The plaudits came thick and fast. Amanda Nunes – with alarming vigour, and educated violence – had dropped, stopped and demolished Cristiane ‘Cyborg’ Santos. A decade as a professional fighter rolled into fifty-one seconds of near-perfection. Under a minute of mayhem, and Amanda ‘The Lioness’ had become the alpha female of mixed martial arts. A seek and destroy mission accomplished against a fighter capable of coming at you like a zombie horde.
Popular recognition for Nunes from fans and the fight industry followed. Rightly so. And in droves. And this year, unprecedented votes in the Fighters Only World MMA Awards: Female Fighter Of The Year, Upset Of The Year, KO Of The Year. Bing, bang, boom.
It sounds so simple. 51 seconds. Yet it has been hard-earned, and thoroughly deserved, through perseverance and pain, at the age of 30, for Nunes, often underrated, often dismissed even as just a brawler against whom victory could be gained if you could weather her early onslaughts. Not any more. Look at the record. This was Amanda’s seventh first round finish, her fifteenth ending by stoppage in seventeen fights. Everything came together in this brutal enactment of perfection. Maturity as an elite fighter, and an endless list of ‘gains’: the first female in UFC history to hold two titles simultaneously; add to that her earlier career resume triumphs over other former champions in Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate, as well as the current and very accomplished flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko, not once, but on two occasions.
Yes, glory over Cyborg capped a seminal moment for the once-scrapper-cum-knockout-artist. It turned her into a bespoke champion, and one we should truly celebrate for all those reasons, stacked one on another.
Look at the facts in even more detail. Cyborg came into the bout against Nunes still widely-regarded as the greatest female fighter in MMA history, sporting a record of 20-1, with one no-contest. Without question, the most destructive and dangerous female fighter, to this point, we have witnessed in this modern era of grappling, flying hands, feet, knees and elbows. Cyborg had not lost since 2005; she had been taken to a decision just once since 2008. And yet Nunes eviscerated Cyborg. The victory saw Nunes become the UFC’s sixth fighter in its history to win titles in multiple weight classes, the first woman to accomplish the feat, and the third fighter to hold two titles at the same time. She followed in the footsteps of Conor McGregor and Daniel Cormier, and we know how highly they will always be regarded. Emeritus champions, game changers. That is the sphere Nunes nows inhabits.
It’s worth recalling the fight Nunes had with Cyborg, and what she accomplished. It’s unforgettable, an education in the application of fighting arts. Go back and watch it, re-live it. See how much it meant in the aftermath. Nunes and Santos tap, both tense. Perhaps Cyborg appearing more so than Nunes. They circle, both looking to command from the centre of the Octagon. Nunes throws a huge winging right hand after fending out a jab, both missing on seventeen seconds into the dance. Nunes is momentarily off balance from throwing her body and right hip and back leg from the orthodox stance through that right hand. Wild, almost. Yet calculated. In response, Cyborg, with the same vicious intent, misses with left-right-left, but is caught by a deft, hard counter left jab up the middle from the woman known as ‘The Lioness’.
They reset, but Santos is now hunting, her forward motion trapped by a Nunes lower leg kick and right hand which torques the champion. Nunes circles left and away as a barrage of hooks fire from Santos in her direction. Both the champion’s hands are flying, almost everything missing, until Nunes, her back to the cage wall, and very very aware, tags the advancing destroyer with left, then right hooks, buckling the advancing terror to her knees. Cyborg is still throwing hard, having regained her feet, but beginning to drown in the fight. In comes another right hand from Nunes, and now Santos is back-peddling, yet another right flooring her momentarily, still throwing back, desperate, looking to regain a foothold in the fight.
But Nunes won’t let her. Doubly focused, twice more Santos is dropped by those heavy rights hands of Nunes, the second right hand sending the falling champion sideways and down. Referee Marc Goddard has seen enough and he steps in to end the short war. A whirlwind of winging punches in a frightening terrain. And utterly compelling.
