MMA Ratings Podcast

November 26, 2021

BJB Breakdown: Seven Things You Need To Know About Amanda Nunes vs. Julianna Peña

By Schwan Humes

On December 11 in the UFC 269 co-main event, we have a UFC Bantamweight Championship fight between two-division champ Amanda Nunes and the former TUF winner and top-five-ranked 135-pounder Julianna Peña. This isn't a fight anyone has demanded, or even asked for, as Nunes has completely dominated the division in her recent run, beating the champion in Miesha Tate, former champions Holly Holm, Ronda Rousey, and Germaine De Randamie, and contenders like Raquel Pennington. On the other side you have Peña, who has looked dominant against fourth-, third-, and second-tier fighters like Jessica Rakozcy, Milana Dudieva, Cat Zingano, Jessica Eye, Nicco Montaño, and Sara McMann, while routinely and decisively losing when facing tier 1 fighters like Valentina Shevchenko and De Randamie. As a result of these two things, the interest in this fight has not been particularly memorable.

But beyond the surface-level issues that have hindered any momentum this fight has had the opportunity to build, I am taking a deeper look, so that we may discuss how this fight is a dangerous one for Nunes, and why a fight that could be considered underwhelming (especially in light of Nunes’ dominance in two divisions) may end up being one of the more entertaining ones in the career of the all-time great pound-for-pound entrant Nunes.

1) Fatigue Makes Cowards of Us All

I believe Peña recognizes that Nunes’ cardio issues have not been resolved, and that when the champion is forced to work, she will in fact tire. As a result, she will lose her fastball offensively and any sort of competency or consistency defensively. Nunes has looked like a destroyer, and a large part of that is her dynamic and quick finishes over Cris Cyborg (KO - 1st), Tate (submission - 1st), Rousey (KO - 1st), Holm (KO - 1st), and Megan Anderson (KO - 1st). But on two different occasions in her run at bantamweight -- against Shevchenko and De Randamie -- when Nunes was forced to work, forced to fight at pace, and unable to get a quick explosive finish, she got extended to the distance, finding herself not just losing rounds, but fighting to survive them. Peña is a fighter who has never gassed, nor has she ever resorted to being purely defensive, meaning she is going to seek to execute a better version of Holm’s gameplan: push a pace, and make Nunes work for every spot, every position, in hopes of the champion gassing.

Now some will point to her 5-round decision win over Felicia Spencer as an example of her new and improved cardio, but that fight took place at 145 pounds, which at this stage of her career is a much easier weight to make. Peña, on the other hand, is aware that Nunes has had some issues making bantamweight and will tire if pushed physically. Peña is also a fighter who can set, maintain, and build pace; historically, Nunes is not. If Peña can in fact navigate Nunes’ tools and her natural physical ability, I have complete faith that her pace will be a major, possibly deciding factor in the fight.

2) All-Terrain Fighters

A large part of Amanda Nunes' success is that she is dangerous in multiple areas of mixed martial arts -- she can take an opponent down and punish her with strikes, or take an opponent down and out grapple her. She can engage on the feet in tactical striking matches, She can engage in firefights, working off the counter to outclass or stop you. This diversity in approaches and ranges allows Nunes to dictate terms of engagement. Most fighters aren't physically gifted enough to put her in areas where she can be exploited or her talents managed. This was the case with Tate and Spencer. Others who may in fact outclass her in one particular area either a) have such big holes in the other aspects of mixed martial arts that Nunes can limit any success they have in their area of strength (De Randamie), or b) are vulnerable enough to Nunes’ physical ability that they can be severely threatened or finished (Shevchenko/Cyborg/Anderson).

This makes it hard to really engage with Nunes aggressively or to force her to fight at a pace that is uncomfortable to her. She can punish or finish you in any of these spots, as Holm found out when she ramped up the activity against Nunes, only to be finished in dynamic fashion. Peña isn't as skilled as Nunes on the feet, as a wrestler, or as a grappler, but she is willing to engage at each and every range on the feet, on the ground, and in between. That makes things difficult for most of her opponents, as they have to engage with her in every area, but against Nunes it could be dangerous for Peña, because she has a great breadth of skill, but not a lot of depth.

