Preview: UFC 224 ‘Nunes vs. Pennington’ - Nunes vs. Pennington

By: Josh Stillman
May 10, 2018

UFC 224 available for order on Amazon Prime (Prime Video PPV)

After a two-week hiatus from the Ultimate Fighting Championship, UFC 224 goes down this Saturday, May 12, 2018, from the Jeunesse Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The pay-per-view, headlined by Amanda Nunes’ third bantamweight title defense, against the rugged and improving Raquel Pennington, marks the first of five straight weekends with a UFC card. The streak culminates in the highly anticipated UFC 225 on June 9. That Chicago card absorbed the interim welterweight title fight between Rafael dos Anjos and Colby Covington originally rumored for this event. Perhaps UFC brass feared Covington would be drawn and quartered by an angry mob after his numerous recent comments disparaging Brazil.

UFC 225’s gain is this weekend’s loss, but a solid offering remains intact. While this main card doesn’t make viewers cry “Shut up and take my money,” there are at least two other fights here that could headline lesser cards. The break from the interminable UFC slog allowed time to properly anticipate the co-feature: Ronaldo Souza going to war with Kelvin Gastelum. That is a fantastic, high-stakes battle with immediate title implications at 185 pounds. Elsewhere, legendary Brazilians Vitor Belfort and Lyoto Machida square off, BJJ phenom Mackenzie Dern makes a quick turnaround opposite Amanda Bobby Cooper, and all-violence bantamweights John Lineker and Brian Kelleher duke it out.

Let’s get to the picks and analysis for UFC 224: Nunes vs. Pennington.

PPV Main Card

UFC Women’s Bantamweight Championship

Amanda Nunes (15-4) vs. Raquel Pennington (9-5)

Odds: Nunes (-1100), Pennington (+700)

Nunes broke the carousel dominated by Ronda Rousey, Holly Holm and Miesha Tate to become champion. She unceremoniously ushered in a new era when she bludgeoned company darlings Rousey and Tate in less than a round combined. They have since retired. Nunes then turned around and rematched recent foil Valentina Shevchenko and escaped with a narrow decision victory. But some new blood has risen to the top of the women’s bantamweight division to challenge her. Pennington brings a new face to the title picture Rousey once ruled with an iron fist. Her UFC run has shown wonderfully her progression from one-note brawler to technical and tactical mixed martial artist. She has gone 6-2, her only defeats coming by split decision to former champ Holm and pile driver Jessica Andrade (since avenged). But her only victories over top-ten opposition have come against 10th-ranked Bethe Correia and former belt-holder Tate, and Tate called it a career immediately after.

Pennington has an uphill climb ahead of her. “Rocky” is tough, gritty, well-rounded, and opportunistic. She is a solid wrestler, as evidenced by her 1.5 takedowns per 15 minutes, and she is particularly effective with reactive shots when opponents get overly aggressive. And despite a reputation as a bruiser, all of her finishes on “The Ultimate Fighter” and in UFC competition have come via choke-induced submission, which she nabs in transitions.

On offense, the Team Triple Threat standout is at her best in the clinch. When she can pin her woman on the fence, she is active and effective with knees and elbows, which she can also land on breaks. But she can also be stalled out with her back to the fence for long stretches, as she was in a recent win over Elizabeth Phillips. At range, Pennington strings her punches together well and is most effective countering her foe’s counters. In what largely became a boxing chess match with Correia, Pennington ran into her fair share of jabs when she tried to close distance in a predictable fashion. When she feinted or went off-tempo, she started tagging Correia more regularly and threw enough volume to eke out a win on the scorecards. Correia was not able to exploit Pennington’s linear striking, but the champion may be able to.

Nunes is very technically skilled and pairs those talents with ferocious finishing instinct and elite athleticism. In hammering Tate and Rousey, she showed off the hands and brute force that only “Cris Cyborg” can rival on the female side of MMA. Against the sublimely technical counter-striker Shevchenko, the Brazilian had to settle for digging front kicks, hard leg kicks, and glancing punches upstairs. Going into that rematch, much was made of the seemingly shallow gas tank Nunes displayed in their first fight. Whether she tapped newfound reserves of energy at American Top Team isn’t clear. Their slow-paced, tactical battle did not exhaust her in the way relentlessly hunting the finish did in the first meeting. The “Lioness” also demonstrated in both bouts with Shevchenko strong wrestling, quality positional grappling, and punishing ground-and-pound when she could close the distance.

Pennington opened as a +350 underdog and has steadily climbed since. Unfortunately for her, this reflects my conclusion that there is not a clear way forward for her in this matchup. Unless Nunes exhausts herself trying to finish Pennington early, allowing the challenger to take over down the stretch, Nunes has the upper hand everywhere. She holds the advantage in speed and power on the feet and couples that with stronger wrestling and superior jiu-jitsu credentials. In short, the champion should have her way in this fight. Nunes finishes Pennington via submission in the second round after gradually but emphatically breaking her down.

Continue Reading » Souza vs. Gastelum

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