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'Greatest of all time': Opponent, fighters pay tribute to Nunes ahead of title fight

Amanda Nunes Amanda Nunes - The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER — The goal was never to be a star for mixed martial arts champion Amanda (Lioness) Nunes. Rather, the goal is to tighten grip on her UFC women's bantamweight and featherweight belts.

Nunes (22-5-0) will face-off against Irene Aldana on Saturday at Rogers Arena in a five-round bout to defend her bantamweight title.

"Everything that has happened in my career, I didn't know was going to happen. The only thing I knew is that I would get the two belts," she said at a press conference. "I have everything that I have needed."

Aldana (14-6-0) was a late substitute for Nunes' rival Julianna Pena, who withdrew due to a broken rib.

Pena briefly won the bantamweight belt from Nunes at UFC 269 back in December 2021, a fact that both irked and motivated the Brazilian fighter.

"When you hold the belt for so long and lose it in a day, you get sad and you don't know what to do. I worked my whole life for that thing and (it) goes away like that and with someone that I know I'm better than," Nunes said. "I decided I wouldn't retire. Retire and leave my belt with Julianna? No way, no way, no way. It can be with somebody else but Julianna? No."

Nunes reclaimed her title last year, setting up a potential third fight against Pena before the late cancellation.

Nunes is widely regarded as one of greatest female mixed martial artists of all time, a compliment echoed by both her opponent and other fighters.

"For me, she is the greatest of all time," said Aldana. "That's what makes it even more great for me to be able to have this opportunity."

Beneil Dariush, who is fighting Charles Oliveira in a lightweight bout before Nunes's fight, said he's had to correct people who overlook Nunes' skill and legacy.

"Oh my gosh. A lot of people have been telling me that 'you and Charles (Oliveira) are the main event'... and I have to make sure I pause and let them know: Amanda Nunes is arguably the greatest female fighter of all time," said Dariush. "It's a privilege for me to be on the same card as her."

Aldana said she is coming in to this fight to both prove herself against a tough opponent as well as stake her claim as a top fighter in the bantamweight division.

"As much as I respect her, for me, I'm coming with the mentality of winning," she said.

The Mexican fighter beat Macy Chiasson at UFC 279, defeating her opponent with a rarely seen liver kick which left her opponent curled up on the mat.

Mexico, Aldana said, has a legacy of elite boxers ranging from Carlos Zarate in the 1970s and '80s to Canelo Alvarez currently. But its other fighters, both male and female, are starting to be recognized.

"It doesn't make me less of a woman to be able to fight, it makes me stronger and it makes me more confident," she said. "I love that mixed martial arts gives us more than punches, it's a nice knowledge of how you can connect your mind and your body and how you can control yourself."

UFC 289 will also feature six Canadian or Canadian-based fighters, with middleweight Marc-Andre (Power Bar) Barriault and welterweight (Proper) Mike Malott also fighting on the main card before the title bout.

The fight between Dariush and Oliveira is seen as the gateway to a title fight in Dubai in October against current titleholder Islam Makhachev.

"I think there's nothing he does that I can't do better," Dariush said about Makhachev and the potential for a matchup in the fall. "I want to show the world that I can do it all."

UFC 289 will begin with the women's Strawweight and men's Flyweight bout before moving on to the preliminaries followed by the main card.

The fighters will weigh in on Friday at the arena.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2023.