Can the GOAT get her gold back? Amanda Nunes refocused for rematch at UFC 277

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SUNRISE, FLA. — AMANDA NUNES SAT in a chair inside her new gym, running down all of its features like an excited real-estate agent trying to woo her first buyer.

The Lioness Studio has a generous stretch of mat space for training, a full-sized cage, workout equipment and a small sauna. Upstairs is a lounge with a television for film study, a kitchen and a bedroom if anyone wants to catch a nap or even stay overnight.

Nunes said there are still features that need to be added, but one particular thing stands out above all the others.

Nunes, the greatest women’s MMA fighter of all time, is the current UFC women’s featherweight champion and the former UFC women’s bantamweight champion. All those championship belts she has won are at her home and will remain there. Only one title will grace the new Lioness Studio, an ample industrial space about 11 miles west of Fort Lauderdale. And Nunes doesn’t have it in her possession. At least not yet.

Julianna Peña defeated Nunes last December at UFC 269 in a shocking upset to win the UFC women’s bantamweight title. On Saturday, in the main event of UFC 277 in Dallas (10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV), Nunes will have her chance to recapture the bantamweight gold she first won in 2016. If Nunes avenges the loss, she already has a prominent place to show off the title.

“The middle of the mat,” Nunes told ESPN. “Because I want to walk in and see that, especially in the place we built to get that thing back.”

Since dropping the belt seven months ago, things have been a whirlwind for Nunes. She left her longtime gym, American Top Team (ATT), after no longer feeling comfortable there, filmed The Ultimate Fighter opposite Peña, rehabbed the bad knees that bothered her going into the first fight, and found and built out her private, new facility along with her wife, Nina. The rematch will cap a 12-week training camp at Lioness Studio, where she worked with coach Roger Krahl, who had been in Nunes’ corner for some of her biggest fights.

The loss and the changes, Nunes said, have reignited the competitive fire within her that might have been lacking in recent months and years, a side effect of her dominance. Nunes had won 12 straight going into the Peña fight with eight finishes. She became the first woman to hold UFC titles in two different weight classes concurrently and the first fighter, man or woman, to defend both while holding the belts.

Nunes has beaten every woman who has ever held either the UFC women’s bantamweight or featherweight titles — with the recent exception of Peña. In June, UFC president Dana White said in an interview with ESPN’s Brett Okamoto that Nunes is “rich” now and “not that hungry savage” she was on her way up. White, Nunes acknowledged, might not have been wrong in his assessment.

“I was dominating,” Nunes said. “I become a double champion, and I always do all those things, like kill all those girls, clean the division. So, I kind of slowed down, too. I did it. … I was like comfortable — too comfortable. I was in a moment like, ‘Nobody is really gonna beat me’ until Julianna came into the picture. Now, it’s like another excitement. Let’s go. I love this. This is challenging.

“When I don’t feel challenges, things slow down. I don’t know why, but it’s how it is with me. I like to feel trapped. I like the challenges. That is going to bring the excitement back for me to bring my best the day of the fight.”

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AFTER NUNES LOST the title to Peña, she and Nina decided to rent a car and drive the more than 2,500 miles back to Florida. It was just the three of them — Nunes, Nina and their daughter, Raegan. There was a lot to think about and the couple wanted time to reflect on how they’d tackle the future.

Nunes, Nina said, went through several different emotions during the weeklong road trip. At various times during the journey, Nunes ran the gamut between not being sure if she wanted to fight again to wanting to fight Peña on the next available pay-per-view card.

“It was a seven-day road trip and each day there was a different feeling,” Nina said. “I think it was a good drive. I think she needed it.”

Some of the time on that long drive was spent talking about whether Nunes should’ve faced Peña on that date. Nunes was struggling with sprains in both knees and had a hard time training. Nina said she’d train two days a week for Peña and the rest of the days were spent icing her achy joints. Nunes felt pressure not to pull out because she withdrew from a scheduled fight with Peña in August 2021 because of COVID-19. Nunes said she still isn’t sure if she should have competed then.

