Amanda Nunes is at a crossroads.
In the main event of UFC 277 on Saturday, “The Lioness” has the opportunity to all but erase the bitter taste of a loss to Julianna Peña, a loss that cost her the UFC bantamweight title, a seven-year undefeated streak, and possibly her case to be recognized unequivocally as the greatest women’s fighter of all time.
If Nunes goes out and runs through Peña as she was expected to do the first time and as she has done to so many challengers in the past, then December’s upset will be remembered as a notable blip on an otherwise unimpeachable career. If Peña wins again, suddenly one of MMA’s greatest upsets will look more like a passing of the torch to a rival that has Nunes’ number any day of the week. Suffice to say, there’s a lot more on the line in this rematch than a shiny piece of metal.
The co-main event features two of the world’s best flyweights competing for an interim title with undisputed champion Deiveson Figueiredo temporarily out of the picture. On one side, former champion Brandon Moreno looks to capture gold again and set up a fourth fight with his Brazilian rival; on the other, Kai Kara-France looks to avenge a 2019 loss to Moreno and bring another title back home to New Zealand’s juggernaut gym, City Kickboxing.
In other main card action, heavyweight veteran Derrick Lewis stands in the way of Sergei Pavlovich claiming a top 10 spot, Alexandre Pantoja and Alex Perez meet in a flyweight battle that could set up another challenger for Figueiredo’s title, and Magomed Ankalaev can potentially secure a championship opportunity with a standout performance against light heavyweight stalwart Anthony Smith.
What: UFC 277
Where: American Airlines Center in Dallas
When: Saturday, July 30. The four-fight early prelims begin on ESPN+ at 6 p.m. ET, followed by the four-fight prelims on ABC, ESPN, and ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available exclusively on ESPN+ pay-per-view.
Julianna Peña (1) vs. Amanda Nunes (2)
Is this a new beginning for Amanda Nunes or the beginning of the end?
Nunes has spoken openly about being satisfied with everything she’s done in her extraordinary career, going as far as to say in a June 2020 interview that she was contemplating retirement. She’s won UFC titles in two divisions. She wants to coach someday. She’s a mother. She’s happy. And if there’s one thing we know in the fight game, it’s that contentedness can lead to calamity when the time comes to step back into that cage.
None of those factors are why Julianna Peña beat Nunes in their first meeting. Peña has a style tailor-made for foiling Nunes: Great wrestling, a tremendous amount of well-earned confidence, and a bottomless gas tank. All of those strengths were on display when she upset Nunes and there’s no reason to believe she can’t do it again, this time equipped with the knowledge that her strategy worked not just in theory, but in reality.
Skill-for-skill, we know Nunes is a better fighter than Peña. She has the edge in knockout power and she’s a better grappler, so I’m willing to buy the argument that she didn’t perform to the best of her abilities at UFC 269. Ideally, Nunes viewed that loss as a valuable learning experience and we see a renewed fire in her.
I’ve just seen too many Nunes wins to count her out and while I think she’ll be more methodical than dominant on Saturday with an emphasis on conserving her energy, that version of Nunes is good enough to beat Peña. “The Venezuelan Vixen” will give it everything she’s got to beat Nunes again and while I expect her to give Nunes hell for 25 minutes, I also expect Nunes to get the better of a competitive decision.
Brandon Moreno (2) vs. Kai Kara-France (T4)
Speaking of #AndAgain, I’m liking Brandon Moreno’s chances of becoming a champion once more.
Kai Kara-France has never looked better, but Moreno has also improved by leaps and bounds since their first meeting and he already had the advantage back then. Moreno’s aggression is tough to deal with, not to mention the diversity of his attacks. He has more ways to win this one.
On the other hand, Kara-France has a heavy right hand and excellent timing on the feet. He also showed stout takedown defense against Askar Askarov, one of the best wrestlers in the flyweight division, so if Moreno decides to mix in some wrestling Kara-France is ready for it. These two are closely matched and while Moreno won a clear decision the first time around, 10 more minutes with which to work could change the complexion of this matchup.
