UFC 289: Amanda Nunes vs Irene Aldana

The UFC returned to Canada for the first time since September 2019 and even though the planned rubber match between Amanda Nunes and Juliana Peña fell through, another challenger stepped up on a month’s notice at UFC 289. Irene Aldana had previously been on the cusp of title contention after a dynamite left hook knockout of previously unbeaten Ketlen Vieira, but an abysmal performance in her main event spot against Holly Holm made it difficult to imagine seeing her standing across the octagon from the dominant champ Amanda Nunes anytime soon.

Still, Aldana managed to string together two more knockout wins in subsequent years to earn herself a chance at a main event title eliminator bout with streaking former title contender Raquel Pennington. When Peña suffered a rib injury it was Aldana, a fresh matchup for the champion, who was plucked from her planned fight night headliner against Pennington to finally get a chance at gold after nearly seven years in the promotion.

Given that Peña had just been completely shut out by Nunes less than a year ago and Pennington had already been served a technical knockout loss in her attempt to dethrone the Brazilian, it was perhaps easier to imagine that Aldana could offer more resistance. Her technical boxing, bolstered by some tight punching mechanics not often seen in women’s MMA, was seen as a potential issue for Nunes, who has been drawn into brawls and shown a tendency to allow her form to degrade in longer and more frequent exchanges. Furthermore, Aldana’s friend and training partner Alexa Grasso had already deposed a dominant champ in another division and brought a belt to Mexico earlier this year. So how did Aldana capitalize on this movie-like narrative ushering her into the spotlight?

Unfortunately for Aldana, there was no storybook ending at UFC 289. Like many other failed contenders, Aldana fell into the trap of worrying too much about the various threats the champion posed and worrying too little about what circumstances were necessary for her to impose her own offense. One of the primary reasons that Nunes has been able to hold onto her spot at the top of the division for so long (save for Peña’s brief intermission) is because she presents dangers across multiple phases. Aldana’s plan was to do her very best to mind all her P’s and Q’s on defense to avoid getting finished early like so many of Nunes’ previous challengers. And while Aldana was able to achieve that goal and make it to the final bell, the concessions she made along the way nullified any chance she had to actually win the fight.

To deal with Nunes’ power punches, Aldana remained committed to a high guard. While not as effective in MMA as in boxing due to the small gloves, keeping shoulders and forearms in a position to obstruct looping hooks and overhands can still go a long way in avoiding fight-ending shots. Paired with her boxing-style high guard, Aldana kept a lead-leg heavy stance to give her a strong foundation for her jabs and left hooks. If you looked at an isolated silhouette of Aldana’s stance, you wouldn’t find much to complain about. Where it all falls apart, however, is with her distance.

Aldana has never been a stout defensive wrestler and even in her most recent fight she gave up three pivotal takedowns to Macy Chiasson that led to several minutes of control time. It’s likely that Aldana would have lost that fight on the judges scorecards were it not for a phenomenally weird and brutal up-kick to the liver that collapsed Chiasson halfway into the final round. Coming into this fight, Aldana knew that if Nunes got a hold of her legs or found a bodylock that it was unlikely that she would be able to remain upright for very long. He solution to this glaring weakness in her game was to try to keep a longer distance, giving her more time to react to shot attempts and hopefully kill the grips and momentum before they got started. However, this longer distance took her completely out of the range where she could land all of her best weapons. She was never close enough to land her jab or her left hook and was stuck pawing at air.

Not only did this limit her opportunities to actually punch Nunes, it didn’t really stop Nunes from racking up damage. Without having to worry about Aldana’s only major threat, the boxing, Nunes could just fence her at range with kicks and long punches. It didn’t help Aldana much with the wrestling defense either because Nunes could just poke away at range and whenever Aldana did try to step into range, her lead-leg heavy stance and high guard created a massive opening for the single leg.

Aldana was so worried about everything Nunes brought to the table, that she removed opportunities to get her own offense going at UFC 289.

All in all this approach from Aldana at UFC 289 seems like a fundamental misunderstanding of what it takes to beat a fighter like Nunes. Peña is much less technically proficient on the feet than Aldana and doesn’t have ironclad takedown defense either, but she got much more done against Nunes because of her willingness to wade into Nunes’ offense and drag her into a war. Nunes has always shown a tendency both to sit down and swing hard at opponents when they step to her and to tire herself out quickly when she does. Sitting on the outside letting Nunes work from range gave Nunes a fight that she felt comfortable in and the result was that she gradually built on her successes while barely breaking a sweat at UFC 289.

UFC 289: Charles Oliveira vs Beneil Dariush

This felt to many like an unnecessary matchup and part of a seemingly endless stream of logjam fights at the top of the division, with fighters consistently proving difficult to goad into matchups with opponents outside the top five not named Conor McGregor. Even if that was the case, the UFC 289 co-main event was still a can’t-miss affair between two highly skilled lightweights who have taken the long road to the top. It certainly was the fight people were most looking forward to on an otherwise relatively lackluster event in UFC 289. And while the fight didn’t make it out of the first round, it still delivered on its promise of entertainment while also providing enough technical back-and-forth to digest.

UFC 289 turned out to be a fantastic return to form for Charles Oliveira, who silenced critics who predicted that another southpaw with hefty grappling chops would freak him out like his previous opponent Islam Makhachev. Charles Oliveira looked comfortable to pressure Dariush and more willing to work around the southpaw’s threats. First, Oliveira was keyed into a specific tendency of Dariush to lean back and away from the rear kick. The open stance matchup always provides greater opportunities for rear body and head kicks, and Oliveira realized that his kicks would be key to pressuring Dariush and cutting off lateral escape routes.

Dariush’s commitment to counter-kicking wasn’t necessarily a bad read…

Read the rest of the in-depth UFC 289 technical breakdown over at our Substack.

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Miguel Class
Miguel Class

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