“I feel like we all made the mistake, me and my coaches,” Nunes said. “We all lost together. I feel like I take all the responsibility for that.”

That car ride also featured the definitive conversation about how Nunes would train in the future. Nunes decided she would leave ATT, where she had trained for eight years, and open up a private gym on her own, with new coaches. It’s something she had thought about for years, Nina said, but the timing never felt right because Nunes was on a long winning streak and crushing the competition.

Nunes and Nina, who is still training at ATT, said there are no hard feelings with ATT and they remain friends with owner Dan Lambert. The main issue, Nunes said, was having a space all her own without hundreds of pro fighters around. She wanted coaches and a training camp built around her. The coaches at ATT are busy and often travel to corner other fighters, which in Nunes’ opinion can sometimes take away from a training camp’s rhythm.

“You have that flexibility to do whatever you want with your training, because the coach is always gonna be there for you,” Nunes said of her new situation. “That has made it a lot easier to keep evolving and keep on the same page of your training and your schedule.”

Many speculated that the rise of two-time PFL women’s lightweight champion Kayla Harrison at ATT was why Nunes left, because the two might one day fight each other. Nina said that isn’t really true, but “it didn’t help.” Harrison, a former two-time Olympic judo champion, was at UFC 269 and met with UFC executives the night before to discuss signing with the promotion. Harrison ended up re-signing with PFL, but that week it seemed like Nunes and Harrison could be on a collision course sooner rather than later.

“Of course, [Harrison] is friends with Amanda and she was cheering Amanda on,” Nina said. “[Harrison] comes from judo, which is a sport where you do compete against your teammates to get a spot. For her, it was a different outlook than Amanda, who came from a traditional Brazilian gym where it’s like — there’s only one.”

Nina said she felt a similar way six years ago when then-UFC women’s strawweight champion Joanna Jedrjzejczyk came to ATT to train. Several ATT fighters in that division, including Nina and Tecia Torres, had already been at ATT for a long time. ATT is no stranger to this kind of thing. Former roommates and best friends Jorge Masvidal and Colby Covington had a very messy — and very public — falling out, resulting in Covington being thrown out of the gym. Robbie Lawler also left ATT, where he remade his career, in the aftermath of his 2016 UFC welterweight title loss to Tyron Woodley, another ATT-affiliated athlete.

“It’s a place where you’re supposed to feel safe and it’s your home,” Nina said. “And Amanda didn’t feel safe there anymore. … She was the first double champ in that gym, the first female champ that brought the belt to the gym. And she just kind of felt a little disrespected.”

Lambert told ESPN that he’s not sure why Nunes would feel uncomfortable or disrespected, but he said, “there’s a reason why we don’t have contracts with fighters.”

“If they don’t want to be at our gym for any reason at all, then both sides are better off parting ways,” said Lambert, who is also Nunes’ former manager. “I have nothing but good things to say about Amanda and will always root for her.”


NUNES DIDN’T MAKE her decision to leave ATT public, but it was reported in the Brazilian media before there was even a plan on what she would do next, Nina said. Shortly after, Nunes was called by the UFC to return to Las Vegas to coach against Peña on The Ultimate Fighter. Nunes brought Nina and some of her new coaches, including Krahl, to help out on the show.

Nunes said she expected Peña to talk a lot of trash during the filming of the show because Nunes believes Peña enjoys being “in the spotlight.” But that isn’t necessarily how it went down. Peña did not carry on with some of the previous barbs, such as accusing Nunes several times last year of avoiding a fight with her.

“Actually, she was like pretty calm,” Nunes said. “I feel like she didn’t want to look bad on TV. … I feel like she wanted to be a better champion than what she showed the last couple of months. I feel like she was actually a good competitor, more conservative. Not being so loud, like she usually is.”

Despite that, Nunes said she hasn’t altered her opinion of Peña. Nunes said Peña was “lying” when she claimed Nunes was ducking her last year.

“I think she’s the same,” Nunes said. “She didn’t change that much. I feel like we’re gonna see each other soon and I’m gonna take my belt back. Nothing she says or does is gonna change that.”

