Women’s mixed martial arts GOAT Amanda Nunes returns to defend her bantamweight championship against dangerous striker Irene Aldana at UFC 289 in Vancouver on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The world’s leading MMA promotion returns to Canada for the first time in nearly four years with a decent card that includes two blockbuster bouts and some of the Great White North’s best fighters.
The co-main event at the Rogers Arena is a pivotal lightweight bout between former champion Charles Oliveira and surging contender Beneil Dariush.
Canada’s own Mike Malott meets Adam Fugitt at welterweight, fellow local favourite Marc-Andre Barriault battles Eryk Anders at middleweight and Dan Ige faces Nate Landwehr at featherweight.
MAIN CARD (from 4 AM Sunday SA time):
Amanda Nunes (1.31) v Irene Aldana (3.65) (Bantamweight Championship)
Nunes (22-5) was originally set to face Juliana Pena in a trilogy bout, but with her staunch rival ruled out through injury, “The Lioness” will battle Mexico’s Aldana (14-6) instead.
Holder of the bantamweight and featherweight titles, Nunes has already cemented her legacy as the greatest female fighter of all time. A destructive force on the feet (13 knockouts) and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt (four submissions), she’s been the pound-for-pound queen for years and looked bulletproof up until December 2021.
It can be lonely at the top and after defending both her belts on multiple occasions, Nunes – for a short while – rested on her laurels, and it cost her dearly. A fearless Pena capitalised on Nunes’ complacency and proved she’s human after all with a stunning second-round submission upset victory to seize the bantamweight gold.
After seeing her legendary seven-year unbeaten streak go up in smoke, Nunes came correct in the rematch last July, bludgeoning Pena over five rounds to reclaim the title. Yet, that rare defeat serves as motivation for hungry challengers like Aldana that the Brazilian beast incarnate can be beaten and that they, too, can shock the world.
So, does Aldana have a shot? Yes…a puncher’s chance.
She’s a big, powerful kickboxer who overwhelms opponents with an endless onslaught of strikes. Back-to-back knockouts of Yana Kunitskaya and Macy Chiasson have earned her this maiden title opportunity and moved her KO count up to eight.
Aldana’s one advantage over Nunes is the fact that she fires at a higher volume, landing 5.39 significant strikes per minute compared to the double champion’s 4.4. However, there are two issues here. One, given Nunes’ punching power, Aldana will have to be more cautious and selective than usual and two, she’s only been in one five-round fight.
She dropped a decision to former champion Holly Holm on that occasion back in 2020, so pacing and stamina could be problematic, especially against Nunes, who’s fought in nothing but five-rounders for years.
Had Pena not come around, Aldana would’ve had a better shot with her stellar yet one-dimensional striking style. Against Pena, a powerful wrestler, Nunes showed her challenger’s striking no respect and it proved to be the beginning of the end for her on that fateful night in Las Vegas. She won’t make that mistake again.
Another concern for Aldana is she’s been very hittable in her UFC career, absorbing 5.71 significant strikes per minute and while she’s never been knocked out inside the Octagon, she’s never faced anyone with Nunes’ power and was stopped by strikes twice before breaking into the UFC.
Nunes is as good a striker as Aldana and her added grappling prowess gives her a major advantage. Aldana does have good takedown defence (81%), though, and her hopes hinge on whether she can keep the fight standing.
Is it worth sprinkling a few pennies on Aldana? With her power and skill, I’d say so. However, I do see Nunes having success on the feet and with her takedowns and controlling the majority of the fight with her complete skillset.
It’s a toss-up whether she’ll retain by submission or decision, but with Aldana yet forced to tap 11 years into her career, I’m leaning towards a decision victory for “The Lioness.”
Charles Oliveira (2.20) v Beneil Dariush (1.71) (Lightweight)
The co-main event promises to be a thriller between two of the top lightweights in the world vying for the next shot at the title.
In an ocean full of sharks, Oliveira (33-9) is the apex predator. The Brazilian boasts the most finishes (19) and submissions (16) in UFC history while 18 of his last 19 fights finished inside the distance.
Aggressive by nature, “Do Bronx” is a crisp striker and next-level jiu-jitsu wizard who’d won 11 straight to cement himself as the 155-pound king before being dethroned by Islam Makhachev in his last fight. Too concerned with the Dagestani’s wrestling, he got caught with a punch and was swiftly submitted.
Dariush (22-4-1) has been unstoppable since 2018. The Iranian ace has won eight in a row and a victory over the former champion would finally land him an elusive title shot.
Composed and well-rounded, “Benny” is a calculated fighter with the heart of a lion. He’s comfortable everywhere but will want to avoid getting tied up in grappling exchanges. To that end, he showed off his tremendous takedown defence in his decision win over Mateusz Gamrot last time out.
Dariush has momentum on his side and is more defensively sound, but he hasn’t faced the calibre of opponents Oliveira’s defeated. Oliveira still has plenty of fight left in him, is more athletic and refocused to regain his crown.
Too good to pass up as an underdog, I see him leaning on his elite-level experience and tightening up defensively to pick up a rare decision victory.
Mike Malott (1.48) v Adam Fugitt (2.75) (Welterweight)
Malott (9-1-1) will be a ball of violent energy when he enters the Octagon in front of his home crowd.
The Canadian prospect’s an exciting fighter with a 100% finish rate (four knockouts and five submissions) and passed his first two tests in the UFC with flying colours, knocking out Mickey Gall and tapping out Yohan Lainesse.
“Proper” has only been out of the first round once, when he fought to a majority draw with Thomas Diagne in Bellator back in 2015, so don’t blink.
He has a willing dance partner in Fugitt (9-3), who’s claimed all but one of his wins by stoppage (five knockouts and three submissions).
Aided by a four-inch reach advantage, the American would be well served to stay on the outside in the early going in an attempt to weather the storm.
Michael Morales showed Fugitt is vulnerable in some striking situations when he knocked him out to spoil his UFC debut and Malott’s so dynamic that he should score a popular finish.
Dan Ige (1.39) v Nate Landwehr (3.15) (Featherweight)
Cue the fireworks. This will be a wild and fun featherweight scrap that’ll push the co-headliner for the Fight of the Night honours.
Known as “50k” for his propensity to earn performance bonuses, Ige (16-6) is a battle-tested veteran with one-punch knockout power, a rarity at 145 pounds.
The Hawaiian got back on track with a knockout win over Damon Jackson in January to preserve his place in the top 15 and represents a significant step up in competition for his opponent.
Unranked Landwehr (17-4) is riding a three-fight win streak but hasn’t fought anyone on Ige’s level. “The Train” is an absolute dog who’s willing to go into dark places and backs himself to out-will adversaries.
As the more technical and disciplined striker, Ige should land the cleaner shots and be the last man standing.
Marc-Andre Barriault (1.74) v Eryk Anders (2.15) (Middleweight)
Power punchers at 185 pounds trade leather in the main card opener. Both men are coming off much-needed knockout wins but are inconsistent at best, making this a tricky tussle to predict.
Barriault (15-6) will be boosted by his home crowd and will need that extra spring in his step as Anders (15-7), a former American football standout, is a considerably better athlete.
Barriault’s the smarter fighter but the roar of the crowd could see him abandon strategy in search of an 11th career knockout.
Anders, who has nine knockouts to his name, is extremely explosive but gets coaxed into making mistakes. He’s the better grappler, though, and as such, has a clearer path to victory, which makes “Ya Boi” worth backing as the underdog.