Amanda Nunes is the UFC's first openly gay champion

Nunes: The emergence

They say that life is wonderful when you learn the hard lessons early. Tough conditions make tough people. Martial artists and combat sports athletes in general, have often narrated stories about their difficult beginnings.

As a country with one of the world’s largest populations, Brazil has provided more than it’s fair share of martial artists. The Gracie family. Jean Jacques Machado. Wanderlei Silva. Anderson Silva. Jose Aldo.  Brazil is also the land of Vale Tudo and the country that gave us the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It’s where the crowds chant “Tu Vai Morrer” calling for your death if they don’t like you. In the words of Chael Sonnen, “Brazil isn’t a bowing culture. If you bow in Brazil, they’ll hit you over the head and steal your wallet.”

But among these legends walks a new one. A young legend who recently stated that she wants to set new records every time she fights. She made this bold declaration with a smile on her face while sporting clothes that have caused members of the media to remark on her fashion sense. We speak of course about Amanda Nunes.

Nunes started training in karate at the young age of four years and started boxing at the age of sixteen. Her uncle was a combat sports athlete and her mother was very supportive. Nunes would transition to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which she considers her primary discipline and discovered the world of mixed martial arts while training in a BJJ dojo. She has mentioned in interviews that she always had faith that she would end up in America pursuing mixed martial arts at a very high level, even though she initially had dreams of being a footballer. Her partner Nina Ansaroff who competes in the straw-weight division of the UFC, mentioned that once Amanda decided that she wanted to be a UFC champion, she did not shift her focus and that she has been living that dream every single day since then.

Nunes started her career on a loss. She tapped to an armbar. But she swept that setback aside and quickly went on to secure a string of victories. She eventually made her debut on Strikeforce in 2011 and secured a win over none other than Julia Budd, who is currently one of the best featherweights on the planet. It was not obvious at the time, but this was a sign of things to come – a pattern where Nunes would rise to the occasion spectacularly every time she was faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge. Eventually, she would find herself in the UFC in late 2013, scoring a win in the very first round on debut. Her career continued in an upwardly mobile fashion, with her only loss coming to Cat Zingano over five years ago.

As every great superhero needs a supervillain, every great sporting icon needs a strong rival. England and Australia have each other for the ashes. Barcelona and Real Madrid have each other in el classico. Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier are one of the biggest in the world of mixed martial arts. For Amanda, this rivalry came from none other than Bullet Valentina Schevchenko, the current reigning defending UFC flyweight champion. The two went back and forth in two fights, both of which went to the judges. The fights still evoke much debate among MMA fans to this day. Schevchenko’s dominance in her own weight class till this point in time, has only helped further solidify Nunes’ legacy by association.

Just prior to the second fight with Bullet Valentina, Nunes would face one of her biggest challengers and almost undoubtedly the most commercially successful female fighter to step in to the cage. Ronda Rousey, a true pioneer in the sport of MMA, known equally well for her devastating judo and submission skills as well as for her trademark scowl, was making a return to the UFC after a hiatus. In the build-up to the fight, almost all of the media attention was on Ronda, who had already achieved the status of global pop-cultural icon. For those who knew better, such as veteran UFC commentator Joe Rogan, this was sub-optimal. Rogan pointed out on his world famous podcast, on more than one occasion that Nunes had all the necessary traits to become a superstar in her own right.

On fight night, Nunes would quickly prove Rogan and her other supporters right, when she dispatched of Rousey in 48 seconds, ending the fight almost as quickly as it began. Nunes quickly put a finger to her lips, a signal that she had silenced all of her critics. Nunes made that fight look easy. A few punches and that was it. No one would have been there to see the long hours of practice that Nunes had put in at the gym, the discipline of a training regime or any of the several obstacles that she would have had to overcome to achieve that moment. Nunes does not display any sign of weakness nor does she talk about the difficulties she has faced. She lets her results speak for herself.

Outside the octagon, Nunes is immensely friendly and jovial. Her fondness for America stemmed from the home alone movie franchise and she confesses to being a big fan of Macaulay Culkin. She is fond of footwear and has a very large shoe collection. She has displayed a sense of humour on social media even when she has been unfairly attacked for her personal life. Nunes does not complain about any discrimination or harassment she has faced for being a lesbian. But just because she does not complain about them, does not mean that she has not faced problems. Society’s worst are unfortunately present in all walks of life, including our beloved sport. The far more likely explanation is that Amanda Nunes is a strong woman, who merely sees this social evil as another challenge to overcome. Her Twitter exchanges with Nina Ansaroff are public displays of affection that nobody minds and everybody enjoys. There is a particularly endearing story, where Amanda while initially courting Nina, uses technology as a crutch to communicate her feelings of intimacy. We see this as yet another example of Amanda, not allowing herself to be constrained by barriers (including linguistic and cultural barriers).

Nunes had adopted the moniker of the Lioness for the majority of her career in the UFC. But most fans (including UFC president Dana White) now associate her with a different animal – the GOAT (an acronym for the Greatest Of All Time, for those new to the term). While she’s been a quiet lurker for that coveted status for a while, her watershed moment came almost a year ago, when she dispatched perhaps her biggest challenge, a muscular monster of a woman whose dominance had to be seen to be believed, and fellow Brazilian Cris Cyborg in under a minute. Nunes, widely expected to lose that fight going in, put on a dominant boxing performance, made history by becoming the first (and so far only) women’s simultaneous two-division champion in the UFC. When both belts were placed on her, one on each shoulder, her ecstatic lap around the octagon will forever remain one of the most iconic moments in the sport.

Currently, Nunes is one of two simultaneous two-division champions, currently active and she intends on defending both belts. As of this writing, Nunes is planning on her fifth defense of her bantamweight title against yet another dangerous opponent, dutch kickboxing sensation, and inaugural UFC featherweight champion Germaine de Randamie in a rematch from their first bout in 2013. The odds going into this title defense indicate that Nunes is once again expected to emerge victorious. Irrespective of the outcome, Nunes is only in her early thirties and we are likely to see more of both her victories and her endearing mannerisms going forward. We know  that she doesn’t let obstacles get in the way of getting what she wants.

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