For the first time since 2011, a women’s bantamweight title fight doesn’t include either Miesha Tate or Ronda Rousey.
Almost six years ago to the date, on July 30, Tate defeated Marloes Coenen to win the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight title. She dropped the belt to Rousey in her next fight. Rousey defended the belt just one time before Strikeforce merged into the UFC and Rousey remained champion.
In November 2015, Holly Holm dethroned Rousey at UFC 193 with a vicious headkick to put the wheels in motion for the new era. Tate beat Holm a few months later at UFC 196 in one of the grittiest moments of her career and in 2016, down on the scorecards going into the fifth and final round, Tate snuck in a rear-naked choke to win the UFC strap for the first time.
Then, along came Amanda Nunes.
At UFC 200, a drug test violation from a Jon Jones sample cancelled his headlining bout against Daniel Cormier. Tate’s first title defense against Nunes moved into the main event slot.
It was a seminal moment for the UFC, celebrating 200 pay-per-views. They’ve held more than 200 events worldwide, but this was the 200th marquee event under the promotion.
They stacked the card with three title fights and huge names. WWE superstar and former heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar returned to compete on just this card.
But the women led the charge and headlined the event.
Nunes shocked the world with a dominant performance and a first-round win to become champion. It made her the first openly gay champion in UFC history, and the first Brazilian female to win a UFC title.
But the looming cloud was Rousey.
At the weigh-ins for UFC 205 in New York City, at Madison Square Garden, Rousey reappeared for the first time since her loss to Holm. She stormed across the stage with her famous scowl to stare Nunes down eye to eye.
Nunes beat her in 48 seconds at UFC 207, via TKO.
The two biggest legends of women’s MMA were gone in under one round worth of fights with Nunes. The way Nunes beat Tate, a wrestler, on the mat and TKO’d Rousey with such ease sent a declarative statement that women’s MMA would never be the same.
Nunes’ win over Rousey was the first time the UFC women’s bantamweight belt was successfully defended since Rousey’s reign. And in 2017, neither Tate nor Rousey will be involved in a women’s bantamweight title fight.
“It’s been amazing for me. My dreams have come true and I enjoy every single day,” Nunes told Megan Olivi at UFC 213 open workouts.
Standing in her way at UFC 213 is Valentina Shevchenko. Just like UFC 200, unexpected changes to the card put Nunes in the main event of the UFC’s summer tent pole event, capping International Fight Week in Las Vegas. Men’s bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt was originally pegged to defend his belt against former champion, and teammate, T.J. Dillashaw to cap a contentious season of The Ultimate Fighter.
Shevchenko’s route to the title shot has been in motion since losing to Nunes via decision in March 2016, the same night Tate defeated Holm. A couple of weeks after Nunes won the belt at UFC 200, Shevchenko defeated Holm. Shevchenko then defeated Julianna Peña, who was on a four-fight win streak, to put her name in the mix.
“It’s very important for me, because first of all it’s the title. Second, it’s a rematch,” Shevchenko told fans at open workouts. “It’s very important for me. I’ve been training since I was five years old, more than 20 years. All the experience that I have, it’s all for this fight.”
The fight could be boiled down to the classic grappler vs. striker trope. Nunes is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Shevchenko is a decorated striker in Muay Thai and kickboxing. But it would be disingenuous.
“I’m a martial artist and I will use everything that I have,” Shevchenko said. “It’s not about only striking. It’s not about only grappling. It’s not about only wrestling. I will do everything I need to win the fight and I’m prepared. Not only physically, I’m prepared mentally. It’s more important.
“I will show this Saturday, every skill that I have. I will leave all my heart in the cctagon and take the belt.”
In her way is the Nunes, at the beginning of her own dynasty, who dispatched the two biggest female names in the division in less than five minutes.
“I’m going for the finish. Whenever, the first, the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, I will be ready,” Nunes said.
Nunes added: “I’m ready for five rounds. She’s been saying all those things about my conditioning, but I’m ready. I have to prove it Saturday and I will, and everything will be done.”
Out of the middleweight fracas comes clarity
The co-main event of UFC 213 is an interim middleweight title fight between Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero. Middleweight champion Michael Bisping hasn’t competed since defending his belt successfully against Dan Henderson at UFC 204 in October 2016. He was slated to fight returning longtime welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, but that fight has taken a myriad of turns and hasn’t even been booked aside from being announced.
Ultimately, St-Pierre wasn’t prepared to fight before the fall and an injury has kept Bisping on the sidelines.
With hungry contenders lining up for a shot at the belt, and bemoaning St-Pierre getting a title shot after being away from the sport for years, the UFC created an interim title.
“The division was really backed up a bit,” Whittaker said. “There wasn’t enough reason to fight all the time.
“Now that the interim title has been put in, there’s a lot more blood going into the division and there’s a reason to fight.”
