Respect comes in different forms. In the fight game, it usually means that a clash of two champions in the Octagon or ring results in a chess match in which neither fighter is willing to risk making a mistake when so much is at stake.
There are exceptions. Like Amanda Nunes and Cris Cyborg.
Saturday night in Los Angeles, Cyborg put her UFC women’s featherweight title and her aura of invincibility on the line against women’s bantamweight champion Nunes in a true SuperFight, one many believed would determine the greatest female fighter in MMA history.
Cyborg, a UFC, Strikeforce and Invicta FC champion who was unbeaten for over 13 years, had no intention of getting into that debate in the lead-up to the fight, opting to let the media and fans decide that mythical title. Nunes was another story. She wanted the two belts, the history, and the GOAT designation that came with it from the time she texted UFC President Dana White to request the match.
“I want this fight,” Nunes told White. “Make this fight happen for me, please.”
He did, but it takes two to truly make a fight, and while the UFC 232 co-main event only lasted 51 seconds, it was a reminder of what can happen when two of the best fight to keep that designation next to their name.
There was no staring, no posturing, no refusal to engage. It was the ultimate show of respect. As soon as referee Marc Goddard motioned the two to the middle of the Octagon, it was on, just the way Nunes wanted it.
Nunes threw, Cyborg threw back and landed, and it went on like that, punches flying until Nunes landed a right hand that sent Cyborg to a knee.
“When I connected my first punch, I knew she got rocked a little bit, and I said, imagine if I connect the next one,” Nunes recalled.
As the crowd roared, it would have been the perfect opportunity for Cyborg to clinch or try for a takedown. Cyborg wasn’t having it. She was raised in the Chute Boxe Academy. When a Chute Boxe fighter gets hit, they try to hit back. Simple as that. Nunes knew it and embraced that reality.
“When you hit her, she’s going to go crazy, trying to kill you,” said Nunes. “And that’s what happened and that was the key of the fight. Get her to get crazy and come forward.”
Cyborg kept marching forward, kept throwing haymakers, but Nunes was always one step ahead. Fast, accurate, on target.
“Distance and speed were key,” she said. “I knew I had to be fast and smart.”
Soon, it was over. Amanda Nunes was the champ-champ. And while it’s always dicey to start talking about all-time greatness while a fighter is still active, wins over Cyborg, Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate, Valentina Shevchenko (twice) and Germaine de Randamie make the call of “The Lioness” as the best ever a lot easier.
“I’m very happy,” she said at the post-fight press conference. “Tonight I did it once again. It’s incredible.”
The joy was evident in the Octagon and at the press conference, where her smile was more sparkling than the gold belts on each side of her. It was a far cry from the days after her 2014 loss to Cat Zingano, her first UFC defeat and one that made many wonder whether she was a frontrunner who couldn’t handle a grueling three or five-rounder. Bahia’s Nunes knew she had the goods; she just needed to make some tweaks in her training.
“That was a fight that was very important to me,” the 30-year-old said. “That fight against Cat Zingano helped me a lot. To become who I am today, that fight needed to happen.”
The lessons were clear.
“To be more calm, to be more confident, train smarter.”
She hasn’t lost since, an eight-fight run that includes six finishes, two titles, three successful bantamweight title defenses, and four post-fight Performance bonuses. All because she dared to be great. So did Cyborg, and this loss shouldn’t hurt her legacy. It doesn’t affect Nunes’ thoughts on her fellow Brazilian.
“She’s strong, she’s powerful, was a great champion,” said Nunes. “I respect Cris a lot, but tonight, I knew it was gonna be my night.”
It was her night. And I’m betting that Nunes hasn’t stopped smiling yet.
“This is the moment that I’ve waited for,” she said. “Make history, be happy with myself, be happy with what I’m capable of. I’m happy. This is the only word that I have right now.”
I’ve got another: respect.