly, Nunes and Ansaroff would both like “to carry children”, and create a family together. “That decision will come when one of us or both of us choose not to fight. You can’t do both things,” says Ansaroff. “You can’t fight, and have a baby. And right now both of us want to fight.”
They have been through tough times, together, too, such as when they moved to a troubled neighbourhood in Little Haiti, in Miami, in 2013, after a spell living at Nina’s father’s home, where both were readily accepted. Both had gun licences and their was a firearm in the property in Little Haiti. They didn’t even wish to walk their dog at night. Crime was rife, drug deals were going on around the area. Police were constantly patrolling in the ‘naked city’. Once Nina’s father had visited, he insisted they move home.
They did. Paternal advice taken.
Quietly behind Nunes, an iron rod in her life, forever supporting her, is the powerful influence of Ansaroff, who admits she had never been calmer than when her partner was readying herself for the Tate and later, the Rousey and Cyborg Santos fights. “I knew Amanda would do it,” she recalls.
Ansaroff knew it, but they were too close for the message to come over. Ansaroff, three years older at 33, had encouraged Nunes “to evolve” behind the scenes, to think about her childhood again. Nunes now cites Nina as “a psychiatrist” and the key to her discovering calmness before fights.
At the behest of Ansaroff, Nunes reads self-help books, listens to music, swims and meditates. It means, according to Nunes, that her mind “does not consume my body’s entire energy” before fights. It will be no different this week, as the two women count down the hours together before Nunes leaves Ansaroff to make her solitary walk to the cage.