Scenes of delirium follow. Nunes climbs out of the Octagon and goes to shake the hand of UFC president Dana White. Then, searching in the crowd Octagonside, the newly crowned champion is embraced by her life partner and fellow fighter Nina Ansaroff, then the huge figure of coach Conan Silveira, and then Nunes is ushered back inside the Octagon.
Overcome with emotion, she lies there on her back, looking upwards, her body spread across the huge green M (for ‘Monster’) logo. Her life flashes before her. This long journey to this moment seems overwhelming. Clasping her mouthguard in one hand, with both hands over her eyes, Nunes is crying hard, joy and relief running through her adrenaline-filled body. Santos was hellbent on destruction, but fell into the type of fight that Nunes has made an art form, built her fanbase from. This was quick, efficient, brutal and installed Nunes as a candidate for the Greatest Of All Time in women’s mixed martial arts. Nunes has become a champ-champ, the UFC bantamweight and featherweight titles are hers and she has beaten Santos, arguably the most destructive female fighter we have ever seen, at her own game.
That night in Inglewood, California, at the iconic venue of The Forum, Nunes saw to Cyborg to crown her greatest career triumph, surpassing anything that had come before. Yet the signs of fight maturity had been there long in the making: there was a second victory over Valentina Shevchenko in Canada, and in the previous year Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate and a first triumph over Shevchenko, all in Sin City. That triple success in 2016 saw Nunes lay claim to the World MMA Awards Female Fighter of the Year for the first time. But she had gotten better, more contained, more destructive, using her best assets allied with a concerted game plan. Good enough for Cyborg, the ultimate test, a division above Nunes’s natural weight.
Letters to the the two division champion poured in through the New Year into 2019. Many were to tell Nunes that she is the GOAT of women’s MMA. “Every time I sign them, I sit back. Everybody tells me now. I have to say I am, because people tell me, everybody tells me. I believe them and now I say I am. I deserve everything that I have in my life.”
There is no easy rise to greatness. Nunes, and her story, are the living embodiment of that and the Brazilian fighter’s climb to be considered the greatest female MMA exponent of the modern era could not have been accomplished without the pillars of her life being in place. She has her family, intertwined with her gym ‘family’, partner Ansaroff criss-crossing the needs and wants of a fighter, and most likely sacrificing a great deal herself. Such is love over ambition. Or love with ambition. Then at American Top Team, the guidance of her gym ‘father’ Conan Silveira, who has a wisdom not just in fighting, but in life.
As Nunes herself admits, the feeling of going to the gym now, around her team, is a deep, enveloping security blanket. Nunes does not need encouraging to be tough, to take it to the limit, but she has also shown that her well-being will not be taken lightly, just as she pulled out of UFC 213 at the eleventh hour with acute sinusitis, not a panic attack as became the rumour at the time. “When I walk in the gym, the energy I get is amazing,” she explains, working and growing together under the Silveira, who has become one of the leading lights in MMA coaching.
Silveira, seeing Nunes as much a daughter as she sees a paternal figure in him, told me before that contest with Cyborg that their study of the Brazilian’s movements were so closely scrutinised that they knew their counters and attacks by heart. Moreover, they were convinced that their foe would come out firing on all cylinders. And they knew they had the firepower to be devastating.
So it proved.
What they also knew, from years of Amanda’s sparring with men and women, was how hard she could bang. And she did. It was a triumph of technique, and great use of her skillset, against a frightening proposition. Styles make fights. And Cyborg was made for her. From hereonin, only legacy fights remain.
At home with Ansaroff, there are the daily reminders of love and war. “I look at my belts and say ‘I love you’. Every time you defend the belts, you prove something more,” explained Nunes recently. But it has been some fight to get here. This extraordinary love story, to start with, between Nunes and Ansaroff, which has become an unshakeable bond. Partners in love and life. It can’t be broken. But the start of their four-year relationship 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 Ronda Rousey at UFC 207. Ansaroff was knocked from pillar to post by the Brazilian bruiser. Ansaroff was just ‘another body’ for Nunes to destroy.
