Dating back to 2006, the UFC has circled the weekends surrounding Independence Day as among the most important on its calendar. Since then, the group of names that has headlined its pay-per-views during that time of year includes a who's who of UFC greats and legends: Brock Lesnar, Anderson Silva, Conor McGregor, Tito Ortiz and Quinton Jackson, just to name a few.
Among them, Amanda Nunes' name looks somewhat out of place. Yet for the second year in a row, she will headline a key weekend.
Nunes, the woman who battered Miesha Tate the weekend after the Fourth of July last year and who retired Ronda Rousey with a one-sided whipping in December, got the call to top-line the card once again.
In an era when champions' reigns are remarkably short-lived, the UFC bantamweight queen hopes to solidify her hold on a division that less than two years ago was synonymous with Rousey. In the process, she aims to polish her own legacy.
On paper, Nunes—who is facing Valentina Shevchenko at Saturday's UFC 213—looks like an obvious winner. Not only is she riding the momentum of defeating two of the best-known female fighters ever in back-to-back bouts, but she's also bigger than Shevchenko and holds a victory over the challenger in a March 2016 bout.
That's a lot trending in Nunes' direction, yet astute observers can't help but flash back to the final five minutes of Nunes-Shevchenko I.
After dominating the fight for two rounds—a pair of judges even scored the second round 10-8 for Nunes—the Brazilian faded badly in the final frame. She was rocked with a hard elbow, her strikes lost all steam, and her output cratered. By the end of the round, Shevchenko had outlanded her 17-3, according to FightMetric stats.
While Nunes (14-4) held on for a unanimous-decision victory on the strength of the first two rounds, her disastrous final stretch cast a specter over her chances in the rematch, which is scheduled for five rounds. At some sportsbooks, according to OddsShark, Shevchenko (14-2) is a slight favorite, with many onlookers believing a 25-minute championship fight will prove the difference. To that, Nunes scowls.
"I got tired in the third round and she showed up, but I beat her clean," Nunes said during Wednesday's edition of UFC Tonight. "I was tired, but she didn't finish me. Imagine me when I'm ready for five rounds."
It's a fair position—if only there was some evidence to back up her late-round beliefs. Nunes has fought more than one round in just four of her last 12 bouts. One of those included the disastrous third round with Shevchenko. In the others, she lost via TKO to Alexis Davis in the second round, via unanimous decision to Sarah D'Alelio in the third round and via TKO to Cat Zingano in the third round.
And in both the Davis and Zingano fights, Nunes suffered the same kind of unraveling she did against Shevchenko. In Round 2 against Davis, she was outlanded by 25 strikes, while in the last two rounds of her fight with Zingano, she was outlanded by a ludicrous 37-1.
That's an indefensible trend with indefensible numbers for a UFC champion, and if Nunes hasn't fixed her stamina issues, Shevchenko will probably add to the narrative that the Brazilian is a one-round wonder.
Alternatively, Nunes offers Shevchenko plenty to worry about. She is unquestionably the most powerful striker in the bantamweight division, with four UFC knockouts—the most in division history.
Nunes' success has largely come on the strength of her power, which often arrives in sharp barrages. As a complementary skill, she also boasts a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. Along with her impressive athleticism, that combination offers her many chances at victory.
Legacies are made of successes, yes, but they are also the byproduct of careful, moment-by-moment, in-fight decision-making. Nunes has to determine whether to follow her usual aggression or pull back and pace herself for the long haul. If she goes for an early finish and doesn't get it, she may not have enough gas to go the distance. If she is overly cautious, she might put herself in a hole on the judges' scorecards.
The result hangs in the balance. Since July 2011, when Tate won the Strikeforce bantamweight title, she and/or Rousey has been involved in every single Strikeforce/UFC title bout.
That run is over.
Nunes initially gained renown as the UFC's first gay champion, but is she now the face of women's MMA?
"I'm the champion. I have to be," she said during a recent media conference call. "I've proved myself. I got the belt at UFC 200, and I defended against Ronda Rousey. I'm the most dominant in the division. I think I am, and I will keep proving it until people understand I'm here to stay, and I will do it. This is my next step: Valentina. I will keep it going."
To do that, she must figure out herself on the way to figuring out Shevchenko. That is not so easy to do. As indestructible as she looks, her stamina is a flaw in the same way Rousey's striking defense was. It can either be repaired or exploited.
With Rousey and Tate in her rearview mirror, Nunes has dispatched arguably the two most famous female MMA fighters ever. Now she is fighting for legacy. Now she is fighting herself.