Pennington rolls to title vacated by retired Nunes

TORONTO — Nearly six years after suffering a demoralizing defeat to Amanda Nunes in her first UFC title appearance, Raquel Pennington has finally climbed to the top of the mountain.

Pennington (16-8) seized the UFC’s vacant bantamweight championship on Saturday, defeating Brazilian challenger Mayra Bueno Silva (10-3-1) by unanimous decision in the co-main event of UFC 297 inside Scotiabank Arena. All three judges scored the five-round bout for Pennington via scores of 49-46, 49-46 and 49-45.

Pennington, 35, becomes the UFC’s first 135-pound champion since Nunes retired from the sport last year. She fought Nunes for the belt in May 2018 in Brazil and suffered a TKO loss. Many criticized Pennington’s corner afterward for not throwing in the towel when Pennington looked defeated on her stool between rounds due to Nunes’s vicious leg kicks.

“It’s been a long five years getting back to this,” Pennington said. “I expected to come out here and open up more, but a fight is a fight. Mayra is tough. I have climbed mountains to get back here.”

Bueno Silva, 32, threatened to ruin Pennington’s second opportunity at a championship numerous times. She fought for several chokes both in standing positions and on the ground, and came very close to securing a rear-naked choke in the fourth. Pennington, who made her pro debut in 2012 and is considered one of the early pioneers of women’s MMA, calmly escaped every attempt and went on to dominate the scorecards.

Pennington’s offense came primarily on the feet. She worked behind her jab all night, while mixing in the right cross. Bueno Silva struggled to take her down in the clinch, and Pennington made her pay with knees to the body and elbows for her efforts. The fight was slow at times, as the two worked through grappling stalemates along the fence. Pennington was unquestionably the busier of the two in those positions though, and when she did get on top, she scored points with hammerfists.

The sellout Canadian crowd booed some of the lack of action, but Pennington reminded them it’s difficult to score offense in a clinch-heavy fight. According to UFC Stats, Pennington had a 252-88 advantage in total strikes. She also racked up more control time than Bueno Silva, who is known for her grappling pedigree.

The win sets up a likely matchup between Pennington and Julianna Peña for the next bantamweight title fight. Pena would have likely fought Pennington at UFC 297, but she came into 2023 recovering from an undisclosed injury. She is not expected to be out long term.

“Julianna, get your ass better and sign on the dotted line,” Pennington said. “It’s been 10 years that I’ve waited for that fight.”

Nunes, who by all accounts remains happily retired, was in Toronto to witness the fight. Pennington becomes the sixth undisputed bantamweight champion in UFC history. The first was Ronda Rousey.

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