As Ansaroff recalls, before there was any relationship, there was that sparring session. Ansaroff was the new girl in the gym, it was the territory of the Lioness, Nunes was coming off a loss – to Cat Zingano – and according to Nina, Nunes was “on fire” letting rip with the anger of the loss. But opposites attract, rivalry turned to friendship, which has melted to love. They are now inseparable. Soul mates. Their partnership was not always public or talked about, but it has underpinned the powerful rise of Nunes.
The early life of Nunes set the template. Brought up as the youngest of three sisters by a single mother in Pojuca, a small town 41 miles from Salvador — the capital of Bahia, in Brazil, she was in good hands. Ivete, her mother, a boxer herself, recognised the traits of her daughter. The young kid Amanda had fights in the streets, so her mother took her to capoeira classes, where she learnt the traditional dance and martial art brought to Brazil by African slaves, and from there it was on to karate classes, boxing gyms, and a developing life in the fighting arts. The family were naturally tough. At 16, Amanda enrolled in jiu-jitsu, influenced by her sisters, Vanessa and Valdirene. The first great leap forward for Nunes, prior to coming to the USA, was a move to Salvador, the only woman living and training in Edson Carvalho’s gym there. Immersed in that life, Amanda had cleaned the mats in the morning, trained all day, and then grappled and sparred with men, always holding her own.
It was here, moreover, where she first became ‘the Lioness’, given that the logo on Carvalho’s gym was two lions, and Nunes was the only female in that gym. Competing in grappling and MMA tournaments, Nunes had a run of success. But it was not any way of making a real living, so she turned to MMA in 2008, losing her first fight to Ana Maria India. By armbar. In 35 seconds, Nunes learnt herself that MMA that it was not a brawl, but an art form.
Undeterred, and with a burgeoning reputation as a knockout artist, raw, aggressive and heavy-handed, Nunes continued on her learning curve. All the way to Cyborg. Nunes has been finessed, cajoled into being studied and following a gameplan, but always ready to explode with her own devastating force.
So Brazil could not hold her. MMA was growing, and the USA and bigger fight leagues had become the Holy Grail. She moved to New Jersey, then to Miami, being spotted by Scott Coker to compete in Strikeforce. In Miami, her life was to change forever. In walked Nina Ansaroff. They became training partners. At the time, Nunes “had no social life”, she recalls. She trained, ate, slept and rinsed again. She lived in the gym. She was also the only girl there – until Ansaroff’s arrival, the Floridian of Macedonian descent having come there from American Top Team, to train with her.
Nunes, looking back, has said she saw the new girl as “a punching bag”. 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. “We like to be with each other all the time, now. Since we met each other, we never spent a minute apart.”
“The best thing I ever did was move to the USA, to be honest. 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. We understand each other. When I’m stressed she cooks for me, she makes everything easy for me.” Soul mates.
“Nina knows everything about me. She helps me work with my emotions,” says the UFC double belt holder.
“I want to live here forever.” Ansaroff, three years older, has encouraged Nunes “to evolve”, to think about her childhood again. Nunes now cites Nina “as a psychiatrist” and the key to her discovering calmness before fights. With Ansaroff’s encouragement, Nunes reads self-help books, listens to music, swims and has learnt to meditate. It has meant her mind would not “consume my body’s entire energy” before fights. Part of the process of building a complete fighter. Just as Conan the coach knew that his charge had “a bad style for Ronda”, just as he knew she would have the armoury to destroy Cyborg. As he says about Nunes. “She’s good in everything she does. She is a true fighter. She will fire on you in any situation and from any angle, stand up or on the ground. She responds amazingly.”
Rousey, the former women’s star, crumbled before the feeding ‘Lioness’. It led to the confidence to destroy all-comers, including Cyborg. For all her raging in the fight arena, there is a gentility and a serenity about Nunes, a relaxed quality about her energy. Always ready for battle. The Lioness, inked forever as a great of the women’s sport, admired and loved in equal measure.
This article first appeared in Fighters Only Magazine.