3) No Safety Zones

Peña has confidence in herself as a mixed martial artist, as she will mix it up in any space, regardless of who she is facing. She aggressively (and to a degree successfully) struck with De Randamie and Montaño, she aggressively (and to a degree successfully) grappled/wrestled McMann and Zingano. She didn't allow those opponents to find spots to rest or areas they could settle in, because she refused to completely concede these skill sets and/or ranges of engagement. When you can at least challenge an opponent in their area of strength, it sets up your ability to get to your area or areas of strength; which is what Pens did successfully against Dudileva, Montano, Rackozcy and McMann, setting the table with one thing, transitioning to another, and using that to take over or finish the fight. Nunes is going to have to win this fight, because Peña will not be scared off, and if Nunes can’t eliminate her quickly (or at least punish Peña to the point that it limits her aggression), I have no faith in her ability to navigate Peña’s pace and her highly exhausting engagement at multiple ranges.

4) No Safety Zones Part 2

Peña’s willingness to engage has a downside, though. While she is functionally effective -- maybe even dangerous -- in all areas, she is not terribly technical or always technically sound in all areas, especially in high-paced fights. Her misplaced confidence in her skillset has resulted in two costly losses as a result of overpursuit and overagression. The worst part of these losses is that they weren't knockouts that came as a result of being too brave or too sure of one’s skills; they were two submission losses against noted strikers, due to Peña’s inability to fight with poise. Both losses cost her title fights.

In Nunes, Peña is facing a fighter who can and will engage her on multiple fronts, but is in fact better than her at each and every one of those fronts. This means that some of the dangers Peña’s width of skill presents will be limited due to the lack of depth in her skills. In layman's terms, against most opponents, being willing to engage (even if its substandard engagement) is enough to open the floodgates to success. But when faced with a bigger, better athlete with bigger, better skills, your willingness to engage on all fronts is feast or famine, i.e. it works until it stops working.

5) Athleticism Matters

Peña has generally been the better athlete in most fights. Either she is a) the bigger, better brand of athlete, such as in fights with Eye, Dudieva, and Montaño, or b) facing a faded athlete, as she was against Zingano. But when she faced opponents with comparable talent and athleticism, she has generally lost, and decisively so (Shevchenko - round 1 submission; De Randamie - round 2 submission). Even the win over Zingano wasn't as pronounced because Zingano was able to match and in some spots exceed Peña before she gassed and was out-hustled en route to a decision loss. Nunes, even if she has lost a step, is the best athlete Peña has faced when you take into account size, strength, and athletic ability. So some of the things Peña heavily relies on to enact her gameplans and support her approach, those things won’t exist in this fight.

6) On the Counter

Peña relies on aggression and activity, which means she plays into Nunes’ strengths as a counter striker, the same pace and activity that can overwhelm Nunes late or allow her to outwork Nunes in a decision. Those things are only factors a) if she can be defensively sound enough to not get stopped by the much heavier return salvos Nunes will be firing, and b) if she can manage not to get rocked or dropped with any of those shots. The first point is self-explanatory. But in the case of landing more volume, that only works when the volume determines the fight, i.e. does dramatic damage or dictates pace and place. If you get repeatedly rocked or dropped, the consensus will be that your opponent landed the bigger shots, and damage typically overshadows control unless the control is damn near absolute. Don't believe me? Ask Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson how that first title fight with Tyron Woodley went.

7) Getting Caught Slipping

This is expected to be another Nunes win, but given the changes in her life, having a child, being in the later stages of her career, and fighting in two divisions, it is very likely she will overlook Peña. Peña isn't one of the fantastic four in women’s mixed martial arts -- she did not rule over two combat sports like Rousey or Holm, she isn't considered the women’s MMA GOAT the way Cyborg was, she isn't one of the highest IQ fighters in the sport, a la Tate -- nor is Nunes as big a star as any of the aforementioned fighters. Peña isn't even on a decisive win streak. The ingredients are all present to bake an upset; as there are questions regarding the champion's hunger, focus, and health, it would be normal for Nunes to overlook an opponent such as Peña. But the fact is, she is still one of the best bantamweights in the world. She is young, she is athletic, she has a wide skill set, and she is fearless. If in fact Nunes comes in flat or comes in thinking Peña will roll over like other opponents, she very well can be outhustled and lose.

Peña doesn't have accolades or huge paydays to rest on; she is very much still in the process of building her legacy. She will not let you win -- you are going to have to pry victory from her cold dead hands. And while “want to” is rarely the determining factor at the highest levels, in the right circumstances, “want to” is all that separates good from great, contender from champion. I don't believe too many fighters want greatness as badly as Peña; she fought tooth and nail for this fight, and will fight tooth and nail in this fight. If Nunes ain't on that same trip, the outcome is gonna be AND NEW!!!

At UFC 269, we will see whether it's more of the same for Amanda Nunes, or if we will see a changing of the guard and a new era in women’s mixed martial arts. This may not be the fight anyone wanted, but it very well may be a fight that overnight reinvigorates a division and ushers out a legendary regime at the top of the women’s MMA world.

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