For the past five years, Amanda Nunes has inflicted a reign of terror across the UFC’s bantamweight division unlike anything we have ever witnessed in women’s mixed martial arts.
Since the beginning of her profound 10-fight win streak, “The Lioness” has galvanized spectators of the sport with terrifyingly stunning knockouts and showcases of well-roundedness within the octagon. Not only does she claim the title of best bantamweight of all time, but the greatest female to ever step inside a cage.
Throughout her five official title defenses, Nunes has proved that she’s a step above her peers, dominating each of her adversaries (bar Shevchenko) in extraordinary fashion, flaunting her ridiculous knockout power and overall striking ability. Take some time to watch her five-round demolition of Raquel Pennington, where the Brazilian — fighting in her native land — quite literally battered the life out of her opponent.
The MMA community have become accustomed to Nunes stomping past legitimate challengers with simplicity; if she is unable to score a finish, many are left disappointed. This is down the heap of bodies she has left decaying since her career-defining win streak.
However, today’s article is not about the firm grip Nunes has on both the 135 and 145-pound division, but more on which contenders have the genuine capability of dethroning her. Let’s jump right to it.
How could I not mention Felicia Spencer when on the topic of Amanda Nunes?
At the time of writing, Nunes is scheduled to defend her featherweight crown against Felicia Spencer at UFC 250, in what will be her first title defense at 145 pounds. Due to the recent outbreak of COVID-19, the likelihood of the two exchanging blows is slim, nevertheless, still possible.
Spencer possesses a professional record of 8 victories and 1 defeat, with her sole loss coming at the hands of former champion Cris Cyborg. Despite ultimately losing the contest, “The Feenom” gave a tremendous showing of herself and undoubtedly elevated her stock; nobody, asides from Nunes of course, had stood toe-to-toe with Cyborg without being steamrolled.
The Canadian’s entire game happens to exploit the area Nunes is weakest in — the ground. With four submission victories to her name, along with a menacing and actively offensive top game, Felicia Spencer is shaping up to be the champions stiffest test at featherweight. Sure, she doesn’t boast a height and reach advantage (unlike Megan Anderson, another contender), but she has the potential to take the fight to the canvas, and either seek her patent rear-naked choke or rain down sickening strikes, which she displayed with perfection in her most recent outing. The fact she is dangerous on top is something Nunes has yet to encounter since winning the belt. Cat Zingano was able to mount her back in 2014, and look how that turned out.
In addition to giving Nunes a run for her money, Felicia Spencer may be Canada’s only hope of claiming a world title in the near future. Fellow countrymen Misha Cirkunov and John Makdessi are barely ranked, let alone close to receiving a championship opportunity. This makes Spencer the nation’s solitary chance of attaining gold. No pressure, Felicia.
Aspen Ladd currently occupies the #3 position in the UFC’s bantamweight division, and deservingly so. Her arrival in the big leagues has most certainly been felt by the entirety of the weight class, and her three-minute flattening over veteran athlete Tonya Evinger proved this; Ladd took the opposition down, found the back with ease and unleashed a barrage of ruthless ground and pound en route to a first-round TKO win.
Other than a lone defeat to former champion and longtime contender Germaine De Randamie, Ladd has racked up four wins in quick succession. She owns slick grappling which she mixes well with her ever-evolving striking game — her most recent performance in December conveyed the power and precision her fists contain, as she scored a knockout early in the third round.
If matched alongside the champion, Ladd should attempt to deceptively drag the contest to the mat in order to hunt for a submission. Although she has knocked out six counterparts of the course of her professional career, Amanda Nunes is a completely divergent puzzle: raw power, stinging accuracy and a knack for stalking her prey. Not to mention the fluidity and diversity in which she throws her strikes.
Being just 25 years of age, Aspen Ladd has a number of years left to reach the pinnacle of mixed martial arts. If she ever receives the chance to go to war with Nunes, I’d give Ladd a better shot than the majority of the division.
Undeniably the best puncher on the list, Irene Aldana put the division on notice at UFC 245 when she brutalized undefeated bantamweight Ketlen Vieira with a picturesque lead left hook. This punch earned her ‘Performance of the Night’ honors, which is even more impressive considering the stellar card that ensued that night.
Hailing from Mexico, Aldana naturally has the ability to stand in the pocket and trade, something she illustrated in her split decision win over Lucie Pudilova. As well as being able to take a shot, “Robles” utilizes slips and feints efficiently. This facet of her game allows her to light up the opposition with counters, something she is vigorously refining with each and every performance. Aldana also happens to be in the UFC record books as she sports the highest takedown defense in the promotions 27-year history.
It has perplexed me for some time that Irene Aldana hasn’t accumulated a larger fanbase. Her fan-friendly style mixed with the ability to finish the fight wherever it ends up is every ingredient needed to attract even the casual fan.
I believe Aldana is currently one win away from a title shot. To achieve her goal of fighting for the bantamweight throne, I would like to see her paired with either Raquel Pennington or Holly Holm next. Both have experience competing against Nunes, and a victory would likely catapult Aldana to the next echelon of professional mixed martial arts.
A potential showdown between herself and reigning champion Amanda Nunes would be an intriguing one; once more, a takedown would be needed to get even close to levelling the stakes. Even though she packs a hell of a punch, and holds the same reach as the Brazilian, it would likely not be enough to faze her, as she is superior in every aspect of the sport.
The aforementioned Ketlen Vieira – despite recently losing her 0 to Irene Aldana — is one of the more skillful athletes in the division. A string of injuries momentarily put her career on hold, however, the 28-year-old is ready to reclaim the number one contender spot.
Flaunting a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Judo, Vieira demonstrates these accolades near enough every time she enters the eight-sided steel structure. One of her more favoured takedowns is the kosoto-gake, commonly referred to as the outside leg hook. She completes this maneuver by shifting the weight of the opposition to her far leg, opening up the opportunity to hook quickly and pull, which usually results in the takedown. This is scarcely witnessed in the sport due to its intricacy.
Despite acquiring sloppy striking in comparison to Nunes, Ketlen Vieira’s formidable grappling game gives her the best chance of taking the champ down. She is very big for the weight class. Combine that with the grinding mentality she possesses and you have a bigger threat than meets the eye.
I have big expectations for Vieira, and once she finds her footing again, expect her to assemble another notable win streak, with the only outcome this time being a title shot. Whether she fights for the belt next year or in five, it is going to happen.
Better known as the Venezuelan Vixen, Julianna Pena made her highly anticipated octagon return in July, defeating former champion Nicco Montano via unanimous decision.
Pena is a decent striker, but where she really excels is on the ground. Her crafty techniques and relentless pursuit of submissions would have you mistaking her for a seasoned veteran, when in reality she’s only 12 fights into her professional career.
The closest the Chicago-based fighter has been to a title opportunity was her main event clash with the vicious Valentina Shevchenko in 2017, a woman who is the epitome of the words mixed martial arts. Pena gave a fantastic showing of herself, controlling the clinch a number of times while almost securing a slick armbar from the bottom. Despite ultimately being submitted with that very same move in the second round, she demonstrated to the MMA world the ability to hang with the best, not something everyone can say after facing a world-class fighter such as Shevchenko.
Julianna Pena may not have the best chance of spoiling the run Amanda Nunes is on — she has to compile a winning streak first — but I think her overall skillset is cunning enough to put the champion in real danger.
It’s evident that each of the above-listed contenders’ best shot of walking away victories is to take the fight to the ground. Of course, that’s easier said than done, as various victims of “The Lioness” have found out. Nonetheless, it is necessary. Get her to the ground, or be buried there.