For the second time in the same calendar month, the UFC will promote a pay-per-view on Saturday, this time with a pair of title rematches atop the marquee from the American Airlines Center in Dallas.
Julianna Pena will make the first defense of her women’s bantamweight title in the main event of UFC 277 as she faces fellow TUF coach Amanda Nunes in a rematch of Pena’s massive upset in December. In the co-main event, former champion Brandon Moreno welcomes Kai Kara-France for the second time, although this rematch will be contested for the interim bantamweight title while Deiveson Figueiredo recovers from injury.
Although it wouldn’t be fair to call UFC 277 a deep PPV card, the featured bouts still offer an intriguing mixture of storylines to follow entering this weekend. Let’s take a closer look at those now.
1. Julianna Pena is tasked with doing the impossible … again
That’s the key question entering this 135-pound title rematch: Is Pena simply a one-hit wonder who caught lightning in a bottle on Nunes’ worst night since first starting an incredible 12-fight win streak? Or was Nunes, now 34, simply ripe for the picking as the rest of the division caught up with her on the best night of Pena’s up-and-down career? Somewhere within those contrasting scenarios is the truth and it can only be revealed inside the Octagon once they touch gloves for the second time. Trying to diminish Pena’s accomplishment in any form feels disingenuous considering she walked through one huge shot after another before breaking the G.O.A.T. down and finishing her off via second-round submission. Yet, at the same time, Nunes simply looked off from the start, even with the early success she had in Round 1. Given how historic and devastating her winning streak had been — which included finishes of Miesha Tate, Ronda Rousey, Cris Cyborg and Holly Holm, not to mention a pair of decision wins over Valentina Shevchenko — it was alarming to watch Nunes implode in such a disastrous way. How much of that was because of Pena? Or did the outside-the-cage drama, which led to Nunes leaving American Top Team to start her own gym, fuel a backdrop of chaos? Either way, Nunes remains a firm betting despite the defeat, which speaks generously to the idea that Pena might need to be better than great in order to see lightning strike a second time.
2. Pena should expect a much more technical affair in the rematch
Trying to pinpoint the exact reason for Nunes’ overnight decline in the first Pena fight is difficult. Some questioned whether her desire was still the same after dominating for so long. Others pointed to the fact that she hadn’t been forced to cut down to 135 pounds for two years before the fight while defending her UFC featherweight crown in the interim. But regardless of exact reason, Nunes fought undisciplined enough that Pena was able to overcome the technical differences between them by luring Nunes into a brawl with wide, looping shots and a willingness to take big ones in return. Given that’s the same blueprint Nunes had used get Cyborg to eschew her gameplan in their 2018 shootout that ended in 51 seconds, Nunes should’ve known better. “The Lioness,” after all, went five rounds in her rematch against Shevchenko playing in 2017 and won a (disputed) chess match in which she proved that her stamina and fight IQ were just as developed and potent as her power and finishing ability. Considering Pena had yet to show a performance like the one she authored against Nunes in the past, and had been finished each time she stepped up to the elite level against Shevchenko and Germaine de Randamie, reserving some grace for Nunes is appropriate. But it’s hard to imagine a carbon copy of their first meeting playing out in Saturday’s rematch. Nunes is too skilled at boxing from the outside and too patient when she’s dialed in. It’s also likely that Nunes learned from the mistakes she made on the ground in their first fight that led to her gassing out, in part because of the strain Pena was putting on her arms.
3. Brandon Moreno is expecting a much-improved version of Kai Kara-France
As the former flyweight champion should, despite having previously defeated Kara-France by unanimous decision in 2019. Since a three-fight stretch that saw Kara-France lose to Moreno and Brandon Royval, the native of New Zealand has simply become a new fighter. Kara-France scored consecutive knockouts of Rogerio Bontorin and Cody Garbrandt before outlasting Askar Askarov to earn the interim title shot against Moreno. Kara-France has evolved to become more of a finishing threat offensively and his confidence has blossomed along the way. Moreno, who lost his title back to Deiveson Figueiredo during their third meeting in January, will need to prepare for a completely different fighter, and has said as much throughout the buildup. A product of the same City Kickboxing gym that has produced current champions Alexander Volkanovski and Israel Adesanya, Kara-France appears poised to join his teammates in the search and seizure of UFC gold.
4. That doesn’t mean an interim flyweight title was necessary
Was this a case of UFC hoping to pad a relatively thin PPV card — the promotion’s second of the current month — by adding a second world title to the top of the card? All signs appear to be pointing to yes on this one, in a move that has become more commonplace in recent years. Technically, Figueiredo is injured and expects to be healthy again by fall, but he wasn’t sidelined long enough to necessitate a need for a rematch between Moreno and Kara-France, a fine fight under any circumstance, to be anything more than it is: a No. 1 contender fight. This gratuitous decision by UFC brass was much more in line with the recent head scratcher at heavyweight where Cyril Gane and Derrick Lewis fought for an interim strap just months after Francis Ngannou won it. Figueiredo has publicly questioned whether UFC believes he is faking an injury and punishing him for not being available. Either way, the cake in this case is too delicious already without the need for extra frosting on top.
5. The logjam at 205 pounds could open door for Anthony Smith-Magomed Ankalaev winner
Who deserves the first shot at new light heavyweight champion Jiri Prochazka? That’s the question facing UFC matchmakers, who appear torn between an immediate rematch against Glover Teixeira or a showdown for Prochazka against another former champion in Jan Blachowicz. The fact that neither one seems to hold a stronger case than the other could lead to the winner of Saturday’s sneaky good pairing between No. 4 Ankalaev and No. 3 Smith to cut the line, provided they can win in dominant and/or exciting fashion. Ankalaev, who is riding an impressive eight-fight win streak, has left some believing he’s already the best fighter in the division. But Smith, who lost a title bid to Jon Jones in 2019, also enters on a red-hot streak of his own having won three in a row by stoppage.