While it doesn’t seem like casual fans give too much of a damn about UFC 277, the top of the card offers a pair of rematches that will have hardcore fans entrenched to their television screens. At the tip top, we have Amanda Nunes, the consensus women’s GOAT, looking to avenge her shocking loss to Julianna Pena. The question is whether Nunes will go the route of Georges St-Pierre and avenge her loss or if she begins to fade out of relevance the way Renan Barao did after he was dethroned. Before Pena and Nunes throw down, Brandon Moreno and Kai Kara-France fight for interim flyweight gold. Moreno won their first contest, but most would agree both fighters are improved versions of themselves from that fight. Regardless, it doesn’t feel like we’re going to get boring fights in either title fight.
For the early prelims preview, click here. For the televised prelims, click here. For the rest of the main card, click here. For an audio preview, click here.
Julianna Pena vs. Amanda Nunes, Women’s Bantamweight
There is a lot to unpack for this contest. Was Nunes actually hurt going into their first fight as she claims? Was she overconfident due to everyone telling her how great she was? Will a camp change be beneficial for her? Will Pena come in with the exact same strategy? Would that be smart to do if she does? Could overconfidence get the best of her?
Even if she loses in the rematch, Nunes’ reputation as the female GOAT is likely safe. With wins over the likes of Ronda Rousey, Holly Holm, Cris Cyborg, Miesha Tate, Germaine de Randamie, and Valentina Shevchenko – all current or former UFC champions – no one else can come close to sporting a similar resume. In some of those cases, she has multiple wins. That could help explain why Nunes was expecting to trounce over Pena in their first contest as it had been years since she was seriously tested. Hell, it had been years since she had made the cut to 135….
Couple factors like that with all the retirement talk surrounding Nunes for the last couple of years and the upset shouldn’t have been as surprising to us all as it ended up being. When you’ve done it all, it’s hard to get worked up. For Nunes, it was just another fight. That also could explain why many believe the fire is back for Nunes. The loss to Pena gives her motivation once again now that she was humiliated. But is she approaching the fight appropriately for that to happen?
Few are putting stock into her claims of being hurt going into their first fight. Fighters often have to tell themselves something to explain why they lost the first time and it feels like that is what Nunes is doing. Even if she was hurt, it’s doubtful Pena entered the fight at 100% either. The fight game is a brutal business and it’s rare when fighters enter a fight completely healthy. What is more concerning is Pena up and leaving ATT, her home camp for the last several years. Many have pointed out she has taken several of their old coaches with her, which does help. But she is the one in charge of setting up her camp. There won’t be a coach to push her if she doesn’t want to be pushed. That works for some fighters, but not many. Given Nunes’ biggest problem when she was working her way up was discipline – she had a bad habit of draining her gas tank early – there’s reason to be concerned.
As for Pena, there’s reasons to be concerned for her as well. Pena has been living up the life of a champion, making all sorts of public appearances that wouldn’t have been afforded her without winning the belt. There’s a part of me that says good on her for doing that. But there’s another part of me that wonders if she isn’t enjoying it all too much, not putting in the work to make sure she keeps the belt. Many would say Miesha Tate fell victim to that. Given Tate and Pena are good friends, it’s likely Tate has warned Pena of the potential pitfalls, but warnings are only useful if heeded. Human beings have a bad tendency to believe they’re the exception to the rule. Granted, if you become champion, you’ve already become the exception in one regard. But it’s also easy to lose sight of what got Pena to the top when there is far more glitz around her than there has previously been around her.
I’m focusing so much on the mental in this preview as that’s what is going to matter in this contest. Pena isn’t a bad athlete by bantamweight standards, but she isn’t on Nunes’ level. Nunes is not only the better athlete, she’s the more technical striker and grappler. Hell, she’s more diverse and dynamic too. She should have won their first contest. Instead, rather than looking to take Pena down and regaining her composure after Pena initially hurt her, she chose to remain standing and trade things out. My thought is that it had to be ego. Nunes thought she was the better striker and damn it if she wasn’t going to prove it. In the end, Pena wanted the win more.
