The UFC’s Female Bantamweight Dilemma—and What Comes Next for Amanda Nunes

The women’s bantamweight division used to be one of the most profitable classes in the UFC. Now, with Ronda Rousey, Holly Holm, and Miesha Tate defeated, and Amanda Nunes holding the title, bantamweight is more of a pressing issue than anything else.

As a whole, UFC 200 delivered. The biggest event of the year (and if the promos are believed, the biggest event ever) featured an abundance of high-quality contests that, while probably more exciting on paper, were largely entertaining. One of the byproducts of this stacked show is that impressive performances which would have highlighted other nights aren’t being talked about nearly as much as they should be (Kelvin Gastelum’s defeat of Johny Hendricks, Joe Lauzon becoming the first man to finish Diego Sanchez with strikes, Jose Aldo’s dominant return against Frankie Edgar, etc.).

This sensation carried over to the main event between Amanda Nunes and Miesha Tate. While hardcore fans eagerly watched the title contest, the reality is that many casual fans tuned-out entirely; after watching Brock Lesnar compete (and win), they had already enjoyed enough action and excitement for one night. The show’s admittedly dragging pace didn’t help matters.

What these fans missed was an astonishingly dominant, skillful, and impressive first-round submission from the underdog Amanda Nunes to claim the belt. The Brazilian’s win surprised many and effectively created a massive divisional dilemma from the perspective of the UFC brass—one which they are absolutely eager to solve.

Possibly at the expense of Amanda Nunes.

When Ronda Rousey was champion, she brought astonishing pay-per-view buyrates along with her one-of-a-kind performances; with the help of her numerous film appearances, media coverage, and endorsements, she emerged as a huge celebrity. Judging by the fan reaction and Joe Rogan’s emotional interview, one would never guess that Rousey was a -1700 favorite (all but guaranteed to emerge victorious—to win $100, bettors would have to wager $1700!) after she beat Bethe Correia at UFC 190.

In short, it didn’t matter who Rousey fought, or that she was an overwhelming favorite, or that her fights often didn’t leave the first round (or the first minute). Fans wanted to watch her compete, and the UFC was happy to oblige them—especially since, once again, she could fight anybody and still attract buyers. Paying another star wasn’t an issue.

Then, after Holly Holm unexpectedly KO’d Rousey and became champion at UFC 193, things didn’t look so bright for the promotion, in terms of Rousey’s future and the division; a big part of her allure was certainly her dominance and undefeated record. Compared to now, however, things looked outstanding! At the very least, Holm-Rousey 2 could be marketed, and in defeating the megastar Rousey, Holm herself became something of a draw.

Of course, Holm lost to Miesha Tate at UFC 196; still, “Rowdy” could be marketed easily against her nemesis Tate once again. The key is the belt, though—Rousey’s visual confirmation to casual fans that she was on top. Moreover, assuming Tate won her next defense (something which most expected her to do), Holm (also assuming she won her next contest) could rematch for the belt—possibly winning it and setting up another meeting with Rousey.

Now, thanks to the unexpected and diverse happenings of this sport that we know and love, all of these possibilities are, at the very least, delayed. The twenty-eight-year-old Amanda Nunes sits atop the bantamweight division—and from a promotional standpoint, she is an absolutely awful (and unlikely) opponent for Rousey, for a number of reasons. Generally speaking, she will also be difficult to promote and market against other fighters due to some of the listed points.

First, there’s the ever-pressing language barrier. Although Nunes obviously speaks fluent Portuguese, not being able to communicate with American fans without the assistance of a translator inhibits her overall marketability; even though Brazil is a massive market for the UFC, its potential profitability is notably smaller than that of the US.

Next are Nunes’s prior losses. She’s been on an absolute tear as of late, winning her last four fights, but a 2014 TKO loss to Cat Zingano (who came up short against Julianna Peña at UFC 200 as well) creates a shadow of doubt. If one thing has been clear about MMA since its rise to prominence—and about combat sports in general—it’s that everyone likes a (preferably dominant) winner. Nunes is certainly a winner, but not an entirely dominant one.

Finally, Nunes presents a risk to Rousey that wouldn’t make sense to tackle. The burning question heading into the fight will be whether or not Ronda can defeat the woman who bested her, Holm—not solely whether or not she can regain the belt. This reasoning is eerily similar to that of Daniel Cormier’s UFC 200 fight against Anderson Silva. Despite defeating one of the greatest fighters of all time with just two days’ notice (after training for an entirely different stylistic opponent), DC was booed after  winning the bout, and few truly appreciated his achievement and willingness. This sensation will also negatively impact PPV sales.

The point of this piece is to highlight the UFC brass’s likely dissatisfaction with Amanda Nunes’s victory, and why exactly, from a financial and promotional point of view, they feel this way. Based upon this information, we can conclude that whatever Amanda Nunes’s fight schedule from here on out entails, the deck will be stacked against her in one way or another—before the cage door even shuts.

Time will tell whether or not Nunes can overcome the odds once again.

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Max King