Romero is 8-0 in the UFC and coming off a vicious KO via a flying knee to former champion Chris Weidman at UFC 205 at Madison Square Garden, Weidman’s backyard. Whittaker is on a seven-fight win streak dating to 2014.
“I think it’s going to be an absolute war,” Whittaker said.
Romero enters the fight as the slight the favorite, but the champion Bisping expects a Whittaker victory.
“He’s going to shock the world on Saturday night,” Bisping said on UFC Tonight. “He’s going to get a stoppage in round four or five.”
The interim champion should get a shot at Bisping next, providing clarity and a certain path to the next title fight, a title unification bout.
But that looming St-Pierre fight is a symbol of uncertainty.
Justin Gaethje’s overdue debut
Justin Gaethje, one of the best lightweights on the planet, has been outside of the UFC his entire career, and finally makes his debut in the UFC. World Series of Fighting two-weight champion and former UFC vet David Branch made his return at UFC 211 on the undercard.
Gaethje, the former World Series of Fighting lightweight champion, makes his debut in the main event of The Ultimate Fighter: Redemption Finale during International Fight Week.
Fifth-ranked Michael Johnson presents not only a tough challenge, but the opportunity for Gaethje to catapult himself into the top of the rankings.
“He just came to the UFC and he’s running his mouth,” Johnson said on UFC Tonight. “He got to me. Just shut up, prove yourself and then maybe you can start talking.”
The fight has been a constant back-and-forth of trash talk between the two, at times juvenile, uncreative and unimaginative. Both think they’re winning the exchange of words.
“It says a lot,” Gaethje said about the trash talking. “He’s already scared of me. Now, he says he’s a wrestler. I’m going to take his soul. I’m going to control his heartbeat, control his mind and take his soul.”
The tension outside the cage has created an expectation for fireworks inside.
“Fans come for a shot of adrenaline. I build a brand and the brand is violence,” Gaethje said. “I won’t go for a submission. If I knock him down, I’ll tell him to get back up, so I’ll to be a knock out. If he survives to the fifth, I’ll give him a high five.
Things to watch this weekend
1. Travis Browne is looking to get back in the win column to end a three-fight skid. With his back firmly against the wall, Browne could deliver.
2. Curtis Blaydes is an underrated heavyweight prospect getting a slot on the UFC 213 pay-per-view card.
3. Fabrício Werdum vs. Alistair Overeem is a hidden matchup of two icons in the heavyweight division. Both are looking to get back in the mix for a title shot, and both have one win under their belt since losing to champion Stipe Miocic.
4. Marc Diakiese is 3-0 in the UFC and coming off a 30 second knockout victory. Diakiese has momentum and the potential to further his career with a win and break into the rankings.
5. Will Amanda Nunes gas out. Looking back at the first fight between Nunes and Shevchenko, everyone points to Nunes’ fading endurance as a point of weakness but Nunes is adamant it’s not an issue.
Women of the UFC Panel
Women’s MMA takes the spotlight during the UFC’s annual tent pole event for the second year in a row, when bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes puts her belt on the line against Valentina Shevchenko.
“Those women go real hard,” interim middleweight title contender Robert Whittaker said on UFC Tonight. “They deserve to be where they are.”
During International Fight Week, strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Michelle Waterson, Paige VanZant and featherweight title contender Cris Cyborg participated in a “Women of the UFC” panel.
It’s been an arduous road to the top for women’s MMA. UFC president Dana White once said women would never fight in the Octagon and later this month they’ll add a third women’s title.
“I knew it was just about the time when we got to the UFC and showing to all of you that we can fight and take over. And we’re taking over the UFC, more and more,” Jedrzejczyk said.
The two highest rated Fox UFC events were headlined by women, including an event headlined by a fight between Waterson and VanZant.
“I think in anything you try to pursue, that’s worth pursuing, there are going to be bumps in the road,” Waterson said.
Waterson notes that White has changed his tune and embraced women’s MMA.
“We are not female fighters, we are just fighters,” Waterson said.
There was one notable absentee from the panel: Ronda Rousey. White credits Rousey with forcing the UFC to bring in women and she was the face of women’s MMA for years.
It wasn’t because of a desire of Rousey to avoid MMA media or crowds, but because of an appearance across the country to promote her television show. But it serves as proof that women’s MMA is more than sustainable post-Rousey.
Jedrzejczyk is a star on the cusp of breaking Rousey’s record for title defenses, a dominant tactician who wears her opponents down and picks them apart with beautiful striking.
Cyborg is one of the most dominant fighters on the planet and hasn’t lost since 2005. In three weeks she’ll finally get a shot at beginning her dynasty as the 145-pound champion at UFC 214.
Waterson is being featured in ESPN’s Body issue and is the former Inivcta FC atomweight champion, yet another division the UFC could consider in the future.
VanZant has gained notable endorsements that have put her at the forefront of the sport, including a run on Dancing With The Stars. VanZant might not have the career accolades of Jedrzejczyk or Cyborg, but her career is just beginning.