The Lioness Hunts No More: End of an Era, and Quite Possibly Division, In UFC

Amanda Nunes, UFC 289
Amanda Nunes, UFC 289 ceremonial weigh-in Credit: Jay Anderson/Cageside Press

Riding off into the sunset as a reigning champion is an opportunity rarely afforded to fighters in the UFC — but Amanda Nunes did just that at UFC 289 on Saturday, closing the book on the “Lioness” era.

Nunes retired off a dominant performance against Irene Aldana, with the story of the fight etched all over the challenger’s face.

When it comes to combat sports, the word “era” is far too often exaggerated, and even when not, poorly defined. It’s a nebulous term seemingly marched out each and every time a popular fighter retires.

Oddly enough, it has rarely been used to describe Nunes’ reign. For whatever reason, maybe her lack of marketability outside of being the women’s GOAT and double-champ, maybe a portion of the fanbase still overlooking female fighters, but “the Nunes era” is something that hasn’t exactly been talked about much up until this point.

It probably should be. It’s downright laughable now, but it has been just ten years since Dana White reneged on his claim that women would “never” fight in the UFC. Ronda Rousey opened the door for female fighters, quickly establishing herself as one of the biggest stars in mixed martial arts.

Rousey’s star burned bright but extinguished quickly, at least in terms of her UFC run. A little over two years after defeating Liz Carmouche in the first women’s fight in promotion history in 2013, she had lost her bantamweight title to Holly Holm. The Rousey era stretches back a little further if you count her Strikeforce run, but regardless, by 2015, it was over.

Holm hot potato’d the title to Miesha Tate, who also dropped the belt in her first attempt at defending it — to none other than Amanda Nunes. “The Lioness” ascended to her place as Queen of the Jungle at UFC 200 in 2016, headlining a historic card by default after Jon Jones flunked his drug test, and Conor McGregor bailed on media duties forcing the promotion to pull him from the event.

From the outset, Nunes never seemed to be given the credit she was due. After bludgeoning and submitting fan favorite Tate to win the UFC bantamweight championship, Nunes was booked into a fight with Rousey — a fight whose sole focus was on “Rowdy.” Video promos ahead of UFC 207 centered on the ex-champ’s impending comeback. Nunes was conspicuously absent. Internally, the UFC’s new (at the time) ownership, Endeavor, went as far as referring to Nunes as “cannon fodder.”

Nunes, however, had other designs. Having competed for both Strikeforce and Invicta FC prior to joining the UFC in 2013, Nunes put on a one-sided beatdown of Rousey that proved who the real “cannon fodder” was.

Want to talk about eras? From March 21, 2015 to June 10, 2023, a span of over eight years, Nunes defeated 14 of 15 opponents put in front of her, nearly all of whom were ex-champs, top contenders, or wily veterans. Her title reigns lasted just shy of seven years. She defeated six former and future UFC champions, including every woman to hold the UFC women’s bantamweight championship. Nunes avenged the only loss she suffered in that span, against Julianna Pena, last year.

In 2018, she added featherweight gold to her collection, knocking out the fearsome Cris Cyborg to do so. A rematch would never materialize, and the division was never truly built by the UFC, who despite having the resources to sign the best 145’ers in the planet allowed them instead to walk to Bellator MMA, and later the PFL as well.

But Nunes still carried and occasionally defended that 145lb title in one-off fights. As long as she did, the hope remained that the UFC might some day, finally, get around to shoring up its featherweight ranks. If there’s any downside to Nunes retiring while on top, it’s that the women’s featherweight division in the UFC will likely be mothballed. UFC President Dana White hinted at just that following Saturday’s card in Vancouver.

Imagine being Norma Dumont, who has a fight with Chelsea Chandler at 145lbs booked for July and is on a two fight win streak— and is now competing knowing that win or lose, she may be out of a job regardless.

I asked Nunes following UFC 289 is she was disappointed that the UFC failed to do more to build the division. Ever the company woman, Nunes said simply “Honestly no. The UFC, they know what they’re doing.” Had she not retired, Nunes added that she would have fought anyone the promotion put in front of her at 145.

Regardless of the lack of effort on the UFC’s part on the featherweight front, in Nunes, they had a bonafide GOAT on their hands. When it comes to the Greatest of All Time among women, there is Nunes, Cris Cyborg, and everybody else. And Nunes, having defeated Cyborg and claimed two belts, albeit one in a half-baked division used seemingly on a whim, has the clear edge in the debate.

Despite all that, Nunes was disrespected all Fight Week long ahead of UFC 289, with fans referring to Charles Oliveira vs. Beneil Dariush as the “real” main event. A very good fight, to be sure, but no one has “Do Bronx” in the greatest of all time debate just yet.

When it comes to Nunes, there is no debate. Much like pineapple on pizza (it belongs there). And there’s little question that Saturday marked the end of an era, with the women’s bantamweight championship now up for grabs, and the featherweight division most likely gone for good.