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Few fighters in MMA history can boast the accolades of Amanda Nunes. She’s won titles in two divisions, successfully defended her bantamweight championship five consecutive times, and holds wins over the likes of Ronda Rousey, Cris Cyborg, Miesha Tate, and Holly Holm. This weekend, she defends of her featherweight title for the first time when she fights Felicia Spencer in the main event of UFC 250.
Despite her staggering accomplishments, Nunes has not proven to be a reliable box office draw, nor does she have the mainstream cachet of the likes of Rousey or current peers such as Conor McGregor and Jon Jones. This can be attributed to a variety of factors, but the question remains, is it too late for Nunes to become a star attraction?
Jed Meshew and Alexander K. Lee go head-to-head to determine what the future might hold for Nunes.
IT AIN’T HAPPENING BECAUSE NUNES DOESN’T HAVE ‘IT’
Meshew: You know how I know Amanda Nunes is never going to be a draw? Because I can add.
Amanda Nunes is the greatest female fighter of all time – that much is beyond contestation. Frankly, she may just be the greatest fighter of all time, full stop. But of the many things that have been conclusively established in this sport, it’s that excellence and interest do not go hand in hand. Yes, you need excellence to have any kind of sustained star power (or at least, you need to keep winning), but excellence alone grants you nothing more than a shiny belt and plaudits from MMA hardcore fandom.
For instance, look at Demetrious Johnson. The man known as “Mighty Mouse” is the most accomplished UFC champion of all time, with 11 straight successful title defenses, nine performance bonuses, and a “Fighter of the Year” title. But despite all that, Dana White damn near had to paper arenas when Johnson was headlining events, and he ended up trading the champ away for a guy who went 1-2 in the UFC and then retired — and it was a good trade!
The thing with star power is you don’t grow it. You have it or you don’t. People are very good at spotting “it,” even if they don’t really know what “it” is, and I’m sorry to say, but Nunes categorically lacks “it.” God love her, but Amanda Nunes is not “cool” by any traditional definition. She owns an actual goat. She wears a lion mask that could be part of a low-budget horror film franchise. She has this tattoo. These are not the actions of a person who is cool, and thus, not the actions of a star.
Nunes is also not particularly intimidating. Don’t get me wrong, “The Lioness” is a damn machine who I wouldn’t want to fight. But if you saw her walking down the street, you wouldn’t think, “Oh sh*t, there goes the baddest motherf**ker in two shoes.” Cris Cyborg had this going for her, as did Brock Lesnar.
This is where the naysayers will inevitably say, “None of what you said is true. Anderson Silva is a dork and he became a draw. Amanda is only 32 and still has plenty of time to develop a following like ‘The Spider’ did.” To which I respond, nonsense. Anderson Silva is a legend, but his star power is a myth. Anderson headlined 19 pay-per-view events over his UFC career. Only two of them broke 750,000 buys and only one of them topped a million. Those two events were the rematches with Chael Sonnen and Chris Weidman, respectively – marquee events with massive promotional push and captivating, easily digestible storylines. Other than that, Silva was merely a better-than-average UFC star, despite being branded the greatest fighter ever. His most recent PPV — a fight against Israel Adesanya no less — pulled in just 175,000 buys.
More to the point, though, look at the list of contemporaries from which Silva had to build his star: Rich Franklin, Dan Henderson, Forrest Griffin, Sonnen, Vitor Belfort. Aside from all of them being Hall of Famers (or future Hall of Famers), that is also a list of massively popular fighters. Sorry Charlie, but Felicia Spencer isn’t bringing in the same kind of recognition.
And there’s the rub for Nunes. Despite being champion of two divisions, there’s no one interesting left for her to fight, at least in the public perception. She already demolished Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate in headlining roles on two of the biggest events in the company’s history — UFC 200 and UFC 207 respectively — and that got her exactly nowhere. Her next bout clocked 100,000 buys, and the one after that, a measly 85,000. That’s probably why afterward, she was restricted to co-main event duty, even for her fight with Cyborg.
Now, as I’m sure you will point out, this isn’t all her fault. The UFC is actually quite terrible at building stars and instead just harnesses those ones that make themselves popular (remember when they tried to make Sage Northcutt a thing, bless their hearts). But the fact remains, Nunes had her chance to get over with the fans. She’s fought Rousey, Cyborg, Tate, and Holly Holm, and yet still draws worse than a third-grade art student. If Nunes was going to be a draw, she’d be one already.
As Max Holloway says, it is what it is.
