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Preview: UFC 289 ‘Nunes vs. Aldana’

The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s long-overdue return to Canada comes in the form of a pay-per-view that should provide plenty of entertainment despite being a second-tier numbered event for the promotion. Amanda Nunes gets back to business in the UFC 289 headliner on Saturday at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the assignment looks more interesting than the one the company initially scheduled.

The UFC initially tabbed Julianna Pena for the challenger role in a trilogy fight, but with “The Venezuelan Vixen” out, Irena Aldana steps in as the freshest contender available. The co-feature between Charles Oliveira and Beneil Dariush serves as the clear gem, providing guaranteed violence and high stakes in the lightweight division.

Normalcy has returned to women’s bantamweight now that Nunes is back as a two-division champion, but there are still some nagging questions as to exactly where everything goes from here. Thanks to some late changes to what was supposed to be the UFC’s biggest card to date, UFC 200 ended with Nunes standing tall after running over Miesha Tate, which seemed odd at the time given that she was not exactly a household name.

It looks a lot better in hindsight, as Nunes has spent the last seven years clearly establishing herself as the greatest female fighter in the history of mixed martial arts. Nunes’ first title defense saw her end the career of Ronda Rousey with a one-sided beating, and after a run that saw her obliterate Cristiane Justino and Holly Holm—she gained the women’s featherweight title from the former—before grinding out Germaine de Randamie, the “Lioness” suddenly found herself with no obvious challengers in two divisions.

Things never got particularly interesting for Nunes’ featherweight reign, which saw her outwork Felicia Spencer without much issue before running over Megan Anderson.

However, there was the sense that Nunes was a bit more vulnerable at 135 pounds, particularly as she struggled to keep her gas tank in her title defense versus de Randamie.

Still, it came out of left field that the woman to topple Nunes would wind up being Pena. She looked every bit an undeserving challenger for a round until Nunes suddenly gassed herself out, at which point Pena recovered and stunned the world with a second-round submission. That led to some drama for the rematch, but once things got to the cage, it was very much business as usual for Nunes, who may have even been a bit improved from her last few fights at bantamweight. She laid on a beating for a few rounds and then coasted out the rest with her wrestling, putting in 25 minutes of a complete performance. It was not clear what would be next for Nunes, but it was still a bit of a shock when the UFC made the call that Pena would get another rematch in a trilogy fight. With Pena injured, Nunes draws what is probably the most interesting challenger left on the table in Aldana.

Aldana was one of the more highly touted Mexican talents that came into the UFC in the mid-2010s, but a rough start to her UFC career quickly led to the worry that she would become a bust. The finishing ability that marked her regional career had dried up, plus Leslie Smith and Katlyn Chookagian made Aldana look slow and unable to deal with pressure.

Aldana turned things around with some wins versus the lower reaches of the bantamweight division, but that was mostly the book on her up until her 2019 victory over Ketlen Vieira—a sudden knockout that showed she had recovered some of that finishing ability. That momentum also seemed short-lived. The victory did earn Aldana a headlining spot against Holm, but “The Preacher’s Daughter” proved to be a particularly tough matchup, quick enough to outmaneuver Aldana’s striking and strong enough to grind things out with her wrestling.

The latter issue has still come up in Aldana’s current two-fight winning streak, as she is a willing grappler with solid takedown defense but not enough to be called reliable defensively. Still, she has continued the gains she showed in the Vieira win, blasting Yana Santos with her boxing before scoring an impressively creative finish of Macy Chiasson with an upkick to the liver in September. Since Nunes has never been a particularly elusive fighter, the constant danger that Aldana brings to the table makes for an interesting dynamic in this fight.

If Nunes comes into this anywhere near the poor form she showed in the first fight versus Pena, Aldana has the ability to land a blow that will instantly turn the fight in her favor if not end it outright. While Aldana’s takedown defense is not her strongest suit, she is a solid-enough grappler to survive on the mat, which could make this the type of rough fight that has sapped the champion’s gas tank in the past; and it could leave her open for something big from Aldana in the championship rounds, as the Mexican has proven herself as a capable five-round fighter versus Holm.

It would be impressive if Nunes makes this look easy, but she does have to be favored here given the athleticism she brings to the table and a decent shot that, even if she tires, she will be able to find enough wrestling success to tie Aldana up and stave off a late finish. It is a deceptively tricky matchup.

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