Girls Sports Month: UFC champ Amanda Nunes, 'I always believed in myself'

Girls Sports Month: UFC champ Amanda Nunes, 'I always believed in myself'

Girls Sports Month

Girls Sports Month: UFC champ Amanda Nunes, 'I always believed in myself'

Amanda Nunes celebrates with the championship belt after defeating Ronda Rousey (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports)

March is Girls Sports Month, and as part of USA TODAY High School Sports’ third-annual Girls Sports Month celebration, we’re speaking with some of the most influential female athletes, coaches and celebrities in the sports world. 

UFC women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes is coming off a stellar 2016 in which she took the 135-pound title from Meisha Tate in the first round at UFC 200 in July and then dismantled Ronda Rousey in 48 seconds at UFC 207 in December. She is 14-4 overall and 7-1 in the UFC and has won six consecutive bouts.

Nunes said she planned to take the first portion of 2017 and her next bout is against top contender Valentina Schevchenko, although the date remains in question. Nunes has targeted June 3 in her home country of Brazil. Nunes beat Schevchenko last March to earn her title bout.

Fernanda Prates from USA TODAY Sports’ MMA Junkie spoke with Nunes in an interview conducted in Portuguese and translated into English. Nunes talks about her career, her motivation, her plans for the future and being the first openly gay UFC champion.  

GIRLS SPORTS MONTH: See more athlete interviews here

What has been the key to your success thus far?

I always believed in myself. I think that’s the key. Because it’s hard, a lot of people give up halfway through because they don’t have support, they don’t have people or their families support them. With me, thankfully, it was entirely different. My family basis was a fundamental part of my path this far. And God put wonderful people in my way to help me walk it. I believe my persistence. I knew I was going to be champion, I knew I was going to be the best in the world, and I believed that. I think that’s a strength of mine. I don’t give up easily. I think I’ll never give up, I always go all the way until the end. Until my limit.

Another fighter, Jessica Andrade, says she gave up on her dream of playing soccer because she thought MMA was more equal when it came to women. Was that what happened with you?

When I played soccer, it was exactly the same way as it was I started fighting – I went through adversities, but I was already traveling to play. I even got an invite to play at Bahia’s Vitoria team, which could have opened an opportunity to go play for the national team, had I taken it. But my mom didn’t want it. She had to sign for me, and she didn’t because I was underage. But I had opportunities in soccer that ended up not panning out – thank God, my mom didn’t want it.

Amanda Nunes (left) lands a punch to the face of Ronda Rousey during UFC 207 (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports)

But do you think, in terms of pay and equal conditions, that MMA is better than perhaps other women’s sports?

I think it got a lot better. I had to leave Brazil because I couldn’t get anything here. I’d had numerous fights, but I had to leave, urgently, while I was young. Use that good momentum, because I was leaving on five wins, so I thought any event abroad would like an undefeated girl. But it was pretty problematic for people to accept women’s MMA. First there we Gina Carano, and Cris (Cyborg), but no spotlight, that thing to really lift (women’s MMA) up. That’s when Ronda Rousey came in.

But I believe if there hadn’t been a Ronda Rousey, another girl would have been Ronda Rousey. I don’t believe it’s because it was her, I think it was the moment for it to happen for Ronda Rousey, but for sure it would have evolved anyway.

Invicta was already growing, and Strikeforce was also becoming very well-known, Bellator was already promoting various women’s fights. It was a matter of time for women’s MMA to explode. But Ronda Rousey came in right at the time it was getting popular, that Dana White thought it was happening. But it could have been Gina Carano, who was also very pretty and was still fighting, it could have been Cris, it happened to be Ronda. And everything got better, we got new recognition. I knew all I needed was my opportunity to take over this game. (Rousey) did everything, it was good at that time, but I knew I was going to impose a new era. The Amanda Nunes era.

Do you think you’re as respected as a female champ as the male champs?

I think the level of respect is good, I think we’re respected. Because women’s MMA is doing so well. Sometimes, the female fight saves the show, like what happened at UFC 200. My fight saved the entire card in terms of finishes, of getting people into the fight. And I believe it can only grow. There are fans today who show up only to watch the women’s fights, and leave. I’ve heard that a lot, “I only went there to watch the girls fighting, to watch you,” that’s something I’m hearing a lot.

