UFC 277 takes place this Saturday at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. The main event is an immediate title rematch between women’s bantamweight champion Julianna Peña and former champion Amanda Nunes. Peña authored one of the biggest upsets in MMA history in their first fight, submitting Nunes in the second round at UFC 269, and now “The Venezuelan Vixen” looks to make it two for two over the women’s MMA GOAT.
Let’s take a look at what each woman needs to do to win, any X-factors in play, and ultimately what will happen on Saturday night.
Paths to Victory for Julianna Peña at UFC 277
Peña is not a technically beautiful fighter (in many respects neither is Nunes, but that’s for later). Her striking is rudimentary, her defense negligible, and while she’s a good grappler, it’s far from a superpower. Many women have gone to the ground with Peña and lived to tell the tale. Fortunately, she doesn’t need to excel in any of those areas to have success against Nunes, because the playbook on how to win is already out there. She wrote it. At UFC 269, Peña took home the bantamweight belt because of three key factors: Her jab, her durability, and her ability to make the fight ugly. To pull off the upset again, she’ll need a lot more of the same.
In their first fight, Nunes had a solid opening round, but in the second, Peña uglied the fight up. She drew Nunes into brawling exchanges by simply willing it into existence. Peña was content to trade one-for-one in the middle, and Nunes, who could probably knock out a moose, made the reasonable calculation that these exchanges favored her. As it turns out, Peña’s chin is more durable than a moose, and while her face got turned into tenderized hamburger, Peña never cracked. Instead, she began landing the better shots in the exchanges. Before long Peña was repeatedly catching Nunes on the end of her jab, slicing through her winging shots and rattling “The Lioness.” And once that happened, the fight was all but over.
To win this time around, Peña needs to do more of the same. Peña isn’t going to win a classical kickboxing bout with Nunes, and given Nunes’ ability to shut down takedowns, Peña spamming single-legs is likely to help Nunes more than herself. Instead, Peña needs to consent to getting lumped up early, but making sure that she’s landing back when it happens. Forcing the issue against Nunes, staying in her face with volume and hitting her with a ton of jabs may draw Nunes into another ugly brawl, and if it doesn’t, it will definitely make her work. Cardio has long been Nunes’ achilles’ heel, and after a few rounds of pushing the pace, the former champion will tire and the current champ can then start getting to work with her grappling game. If Peña really puts the pressure on, Nunes may fold in the championship rounds. But if not, that’s still probably enough to win a decision.
Paths to victory for Amanda Nunes at UFC 277
Unsurprisingly, for Nunes to reclaim the title, she needs to do almost none of what she did in their first encounter. Fortunately for “The Lioness,” there’s a a near note-perfect blueprint out there for her to follow. Conor McGregor laid it out for her.
Peña-Nunes is essentially a carbon copy of McGregor vs. Nate Diaz I. McGregor was a bit overconfident, came out swinging, tagged Diaz repeatedly with shots that normally finish his opponents, and then when Diaz was still there, he swung even harder and started getting caught before eventually gassing out and getting rear-naked choked. A few months later, McGregor won the rematch by fighting a much smarter fight, and Nunes needs to do the same. In fact, she should basically do exactly what McGregor did.
McGregor won his rematch with Diaz primarily by refusing to get drawn into the sort of high-volume exchanges that favored Diaz. The pace stayed fairly high, but the engagements were short and McGregor did a ton of work with leg kicks at range — nearly a quarter of his strikes were leg kicks — because Diaz is awful at defending them. Peña is also terrible at stopping low kicks, and mostly just consents to taking them and trying to throw back. In their first fight, Nunes did a great job of chopping the lead leg before getting sucked into a brawl. That needs to be a priority for her this time around.
Another comparison point with the McGregor-Diaz bouts is the power. In the first fight, McGregor was overly aggressive and punched himself out. In the rematch, knowing that Diaz could take his best shots, McGregor let his power speak for itself instead of building a game plan around landing big shots. Essentially, McGregor let the big shots come to him instead of forcing them, and as a result, he dropped Diaz a number of times. Nunes would be well served to do the same. Peña is extremely hittable and will walk herself onto big shots. Nunes can take advantage of that, but needs to make sure she exits afterward and doesn’t get sucked down into the muck again.
Let’s be clear, Nunes has most of the technical and physical advantages in this bout. She’s faster, hits harder, is the cleaner striker, and can hold her own in the grappling, but she doesn’t have the gas tank and Peña’s too durable to run over. So Nunes simply needs to make sure the fight is contested in a manner that minimizes those attributes for Peña. She certainly has the ability to do it, as her sterling record in rematches shows.
By far the biggest X-factor in this fight is the change of camps by Nunes. After the Peña loss, “The Lioness” left American Top Team to open up her own gym. That is a massive unknown heading into a fight like this. ATT is one of the very best gyms in the world and built Nunes into a two-division champion. The coaches there know Nunes better than anyone else, know how to help her succeed, and know where she might fail. Leaving that environment to go to a gym of your own creation is either brilliant or insane, and we’re going to find out which one.
Despite picking her for the upset in their first encounter, I can’t bring myself to back Peña in the rematch. Nunes has more tools in the toolbox to use and this time she knows what she’s getting into. I anticipate we’re going to see a much more cautious approach from “The Lioness” this time around, akin to her rematches with Germaine de Randamie and Valentina Shevchenko. Peña may try to force the issue again, but I don’t expect Nunes to play that game, and instead be content to out-point her over 25 minutes.
Amanda Nunes wins by unanimous decision.
Who wins the rematch?
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