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Istela Nunes happy to join UFC after being ‘screwed’ by ONE in Angela Lee title fight: ‘She missed weight’

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Istela Nunes, a former ONE Championship title contender, makes her UFC debut Saturday night.
Photo via ONE

Istela Nunes will finally make the walk to the octagon on Saturday night, facing fellow Brazilian strawweight Ariane Carnelossi in the preliminary portion of UFC Vegas 40, and brings to the table previous experience as a title contender in ONE Championship.

That fight specifically, Nunes said, had controversial layers that never were made public.

Nunes only had five professional bouts under her belt when she signed with ONE in 2016, defeating one of their top talents in Mei Yamaguchi to secure a shot at strawweight queen Angela Lee. Nunes lost via second-round submission, tapping to an anaconda choke, but said Lee should have been stripped of the belt.

“They kind of screwed me in my title fight,” Nunes said in an interview with MMA Fighting. “[Lee] didn’t make weight, she was at 58kg (127.8lbs). That should have been 30 percent [fine] of her purse and they didn’t give it to me. They screwed me. That’s why I lost. I didn’t want to fight. I wasn’t obligated to fight but they forced me to fight anyway, even if they didn’t pay me the [fine].”

ONE Championship did not immediately respond to MMA Fighting’s request for comment.

Fighters aren’t allowed to dehydrate under ONE Championship’s weight cutting system, and all divisions are 10 pounds heavier than in other promotions like the UFC and Bellator. The strawweight class, for example, is at 125 pounds rather than 115 pounds.

ONE’s weigh-in procedure isn’t open to media or fans like with other promotions weigh-ins, but the company has began to announce final weight and hydration results over the past few years. Lee’s alleged weight miss was never announced, and the champion revealed afterwards she was battling pneumonia days before the event.

“I was going to fight because of the 30 percent [fine],” Nunes said. “[Lee] was making $100,000, so 30 percent of that was $30,000. I said I’d fight. I saw there was a chance I’d beat her, but then they didn’t pay me. Anyway… They favored her a lot, they still do, so that happened.

“I put that on my [Instagram] stories that day, that she didn’t make weight,” she added. “They said she made weight, but no one let me see it. When I saw the first time she was way over, so you can’t fight. ONE isn’t like the UFC, where you can dehydrate. We have weight goals all the way. If you’re over that, there’s no fight. She was way over, she couldn’t even fight because it would count as dehydration. And they still favored her in every way possible. I was upset.”

Fourteen months after losing to Lee, Nunes fought out of her contract with a decision victory over Gina Iniong. The Brazilian strawweight said ONE offered her a new deal, but she ultimately chose to part ways.

“I was tired. That stressed me out, but it was a great promotion,” said Nunes, who “loved fighting for ONE” and would have re-signed with the company “if they didn’t favour their guys so much.” By “their guys” Nunes means Asian fighters and athletes who train and represent Evolve MMA, a martial arts team founded by ONE Championship CEO Chatri Sityodtong.

“If there’s a Brazilian [against] an Indian or whatever, they will try to favor the Indian,” Nunes said. “I don’t know why [laughs]. In a way, it’s always [going] their way.”

Nunes ended up signing with the UFC shortly after parting ways with ONE, but had to wait two years to make her debut after failing a drug test prior to her octagon debut. Nunes moved back from Florida to her mother’s house in Atibaia, Brazil, and began working in a petshop to make ends meet. Nunes considered retiring from the sport, but wasn’t ready to give up her MMA dream. On Saturday night, she faces friend and former training partner Carnelossi in the UFC Vegas 40 curtain jerker.

“She’s a good opponent and I think it’s going to be a good fight,” Nunes said. “She’s a striker that also grapples, and we’re ready. We can’t choose opponents, it’s my debut, but it’s cool. [Carnelossi’s coach Munil Adriano] joked that dinner’s on him after the fight, regardless of the result.”