In the end, it was Nunes who broke on the mental end of things in their first fight. It doesn’t mean it will happen again this time, especially if she can maintain her composure. What scares me is the moves that reek of desperation. Changes camps isn’t a sign of confidence. Neither is blaming injury for her previous loss. Her last several fights saw her entering them will a nonchalant attitude that signaled she knew how the fight was going to end. She’s entering the rematch angry. There is a LOT that signals she will fail in her bid to regain the belt. But in the end, she is better than Pena everywhere. Well, better than Pena everywhere in the physical sense. The physical can outweigh the mental if the scales are heavy enough in that direction. The question is whether Nunes has fixed more of the mental than has been broken from their last fight. I honestly can’t even begin to answer that. Thus, while I’m picking her, it’s based on what I do know: she’s the physically and technically superior fighter. Now it’s a matter of keeping her head and proving it. Nunes via TKO of RD4
Brandon Moreno vs. Kai Kara-France, Flyweight
I can’t help feel somewhat bad for whoever Moreno fights. The former champion is so likeable, he’s always going to have a home field advantage. He might even have that if this fight took place in Australia. However, not only is this not in Australia, this fight is in Texas. No, that isn’t his native Mexico, but you better believe he’s going to have the crowd behind him.
Immediate intangibles aside, Moreno is a bit of a unique case in the modern era. Most champions – or recent champions in the case of Moreno — have an elite skill set or physical attribute that must be overcome. Israel Adesanya is an exceptionally technical striker. Francis Ngannou is the most powerful puncher on the planet. Kamaru Usman is the premier wrestler in his division. Moreno is the best… scrambler? Morono isn’t a masterful grappler, nor is he an overpowering wrestler. He isn’t a lights out striker either. And yet, the scrapper found a way to become champion….
Moreno’s intelligence is the most underrated aspect of his. While he isn’t elite in any one area, he mixes his attack expertly to keep his opponents guessing. His boxing is soundly established around his jab, but he does pick his spots to put together slick combinations. For the longest time, Moreno attacked almost exclusively with his fists, but he has effectively begun to mix in low kicks in his most recent contests with Deiveson Figueiredo. Of course, Moreno is truly at his best when he’s able to get his wrestling and grappling rolling. It isn’t the most technical ground game, but Moreno has a natural feel for the mat that typically allows him to get the better of his opponent on the mat.
The funny thing is, he didn’t need to use his ground game against Kara-France in their first contest. Moreno outstruck the Kiwi. To be fair to Kara-France, he has taken his striking to another level in that time. Considered to be a brawler when he first stepped into UFC, that has never been a completely accurate description of him. While he has grown more comfortable leading the dance, he has been more comfortable as a counter striker. However, it’s his power that has been the real difference maker for him. No, he isn’t on the level of Figueiredo in terms of natural power, but Kara-France has secured two first round finishes in his current three-fight win streak.
However, the turning point for Kara-France has been his improved takedown defense. Kara-France isn’t the helpless wretch on the mat as many have portrayed him to be, but there’s no doubt his offensive attack is limited on the mat. In fact, Kara-France’s primary objective when the fight goes to the ground is to get right back up. Regardless, the less the fight is on the mat, the better chance Kara-France has to win.
Despite all the improvements of Kara-France, there’s still something that I struggle to get past: he lost the first fight with Moreno without Moreno having attempted a takedown, much less securing one. Some may point out that Kara-France has made great strides to successfully bring out his power, but the odds are long for him to put down Moreno if Figueiredo couldn’t do it. Plus, this is a five-round fight, something Kara-France doesn’t have experience with. Moreno has plenty of experience in that field. I have no doubt Kara-France will make this a competitive fight, probably stealing a round on the basis of his power. But the one thing Kara-France’s opposition didn’t have was the versatility to their attack that Moreno possesses. That, along with the hard pace Moreno is likely to set, should be enough to have Moreno regain the gold, at least on the interim basis. Moreno via decision
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