Julianna Peña plans to shock the world for a second time when she takes on Amanda Nunes, the greatest female fighter of all time, in a much-anticipated rematch for the bantamweight championship at UFC 277 in Dallas, Texas on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
A second title will be on the line at the American Airlines Center as Brandon Moreno battles Kai Kara-France for the interim flyweight championship in the co-main event, while the featured bout is a heavyweight slugfest between elite knockout artists Derrick Lewis and Sergei Pavlovich.
Pivotal top-10 tussles round out the main card as Alexandre Pantoja and Alex Perez face off at flyweight and Magomed Ankalaev and Anthony Smith square off in the light heavyweight division.
MAIN CARD (from 4 AM Sunday SA time):
Julianna Peña (3.20) v Amanda Nunes (1.34) (Bantamweight Championship)
Peña (12-4) pulled off one of the biggest upsets in UFC history when she submitted Nunes (21-5) to capture the bantamweight title in December.
It was no fluke, no lucky punch. “The Venezuelan Vixen” did exactly what she said she was going to do; she fearlessly took the fight to Nunes – one of just four fighters in history to hold two titles simultaneously – rocked her with strikes, took her down and forced her to tap in the second round.
For seven years, “The Lioness” had been untouchable. She’d gone on a record 12-fight tear to seize both the bantamweight and featherweight belts and mauled everyone in her path, including knocking out fellow greats Ronda Rousey and Cris Cyborg to cement herself as the women’s GOAT.
The apex predator, who still holds the featherweight gold, is as dangerous on the feet – where she carries unrivalled power – as she is on the ground, where she dominates and stretches opponents as a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. Naturally aggressive and strong, the 34-year-old boasts 17 stoppage wins (81%), 13 of those coming by knockout.
Peña is a powerful wrestler with vicious ground-and-pound (three knockouts) and good jiu-jitsu (five submission wins). As pivotal to her success as these strengths are her unwavering confidence and warrior spirit. That mental strength and willingness to walk through fire to win are what fuels her and sets her apart.
It saw her win season 15 of The Ultimate Fighter back in 2013, climb the ranks and was the driving force behind her seismic title-winning upset. She entered the first fight with Nunes as a massive 7.00 underdog and comes back at 3.20 for the rematch.
The 32-year-old’s a decent dog in the sense that she has a high-level skillset and proved that she should never be counted out. However, as good and brave as she was to rise to the occasion in December, Nunes was well below her best. The then-double champ was complacent and dug her own grave by paying Peña no respect in the striking department. She also claims she went into the fight with a knee injury.
Having paid the price, Nunes will be more than fully-focused. She’s extra motivated for this one, not only because of what transpired between her and her rival inside the Octagon but also because they had to tolerate and compete against each other as coaches on the latest season of The Ultimate Fighter.
The Brazilian will also be wise to the smash-mouth pressure she can expect from Peña. As a result, she’ll be more patient from an offensive perspective and defensively responsible on the feet, utilise her unprecedented championship experience to wear Peña down and eventually put her away to get her second belt back.
Brandon Moreno (1.44) v Kai Kara-France (2.75) (Interim Flyweight Championship)
The co-headliners have also shared the Octagon before. The all-action duo duked it out back in December 2019 with Moreno (19-6-1) picking up the win by decision. A lot has happened since and they’ve evolved into the two best flyweights not named Deiveson Figueiredo.
Moreno is coming off a rollercoaster trilogy with Figueiredo. Their maiden meeting was an absolute war that ended in a draw, Moreno won the rematch by submission to become the first-ever Mexican-born UFC champion before he dropped the title back to Figueiredo by decision in January.
Kara-France (23-9-1NC) has caught fire, winning three in a row to earn a crack at the champion. However, with Figueiredo sidelined with a hand injury, the New Zealander will battle “The Assassin Baby” instead with the winner going on to face Figueiredo in a unification bout later this year.
Both men are lightning quick and can do it all, but their biggest strengths are juxtaposed. Moreno is a standout grappler with 11 submissions wins, while “Don’t Blink” has a dozen knockouts to his credit, the most recent coming over former bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt.
