By the end of the night, it almost looked like a real lion might have been involved.
Following the main event at Saturday’s UFC 277, the Octagon at American Airlines Center in Dallas Texas, it was evident from the canvas that someone had taken a serious cut. The unlucky soul was Julianna Pena, the bravest challenger yet to step into the Lioness’ den. But unlike their first encounter back in December, Pena wasn’t primed to pull out the shocker this time.
That’s right. “The Lioness” Amanda Nunes has attained her revenge, and she is UFC women’s bantamweight champion once again. Over 25 grueling minutes, Nunes sought out, isolated and thoroughly destroyed every weak spot Pena exposed—or thought she exposed—the first time around, leaving the cage looking like a crime scene in the process.
“If the Lioness doesn’t get her prey the first time, I set the trap better, and I know I’ll get it the second time,” Nunes told broadcaster and podcaster Joe Rogan in the cage after the fight. “Now we are here to make history again.”
Nunes took the unanimous decision, with the three ringside judges scoring it 50-45, 50-44, 50-43. That means: one, no judge saw Pena winning a round, two, one judge gave Nunes a 10-8 round in a nod to her dominance, and three, another judge gave her two such 10-8 rounds.
The only thing that made this respectable was the outlandish toughness displayed by Pena. And we’ll get to that.
The bout started slowly. Pena looked to push the issue with volume but didn’t land anything to write home about. Nunes, who started southpaw before switching to orthodox, used a counter-right hook to rock Pena with about 1:30 left. Pena sent a right of her own down the pipe in the round’s final seconds and narrowly won the volume battle 51-47 per UFC stats, but Nunes still managed to find more damage and took the round on that basis.
With about 40 seconds gone in the second, Nunes scored another knockdown on a short counter shot. I think it was fair to say the Brazilian had Pena’s range and timing down, even as she herself switched stances throughout to keep Pena guessing.
Nunes scored another knockdown about 40 seconds later, but there was nothing short about this one, a sweeping bolt of energy that seemed to knock the champ into the air. Somehow, as her back hit the floor, Pena kept her wits about her enough to flash her guard and keep the Lioness from pouncing.
In the third, Pena tried to take things to the clinch, but Nunes wrenched free easily. Nunes looked to be in far better shape than for their first bout—which she has famously said she was underprepared for because of a bout with COVID, a knee injury, complacence, and the distractions of fame including building a new gym.
But here there was no lingering of the stamina issue that spelled her undoing in their original bout. She hit a trip takedown at the three-minute mark of the third, followed by an extended ground sequence that saw Pena go fishing for a triangle choke and an armbar to no avail. Nunes didn’t do much from inside Pena’s guard—that is, until about the 1:10 mark, when an elbow sliced open Pena along the hairline. And that’s when things started to get messy.
Pat yourself on the back if your bingo card had Nunes, and not Pena, forcing the action to the ground. In the opening seconds of the championship rounds, Nunes landed a double-leg takedown and kept the action on the mat for another extended stretch. It wasn’t like we didn’t know Nunes could do this—she did it in 2019 to avoid trading with world-class kickboxer Germaine de Randamie—but it was the rare pundit who saw it coming Saturday.
If you’re familiar with Pena’s public persona, it’s one that stands out for its competitiveness. And that’s saying something in the UFC. It’s like pointing out a shark for being toothy. There were UFC Embedded episodes this week where a slew of coaches told tales of her work ethic, like her insistence on running a few seconds past the end of every drill whistle.
So it wasn’t a surprise to see her continue to fight through what was an absolutely grueling fourth round. An armbar came close, but Nunes gutted her way out of it. Once they found their way back to their feet, Pena’s face was a bloody mess. But she stayed game.
The fifth was noticeably and understandably slower, with both fighters near exhaustion. And yet, here was the Lioness, grinning manically and still shooting for takedowns. At one point, the pressure from a semi-serious anaconda choke attempt from Nunes seemed to wring blood from Pena’s cut like a wet sponge. Perhaps the big signature of the final seconds was Pena gutting her way out of a gnarly, injury-to-insult Nunes neck crank.
Make no mistake: This was a dominant victory by Nunes. Pena won the first two rounds on volume, but Nunes won all five in pure damage. She also hit on 6-of-8 takedowns to Pena’s 0-of-0, racking up a combined 11:49 of control time. That is not a misprint. Pena had not one second of control time, not even in the clinch.
The damage to Pena’s noggin was serious enough that it required not only a trip to the hospital but an emergency consultation with a plastic surgeon, according to UFC President Dana White (h/t Marc Raimondi of ESPN).
So, yes, while Pena is clearly Nunes’ most effective opponent to date, there’s still only one GOAT here. GSP-Matt Serra didn’t need a rubber match. Am I saying Pena-Nunes 3 should never happen? Of course not. But perhaps Pena could beat someone else before jumping back in. This is a particularly enticing proposition when recalling that one Valentina Shevchenko may be waiting in the wings.
As for Nunes, she’s taking her time.
“Let me sit down, let me go back to Brazil,” she told Rogan. “I haven’t seen my family there for three years. Because of the epidemic. So I stayed here, I focused on getting the belt back. Now I have a chance to go back and see my family. Let the Lioness rest a little bit, and I’ll come back as soon as possible.”
With her loss avenged and the main jewel of her crown restored, the Lioness can just enjoying being a GOAT for a while again.