Amanda Nunes with lots to prove at UFC 215

Amanda Nunes celebrates after defeating Ronda Rousey during a women's bantamweight championship mixed martial arts bout at UFC 207, Friday, Dec. 30, 2016, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
(AP Photo/John Locher)

2016 was easily the greatest year of Amanda Nunes’ professional fighting career. Going 3-0 to become the No. 1 contender at 135 pounds at UFC 196, Nunes went on to starch defending champion Miesha Tate at UFC 200 and cruise past Ronda Rousey in her first title defense months later at UFC 207.

She headlined two events that year, both of which went on to become some of the biggest pay-per-view successes in company history. She admittedly didn’t play that grand a role in either matchup, seeing as UFC 200 was packed to the brim with drawing power, where UFC 207 was marketed heavily as the return of Ronda Rousey.

Even still, Nunes was under the spotlight for a majority of the calendar year, and for good reason. The world, at the expense of two of the most popular fighters in women’s mixed martial arts history, was introduced to the sort of ferocity Nunes is capable of unleashing inside of the cage.

Fast forward just one year later and the circumstances of Nunes’ impending rise couldn’t be any different. She hasn’t had any superstar opponents to piggyback off of in 2017, forced to deal with a life after Rousey, Tate and a championship-relevant version of Holly Holm. It’s on her to carry the division moving forward, hoping that consistently entertaining performances, and those alone, will be enough to command the world’s attention.

That remains to be seen, however, considering Nunes hasn’t stepped into the cage in 2017.

The bantamweight champion has been absent for the first eight full months of the year. She wasn’t even scheduled to make her 2017 debut until July, originally booked to face Valentina Shevchenko in a rematch at UFC 213.

That, infamously now, wasn’t the case in the end. A card already derailed by the loss of its original headliner early on, as well as numerous other hits along the way, lost a bout between Nunes and Shevchenko just hours before they were scheduled to step into the cage. On the morning of UFC 213 on July 8, it was revealed Nunes would not be defending her championship after all, resulting in about as unnerving a nightmare scenario as the UFC could possibly imagine. Nunes and her team cited an ongoing battle with sinusitis as her reason to forego her title defense, leaving the company without its main event — or much time to deal with the aftermath in attempting to find a suitable replacement, either.

The repercussions were, as expected, volatile.

UFC president Dana White was understandably displeased with Nunes, questioning her integrity as a fighter and insisting that he would never trust her to headline another UFC PPV event ever again. That’s held true thus far. Nunes is set to compete in the co-main event behind flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson and his quest for UFC history. Nunes was the latest champion to come under fire by White, ironically joining Johnson on that growing list of titleholders who weren’t in the company president’s good graces.

But it wasn’t just the criticism from White that damaged Nunes’ reputation — it was how the public viewed her, as well.

Nunes has looked virtually unstoppable since entering the UFC title scene, defeating both Tate and Rousey without much adversity. But it was the final win she notched prior to becoming champion that makes her upcoming bout so interesting, and her UFC 213 fallout all the more consequential. Nunes defeated Shevchenko to become the top contender in the class, dominating the better part of the first two rounds before essentially surviving in the final frame to hold on to the decision win. There are those who believe that Shevchenko is the favorite to win in a five-round fight, adding fuel to the narrative that Nunes’ decision to withdraw from July’s rematch wasn’t solely driven by her sinuses.

The word “ducking” suddenly entered the conversation — an expression Nunes states isn’t accurate whatsoever.

“And this is the thing, I don’t know if people think I was scared or something like that — no, I’m the one who wanted this fight. I’m the one asking for [UFC matchmaker] Sean Shelby to reschedule the fight right away,” Nunes said during a media conference call. 

“I never was going to run away. I’m a champion, I have to defend this belt. Whatever steps in the cage against me, I will fight, because I have the belt. I’m No. 1 on the planet, and I want to keep staying here. I have to keep proving it, and for that, I have to prove it against somebody. And Valentina is the one, the one that I wanted to fight next. Nobody else in this division.”

Nunes will have a chance to erase all those doubters, proving herself an entertaining fighter once more with a big win over her greatest competitive rival in the company.

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