Amanda Nunes is two fights away from a sweep of the bantamweight division, but can the ever-exciting Raquel Pennington put a halt to those plans at UFC 224?
A little under three years ago, the women’s bantamweight division was the gem of the MMA world. The stars were household names, dynamo Ronda Rousey and her established rival Miesha Tate were familiar while Holly Holm needed just under six minutes to forever establish her reputation as a legend killer. The cast of characters at 135 is quite different today but we find ourselves on the verge of another sweep as champion Amanda Nunes looks to make a defense of her title against Raquel Pennington at UFC 224.
Make no mistake, just because there are no “superstars” currently at 135 does not mean that Nunes run has been anything less than impressive. She has recorded first round finishes over the likes of Rousey, Tate, former UFC featherweight champion Germaine de Randamie and current Bellator featherweight champion Julia Budd. But the fact is, the division has been quieter as of late. Her victory over Valentina Shevchenko last year to defend her title was a close contest, but it was marred slightly by the fact that Nunes had to pull out of the bout two months earlier on the day of the fight.
The bantamweight landscape behind Raquel Pennington is very bare. Ketlan Vieira stands out as the next in line by process of elimination, but there is still question of whether or not she is ready for a champion of Nunes’ caliber. That said, there is a lack of quality options past her. Holly Holm would be an interesting candidate, but the former champion is 1-4 in the last two years and is currently booked for another contest up a weight class against Megan Anderson. A rematch with Germaine de Randamie would be interesting stylistically, but “The Iron Lady” does not have the support of the company to be their champion after refusing to defend her featherweight title against Cris “Cyborg” last year. While her skills remain fearsome, she does not figure to become an ambassador for the company.
But while Nunes may be lacking opponents, Raquel Pennington has a plethora of fights ahead of her. “Rocky” is on a four-fight win streak that has put her ahead of the competition for a title shot, and it has come behind several throttling performances in the Octagon. While she previously fought for Invicta, her real introduction to fans was on The Ultimate Fighter where she was one of the participants in the first season that ever featured women. Pennington’s victory over Jessamyn Duke went down as one of the best bouts ever put on, male or female, on the show and there was genuine excitement to see her enter the fold afterward. In her eight fights in the UFC, Pennington has recorded wins over former champions and title contenders like Miesha Tate, Jessica Andrade, and Bethe Correia.
More than any other fighter, Pennington has also been the one to benefit most from the lack of depth at 135. Her last fight was in November 2016 and she has been sidelined since then due to injury. She was briefly attached to a fight at UFC 219 with Nunes as the UFC scrambled to help bolster the card, but a leg injury from a car accident kept the fight from fully materializing. Now five months later, Pennington has not lost her status as the next in line and will step into the cage as the biggest underdog to face Nunes during her title run.
Stylistically, Pennington should look attack with high volume and get in and out against Nunes. Valentina Shevchenko was largely successful in countering the slower Nunes accurately but failed to deliver enough damage compared to the Brazilian during exchanges. Pennington should look to maintain a high output by getting in and out with her strikes. Most crucially, she must avoid remaining stationary in front of Nunes as it will allow the champion to throw combinations with more of her vaunted power.
For “Leoa,” the key is to be the aggressor and not allow Pennington to get into a rhythm. She is the more powerful striker of the two and should look to use her physicality to keep the challenger with her back to the fence. She should look to threaten her with takedowns as well as she figures to have a great advantage on the mat. Even if she is unsuccessful in getting her opponent down, it will help to make Pennington hesitant to commit to big punches for fear of Nunes shooting in underneath.
A victory for Nunes looks to put her in one of two matchups. One is a possible superfight with featherweight champion Cris Cyborg, although Megan Anderson could scrap those plans if she is victorious against Holly Holm in June. If that is the case, a title defense against Ketlan Vieira would figure to be on tap. If Pennington can overthrow the Brazilian queen in Rio, there would be no shortage of fights in her future. Rematches with Nunes or Holm could be in the cards as well as her own bout with Vieira. Neither woman can pencil in those plans until after Saturday night and both will look to have the final word in the main event of UFC 224.