The safe pick is to go with the fighter who’s done this championship dance before and that’s Moreno. Three times actually. It’s that edge in title fight experience that has me feeling confident he’ll top Kara-France again, though I’m also confident that this isn’t the last time we see Kara-France fight for a UFC belt.
Moreno by decision.
Derrick Lewis (6) vs. Sergei Pavlovich
At the risk of being the subject of his next roast, I’m just going to say it: I don’t think Derrick Lewis can beat high-level strikers anymore.
Here are Lewis’ recent wins: Chris Daukaus (Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist), Curtis Blaydes (vastly improved hands, but a wrestler at heart), Aleksei Oleinik (submission specialist with an aversion to stand-up), and Ilir Latifi (solid boxer, but he hasn’t threatened to knock anyone out in years). We know Lewis can punch out over-matched competition. We don’t know if he can win a back-and-forth battle on the feet anymore.
We also don’t know how good Sergei Pavlovich’s striking actually is, but there is plenty of evidence that the hulking Russian can get it done with his hands. Twelve knockouts, all in the first round, that’s a recipe for success against the often slow-starting Lewis. If Pavlovich finds the timing early, Lewis could be in serious danger of taking his third knockout loss in his past four fights.
Lewis should work to close the distance and bully Pavlovich against the fence while looking for trips to put him on his back. One thing we know for sure is that Lewis’ ground-and-pound is as deadly as ever. Pavlovich is a plus-athlete with a wrestling background, so much like Lewis himself he can probably just power out of bottom position, but ground fighting is a good way for Lewis to do damage to his rangier opponent.
Pavlovich sits just outside the top 15 of the MMA Fighting Global Rankings and he’s poised for a big jump up at Lewis’ expense. He takes this one by knockout.
Alexandre Pantoja (7) vs. Alex Perez (8)
The flyweight division is ridiculously deep right now.
Case in point, you could have slotted Alexandre Pantoja and Alex Perez into an interim title fight and while they don’t have the name recognition of Moreno and Kara-France, the quality of competition is just as high. Perez has already fought for a UFC title — albeit as a replacement — and Pantoja owns two wins over Moreno (one from their season of The Ultimate Fighter).
I have Pantoja sliding into that next contender spot with a win over Perez on Saturday. Perez has quick hands and solid wrestling, the latter of which could give Pantoja problems, but Pantoja has serious pop when he starts throwing and his jiu-jitsu is elite. There aren’t a lot of places that Perez can take this fight where Pantoja isn’t a threat.
The other factor to consider here is that Perez is susceptible to submissions while Pantoja has never been finished. If you like this one to end inside the distance, then Pantoja is the pick all the way. I see these two having some lively exchanges in the standup and on the ground in Round 1 before Pantoja pulls away and finds a submission in Round 2.
Magomed Ankalaev (7) vs. Anthony Smith (8)
I get the whole “Anthony Smith is going to force Magomed Ankalaev to bring the dog out” angle of this matchup and why that should favor Smith, but I think Ankalaev is up to the challenge.
Keep in mind, Ankalaev is a solid counter-striker who uses smart movement to avoid firefights. Even if Smith’s plan is to make this one sloppy, Ankalaev has the skill to prevent the action from breaking down into a slugfest. Look for his precision and counter work to deter Smith’s early efforts to push the pace.
As the fight goes on, that’s where Smith’s big game experience comes into play. You know he means it when he says there’s nothing about Ankalaev that intimidates him and he won’t be afraid to take risks to stop Ankalaev’s eight-fight win streak. Smith is the most dangerous kind of opponent for Ankalaev: Highly skilled, highly motivated, and with more to gain than lose.
Ankalaev still needs to make a statement to make himself the clear No. 1 contender and while I’m picking him to overcome adversity and win a decision against Smith, I doubt that he dominates in such a way that the matchmakers bump him to the front of the line.