THE LIONESS WILL HAVE HER DAY
Lee: There’s still time.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the fight game for the athletes involved has to be that there is no proven formula that guarantees mainstream recognition and massive paydays. Tyron Woodley never figured it out. Neither did Fedor Emelianenko (in North America), Demetrious Johnson, nor Jose Aldo (not that any of them seem to care all that much). And even if you look at those lucky enough to achieve stardom, there is no pattern.
Conor McGregor, Georges St-Pierre, Chuck Liddell, Brock Lesnar, Ronda Rousey, Chael Sonnen, Kimbo Slice, and Bob Sapp. That’s just a sampling of the fighters that became legitimate money makers in MMA, and they have a lot more differences than they have similarities. Yet for all of them, some inherent and inimitable quality of theirs clicked with audiences.
I say all this to frame the issue that Nunes is facing. No matter how many impressive finishes she authors, no matter how many successful title defenses she strings together, it takes that elusive “it” factor – plus a lot of luck – to break through to the broad public consciousness (and to get that public to shell out 65 bucks to watch you fight).
Does Nunes have her shortcomings as far as being a dynamic celebrity? Sure. But rather than help to hide those weaknesses and accentuate her strengths, the UFC essentially let her drift on her own or worse, sabotaged her marketing potential.
Remember, Nunes was prominently featured on several massive cards. She and Valentina Shevchenko opened the main card of UFC 196, a show that drew over 1.5 million buys thanks to the first Conor McGregor-Nate Diaz fight. She ended up headlining UFC 200 (over one million buys) opposite Tate after a bout between Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier fell through and then had her first title defense against Rousey at UFC 207 (over one million buys again). Even though she was the B-side against Tate and Rousey and the presence of much larger stars drove the buys on those cards, the fact remains that a lot of viewers were able to see Nunes fight and win.
Yet following her win over Tate, Nunes wasn’t granted the kind of media tour that Tate, Holm, and Rousey were feted with following their championship triumphs. Rather than focus on her being the first Brazilian women’s UFC champion, or the first openly gay champion, or even just the one-sided beatdown she put on Tate, her moment was given the unremarkable pomp and circumstance that has become a UFC trademark at this point, and within months, the focus shifted from the new champ to the return of Rousey.
The media failed her here too, as so much of the build-up to UFC 207 was about Rousey’s on-screen absence as opposed to the growing presence of Nunes. Since winning the belt, Nunes has shown she has a vibrant and playful persona, but you wouldn’t know that through any marketing on the UFC’s part. And after dispatching Rousey in 48 seconds, again the focus was on Rousey’s downfall and not Nunes’s rise.
The biggest blow to Nunes’s image was delivered by none other than Dana F. White himself, who threw his champion all the way under the bus because she was forced out of the UFC 213 main event due to a bout of chronic sinusitis that required a trip to the hospital. Forget the fact that her rematch with Valentina Shevchenko was simply re-booked to take place two months later. The damage was done.
But again, there’s still time.
The easiest way for Nunes to make a jump in notoriety is to find herself rivals that can either sell a fight better than she can or present a compelling threat. Her countryman Anderson Silva was a solid draw during his middleweight championship run, but his biggest numbers came in rematches with the talkative Sonnen and the usurper Chris Weidman.
A dynamic challenger emerging from the bantamweight or featherweight ranks would do wonders for Nunes’s legacy. Ironically, losing to Felicia Spencer this weekend could actually help to build intrigue for Nunes’s future fights.
Not to harp on the Silva comparison too much, but keep in mind that Nunes is potentially still in the first part of what could be a legendary stretch for her. Silva’s early UFC conquests included Dan Henderson and Rich Franklin, but there were also several undercooked challengers in there. The best could still be yet to come for Nunes, especially if she avoids listless outings like her most recent against Germaine de Randamie.
The UFC has to do its part, too. Keep that same promotional energy that you have for McGregor, Jones, Diaz, and Masvidal when she fights. Use your relationship with ESPN to put all over their programming. Let people know that they are witnessing history in the making every time she steps into the cage. And for goodness sake if she has to miss a fight, support her, as opposed to cutting her down.
At 32, Nunes is in her prime, and it’s not inconceivable that absence could make the heart grow fonder should she take time off in the near future to start a family. When she returns, the hope would be that fresh challengers have emerged and fans realize they didn’t know what they had until it was gone.
There’s a lot “ifs” involved here, but that speaks more to the fickle nature of MMA stardom than any insurmountable shortcomings on Nunes’s part. We know she can take care of business on fight night, and the door isn’t closed on her doing big business for the UFC someday.
Can Amanda Nunes become a superstar?
This poll is closed
Yes, the best is yet to come for her
No, it’s already proven that she can’t