Nina Ansaroff showed up to Toronto an underdog for her fight with Claudia Gadelha at UFC 231, and for a little while there the odds-makers seemed prophetic. Yet when Ansaroff began to exact her jab onto Gadelha’s chin, and lay into Gadelha with crisp combinations and kicks, and fluster her with speed and jagged head movement, the fight swung — somewhat declaratively — in her favor.
For most spectators, that unanimous decision against a top-flight contender was an eye-opener. Yet for one observer, it was something far more nerve-racking. Ansaroff’s fiancée and training partner, Amanda Nunes, had chewed her nails down to nubs before the fight. And she was nervous up until the first exchanges. Yet when she saw that Ansaroff was making Gadelha dance to her tune — that she was showing exactly what she was capable of — Nunes exhaled, and began to enjoy the fight.
Or rather, she enjoyed the emotional roller coaster of watching a loved one compete.
“I still haven’t recovered from Nina’s fight,” Nunes says. “That was a hard fight for me. I knew she was ready, but in MMA, you never really know. It can go wrong fast. But when I saw the first round, it made me more relaxed.”
It’s been a December to remember for the power couple Ansaroff and Nunes, both of whom train at American Top Team in Florida. Ansaroff was able to leap into contention in the women’s strawweight division by outclassing one of the weight class’s toughest outs. She kicked off the month with a triumph for the couple. But it was always a two-part deal.
Now it’s Nunes’ turn. The women’s bantamweight champion is going up a weight class to not only challenge the featherweight champion at UFC 232 in Los Angeles, but perhaps the greatest female fighter of all time — Cris Cyborg. If that feels like a harrowing task, it’s doubly so for Ansaroff, who this time will be cageside sweating her own bullets. Both Nunes and Ansaroff are far more nervous watching the other fight than going in there and competing themselves. Why? Because for the spectator everything is beyond control. This time it’s Ansaroff’s knuckles turning as white, and it’s her waiting to see if Nunes can go in there and live up to her full ability.
“The only thing you hope for is that they do all you know they can do,” Ansaroff says. “It has nothing to do with whether they are going to win or lose or get hurt. You know what they’re capable of, and you’re hoping they can show what they have.
“For the longest time Amanda struggled with me, because she knows how I am in the gym. She knows what a talented fighter I am. I know she’s just hoping that that night I can put it together. And that’s how I feel about her. I know she can beat any woman in the world, I just want her to do it that night.”
Nunes and Ansaroff are engaged to be married, yet everything is on hold while they take care of the business at hand. Win or lose on Saturday night, at some point in the near future — the date has not yet been set — Nunes will marry the woman who helped make her one of the most elite fighters in the world, while providing her an ability to feel comfortable in her own skin. There are plans to start a family, which may have been expedited had Ansaroff lost to Gadelha. For now that becomes a dangling carrot, something that can happily wait.
Likewise, Ansaroff credits Nunes for helping her during — and believing in her through — the darkest times in her MMA career. When she was in the midst of a two-fight losing streak and getting ready to take on Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger in early 2017, Nunes stood with her as she approached her own crossroads fight.
Win and keep fighting; lose and hang them up.
“It can be frustrating,” Ansaroff says. “Then you feel like, I don’t have anything to prove to anyone anymore. If it’s not working out, it’s just not for me. A lot of fighters just don’t realize that. Some take five knockouts in a row, or find themselves living paycheck to paycheck, and sometimes it just doesn’t happen. There are 500 fighters out there, and only 12 with the belt — how are you going to sit there and say everyone’s going to be a champion some day? It’s not realistic.
“So I knew then I had the capability, but I just needed the opportunity and it wasn’t coming. And then after that [Jones-Lybarger] fight I was like, look, now it’s either going to come or it’s not. I knew if I’d lost that fight, there was a possibility that I’d get cut, and then I was done. I wasn’t going to go start from zero again making $500 or a $1000 a show. And it happened. I won. And I’ve been running with it.”
Nunes has been Ansaroff’s rock through her spirited run up the ranks. And Ansaroff has stood with Nunes through one of the longest current championship streaks in the UFC. Nunes hasn’t lost a fight since a 2014 TKO against Cat Zingano. It’s been a storybook run. She essentially retired two of the most recognizable icons in women’s MMA history — Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate — while taking out current flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko not once, but twice. Ansaroff has been in her corner throughout.
They’ve given each other love and support, but also plenty of tough love. There have been plenty of times when awkward confrontations take place, and there’s always competitive directness.
“It’s easy to wake up one day and both of us be like, ‘I’m tired,’” Nunes says. “If one of us wants to go to the gym, you don’t want to be the one who’s like, no I’m tired, it’s usually like yeah you’re right, we probably should, and we end up going. But we fight sometimes. Maybe Nina has a bad sparring day, and I’ll tell her, you looked like shit today. And we start an argument, but we can laugh after. We push each other like that. Making fun of each other sometimes.”
“We’ve gotten to that point in the relationship where we both know neither one of us is going anywhere,” Ansaroff says. “We’re going to have to deal with the criticism, and we laugh it off by the end of the day.”
Who’d have known a few years ago when they first met that at some point they’d be in a spot to become the UFC’s power couple?
“I remember when I met Nina, I went and brushed my teeth, and I opened the bathroom door, and she was right there in front of me,” Nunes says. “My gym at the time, it had only guys. I was living there, and right then Nina shows up with a mutual friend of ours. And when I saw Nina the first day, saw her work, I talked to my coach, and said this girl has a huge future. You guys should help train her. Since that day we’re we’ve been together until today.”
The way Ansaroff remembers it, she just saw another competitor in the gym, and that alone sent up her antennae.
“No, there weren’t sparks,” she says. “It was more like, okay, this is a competitive female. She was bigger than me, so it was new for me to train with somebody bigger. So at first it was a competitive spark. And then from there it turned into something else.”
If ever there was a legacy fight, Nunes has found herself one against Cyborg. Not only is Nunes a severe underdog, many consider her just the next slab of steak being slid under the door. It’s not the first time Nunes has been an underdog in a fight, but it’s the first time since winning her own title that she’s been so casually overlooked.
What does she think about being an afterthought?
“I love that kind of role,” she says. “Love it. It takes all the pressure off me. I love that. Honestly, I literally lay down in my bed and sleep and don’t think about anything. I love taking this kind of fight. You know what you’re capable of, and everyone around you knows. I also love to surprise people. I love to see all those surprised faces after the fight.”
People didn’t see Ansaroff coming at the beginning of December. It’s no different with Nunes at the end of the month.
“You know, whatever people say, nothing’s going to change it — what I think, what I’m capable of,” Nunes says. “I’m going to step in the cage and show everybody and take this belt home with me. This is a huge moment in my career, and it’s for me — for my life, for my career. That’s why I decided to do the fight.”
If there’s one true believer, it’s the one sitting next to her as she says this. It’s Ansaroff. They’ve been through some hard times, and now they’re going through the good. They are openly gay. They are world-beaters. They are happy. There is a sense of history, ever so lightly in play, yet neither is content. If Nunes upsets Cyborg in California, she will have to be considered among the very best women’s fighters of all time. She will have accomplished, very quietly, what no other woman in UFC history has done. That is, hold belts in two different weight classes, while knocking off the sport’s most celebrated icons.
Yet even with that prospect on the immediate horizon, Nunes just as easily thinks about a third belt — the strawweight title, which wouldn’t go around her waist but would mean just as much.
“I want to see Nina fight for the belt,” she says, beaming with the thought. “She deserves that moment in her life, because she saw everything happen in my life — she deserves her moment.”