Once Nunes and her team returned to Florida in April, timing became a real issue. The rematch was scheduled for late July, but Nunes didn’t have a place to do her training camp. Pushing back the fight date wasn’t an option, since Ultimate Fighter coaches traditionally fight at the end of each season.

So, Nunes and Nina scoured different buildings in Broward County near their home, with varying degrees of interest. One space was small and needed a lot of work, and another had an issue with the lease. Finally, Nina’s aunt brought them to a building she owned with an office on the top floor and a huge industrial garage on the bottom. As soon as Nunes saw the large area to work with, she was sold.

“I always tell Nina that when I walk in here, I feel the same way as when I walked into American Top Team for the first time in my life,” Nunes said. “It’s the same feeling when I step in this gym every day. This is the place that I’m gonna bring my belt that I’m supposed to have and by mistake I let it go. But this is the place that I’m gonna bring it back to and I’m gonna put it right here.”

For about a month, Nunes, Nina and Nina’s father worked on the gym, putting down mats, installing workout equipment and putting posters on the walls. Nina’s brothers had to go and pick up the cage from North Carolina and drive it down. Sometimes, the days stretched deep into the early hours of the morning. During that time, Nunes was also rehabbing her knees to get them right for training camp.

“All we did in here, we love it,” Nunes said. “I feel like when you do something and you’re passionate about it, everything comes together easy.”

The new gym, Nunes said, has brought her a sense of peace. The only people allowed in are people whom Nunes invited: her coaches, training partners, friends and family. Though it’s more than 3,000 square feet, it’s an intimate setting compared to the cavernous ATT, a place where the nearly 2-year-old Raegan has an area from which she can see the entire gym while she watches Disney movies.

Lioness Studio is a private facility. Due to local zoning ordinances, Nunes isn’t able to have paid members, so it’ll remain just for her and her training partners, she said. After her fighting career, Nunes said she might open up a gym for pro fighters and civilians as members, but she’s not sure yet whether or not she wants to live the life of an MMA coach — and all the traveling that comes with it — after a long career competing.

For coaching, Nunes tabbed Krahl, who coached her at ATT until he left in 2018. Krahl, who owns the nearby ATT Sunrise affiliate, was in Nunes’ corner when she knocked out Ronda Rousey in December 2016.

Along with Krahl, Nunes has been working with Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach Bobby Casale and wrestling coach Patrick Nagel. Alex Chambers, a UFC veteran Nunes and Nina have known for years from ATT, has also been a part of Nunes’ camp. Krahl said Nunes is 100 percent after the knee injuries and he’s “very confident” in her ahead of this rematch with Peña.

“She’s got the gas tank, she can push five rounds of a brawl, five rounds of a hard, hard fight,” Krahl said of Nunes. “And that’s what she’s prepared for. However, I think the safer bet is probably a first-round finish.”

This version of Nunes, Krahl said, is the best one he has seen. He said he could tell from afar that she might have let her foot off the gas a bit because she had so few challenges. Nina admitted that her wife enjoyed her life quite a bit over the past few years — eating chocolate cake a week before a fight or drinking a beer or three — and still handily beat everyone in front of her, until she ran into Peña. This Nunes, Nina said, is the UFC 200 version, the one who choked out Miesha Tate and obliterated Rousey.

“It’s just a vengeance,” Krahl said. “She’s the Lioness, man, and she’s gonna go hunting and she is hungry. Like she is [now], I’ve never seen her in the years I’ve known her this motivated. And it’s scary. Her sparring partners we’ve had to rotate through because she’s abusing them.”

The Lioness Studio is functional and ready. Most importantly, it already has all the amenities that Nunes needs. Now she wants to put the finishing touches on it. And that means bringing the belt back and gently placing it right in the center of the mats, for all who visit to see.

“It’s gonna be a new era,” Nunes said. “I’m gonna get that thing back in my own gym. So, this is gonna be something different. I want to have the belt here, in my gym. So, this is a new beginning in my life. I’m very excited and I can’t wait for that.”

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