The big takeaway from their first fight was that Moreno, rather surprisingly, didn’t go to his superior grappling and was still able to get the win, essentially beating the Kiwi at his own game. That will give him the confidence to stand and strike again but it’s a dangerous game to play against an opponent with more firepower.
All signs point to a hard-fought battle that bleeds into the championship rounds. As such, Moreno’s primed to mix it up this time; having that ability in his back pocket means he’ll keep Kara-France in two minds and gives him an emergency option to shoot if he gets clipped.
Both men push a fast pace, but Kara-France has only fought in three-round fights. Moreno has proved he can go five hard rounds in the first and most recent clash with Figueiredo, which gives him another advantage.
Extremely durable on top of that (he’s never been stopped), he should be able to edge Kara-France everywhere, endure what he needs to and emerge victorious by decision or a late stoppage.
Derrick Lewis (2.10) v Sergei Pavlovich (1.74) (Heavyweight)
The judges will be mere spectators in this heavyweight slugfest as it’s all but guaranteed to end with a knockout. Fifth-ranked Lewis (26-9) is the UFC’s all-time knockout king with 13 stoppage win via strikes inside the Octagon and 21 overall, while Pavlovich (15-1) has claimed all but three of his wins by KO.
Fan favourite Lewis, aka “The Black Beast”, is looking to return with a bang after his stoppage loss to Tai Tuivasa in February. A former two-time title challenger, his elite-level experience is a key advantage in this clash against a rising star and saw him instilled as the favourite before the line moved in Pavlovich’s favour earlier this week.
Eleventh-ranked Pavlovich’s only loss came on the ground against Alistair Overeem in 2018 and Lewis is not one to go for takedowns, which simplifies things and plays into the Russian’s hands.
At 30, he’s seven years younger and significantly faster than the Texas titan and he’ll have a massive five-inch reach advantage, so Pavlovich’s poised to be the last man standing.
Alexandre Pantoja (1.51) v Alex Perez (2.55) (Flyweight)
No 4 meets No 6 in what should be an exciting flyweight affair. Higher-ranked Pantoja (24-5) is a high-level Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt who notched up his ninth submission win over fifth-ranked Brandon Royval in August.
“The Cannibal” has heavy hands for a 125-pounder as well, which have seen him collect eight knockouts, and another W in Dallas would be his third on the bounce.
Perez (24-6), in contrast, is making a fresh start. He hasn’t fought since losing to champion Figueiredo two years ago, which leaves him with a tall order in this tough comeback fight.
Five of his last six fights ended in the first round, which highlights his ultra-aggressive style. The all-round threat was victorious in four of those but the loss to Figueiredo showed he still has a glaring shortcoming when it comes to staying safe in grappling situations as it was his fourth defeat by submission.
Pantoja has the edge everywhere but with his submission prowess, he should be able to sink his claws into Perez and force him to tap out.
Magomed Ankalaev (1.19) v Anthony Smith (4.60) (Light Heavyweight)
The rising force at 205 pounds division takes on one of the division’s seasoned veterans in a top-five showdown that could put the victor in line for a title shot down the road.
Ankalaev (17-1) has ticked all the boxes on his ascend to the No 4 ranking. With a remarkable eight wins in a row, the Dagestani boasts the longest win streak in the division and sets out to defeat a third former title challenger on the trot having outpointed Volkan Oezdemir and Thiago Santos on his last trips to the Octagon.
The 30-year-old fights with controlled aggression and his style consists of two clear parts – striking and sambo. A patient and disciplined striker, he’s equally satisfied with a decision win (8) and a knockout (9), while he’s a smothering grappler who prefers position over submission.
Fifth-ranked Smith (36-16) is on a resurgence that saw him stop his last three opponents to take his knockout total to 19 and submission tally to 14. As crafty as he is skilled, the 52-fight warhorse will push the pace to try to force Ankalaev into making a mistake.
I do see Ankalaev winning the fight, but the line is ludicrous. This will be a competitive fight, so Smith is a great value underdog. The other option is a prop bet on the overwhelming favourite. As his nickname suggests, underdog “Lionheart” is as tough as they come, so I’m expecting the fight to go the distance with Ankalaev getting his hand raised.
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