Amanda Nunes says she has become a “mirror for young girls” (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports)

Do you see yourself as a role model for young women, especially considering you are the first openly gay UFC champion?

At first, I didn’t think about that. I was focused on being the champion and nothing else mattered. But after I made it there, that I made my dreams happen, then come the things I can do to help. I became champion, but I have other duties, other ways in which I can help others. It wasn’t my intention to make an impact. When a reporter asked me if I was gay I answered naturally, because to me it was always natural and I never hid it from anyone. I didn’t know it would take such proportions, that it would become this big. Even that time I gave Nina a kiss, in my last fight, it was all the talk. I was like, ‘Wow,’ I didn’t know it would be this big. But it was spontaneous, very natural.

And now I know how much weight I carry for being gay, for being a champion, and for being a mirror for many young girls. Since childhood, I was already in love with girls. It’s how I’m born, I already felt that way. So I know there are girls who are going through the same things I went through. Of course I wasn’t comfortable enough to discuss this with my mom and my sisters, but maybe now it’s easier. With me talking about this, maybe it’s easier for kids who are going through the same things to be more open with their parents and siblings. That they can help, and understand the child, talk to them, be friends with them.

I want to help with the things that were hard for me. So I think as a champion I can help out a lot. I accomplished my dreams, and I’m gay, I think anyone, running after their goals, earning it, being good, they can make it there. Regardless of orientation, race, everything. The world has enough space for everyone. I live off my work, I am a world champion and I made my dream happen. I want to help out people in various things. Even in training – I want to be a teacher someday, for children and adults. I want to give back somehow, and if this is a good way of doing that, I think I can be very helpful.

You talk a lot about giving back, what are your plans in that sense? How do you see your future?

I want to defend the belt for a few years and open a gym directed toward women. I want to help other girls get to their dreams faster. I also want to go around the world teaching seminars, to help Brazil in some way, to help underprivileged people, children, and animals. (I want) to go out doing good for the world, and sharing this joy, sharing everything I went through with people to help them accomplish their own dreams. That’s what I want for my future.

At first, were there any men where you trained? Or was it basically just you?

I started on my own. I was the lioness among men. With this, I got very strong. Because, in order to exchange strength with men, you need to really push your body and it automatically makes you strong. The men were naturally stronger than me, but there were moments when I was able to dominate them. And they wouldn’t believe they were being submitted by me, or dominated in a bad position. And that’s how I conquered my space. I trained with men since the start of my career. Every gym I went through, I don’t know why, but I was the only woman and I was already used to it.

Nina Ansaroff (right) celebrates with girlfriend Amanda Nunes after Ansaroff submitted Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger in January (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports)

You’ve talked about how meeting current girlfriend and fellow UFC strawweight Nina Ansaroff helped you embrace women at the gym as allies, and not competition. How was that process?

It was shocking to me at first, because I didn’t think I was going to find a woman as tough as I was. Who could handle the level of training I could, training with men, like I did, and going toe-to-toe. So when I started training with Nina, our first sparring session, the first thing I observed was ‘This girl has a future.’ To me, it was shocking, I wasn’t used to it. Because I had had the opportunity of putting together a training session for a girl and she gave up halfway through. So when I met Nina, I was really surprised. Then I opened my mind to this other side. Now I train with women, they’re part of my training. Nina as well, but I train with other girls. I train with girls who are still amateurs, who help me out greatly. For my preparation for Miesha Tate, I trained with a girl who was still an amateur, she helped me out a lot. We called her Miranda Tate, and then Miranda Rousey.

I opened my mind. It was hard at first to adjust, because I was afraid of going too rough and hurting them. But there are so many tough girls. And I was so happy. Because even making friends, having girl friends, is so great. When I met Nina, it was a friendship that evolved into a relationship. But she was my friend and training partner first. Now we’re a big group of girls and it’s so much fun. And I keep thinking, if there were all these women before, it would have been perfect. I’ve always been explosive, and I think training with men fueled that. I had to explode to train with them, I had to be at my limit at the time in order to get anything done with them. Now I can train with men, but I do different training with women. I think of the technique, of the strategy. It’s not as rough, it’s more refined, nowadays training with women is extremely helpful.

See more amazing girls and women at women.usatoday.com

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