UFC 224 main event: Amanda Nunes, Raquel Pennington put friendship on hold for title fight
The two top women's bantamweights in the world maintain a unique relationship ahead of UFC 224
As UFC strawweight contender Tecia Torres likes to put it, if you compete long enough in a sport with such a small community as MMA, you inevitably will be forced to fight someone you consider to be a friend.
For Torres, and a trio of well-known UFC women's fighters she calls friends, the possibility that prior allegiances might be put to the test in the main event of Saturday's UFC 224 card from Rio de Janeiro has become the main narrative surrounding the card.
Torres will be in the corner of fiancee and bantamweight contender Raquel "Rocky" Pennington (9-5)(15-4), who will have longtime girlfriend and strawweight fighter Nina Ansaroff by her side.
The two couples are close friends, dating back to the days when Torres was formerly a teammate of Nunes and Ansaroff at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida. All four are also openly gay and have become ambassadors and role models for the LGBT community.
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Yet the topic of conversation entering Saturday's card in Nunes' home country of Brazil has almost exclusively surrounded how the two couples will be able to remain friends within such tension.
"This is a single sport, you can't think in group,". "You have to think about yourself. That belt is in my house and I never want that belt to go anywhere. The motivation is [to] keep proving I'm the best, keep proving I'm the champion and then we can be friends again."
While all four fighters have remained diplomatic during pre-fight interviews, constantly repeating the "business is business" phrase when speaking about the fight, it is Nunes and Pennington who have understandably been the most impersonal and detached.
"We met because of this sport but it's one of those things where we can have a friendship on the outside, but there is business on the inside," Pennington said at last months kickoff news conference in Brazil. "After five, 10, 20 or 25 minutes -- whatever it is -- we can shake hands, hug and have our friendship back."
It's a wonder if the bigger challenge will come for their significant others considering the core of the larger friendship began with Torres (10-2) and Ansaroff (8-5), when they met in the gym in 2011. Both fighters knew there might come a day where they would fight each other (and both agree that day could still happen). Along the way, they were nearly housemates on "The Ultimate Fighter" Season 20 in 2014 (Ansaroff was an alternate) and Torres once had Ansaroff as part of her corner.
But after years of Torres, 28, being a regular guest at the home of Nunes and Ansaroff, she will now help prepare her fiancee to defeat her former teammates after joining Pennington at Triple Threat Gym in Colorado Springs.
"We are friends and we are going to be friends, but when it comes down to the fight, business is business," Torres told MMAFighting in April. "Amanda is the champion for a reason, she deserves to be there. But in this sport we all want the same spot and we have to fight for it and Raquel is going in there to fight for it. At the end of the day, business is business and when the Octagon door closes, that's when their business begins. Outside of that, we are friends and there is no reason to be rivals."
When Pennington, 29, retired former bantamweight champion Miesha Tate at UFC 205 in 2016, it appeared as if she could be next in line for a shot at Nunes' title. But Nunes pulled out of her scheduled rematch with Valentina Shevchenko in March 2017 and as Pennington waited her turn, she broke her leg in a hunting accident seven months later, which spoiled a verbal agreement she had made to fight Nunes in December.
Because they were scheduled to fight, Nunes admits she purposely kept distance from Pennington at the time.
"[The injury] was scary, I was worried about her," Nunes said. "I asked Nina to see how everything [was]. But I know at the time we already kind of knew we were going to fight. We kind of, get a distance a little bit, only to make more serious. But of course I was worried about her. She's good, she's ready to go."
Ansaroff expects the two couples to keep a similar distance during fight week.
"We are probably going to give each other spaces so we could both do our thing," Ansaroff said. "It's not going to change anything. Whoever comes out the winner is still not going to change anything. We are all going to be friends. It's a position that all of us are going for; even Tecia and I have always talked that maybe we will fight each other one day. We are still here, we are friends. People are taking this sport too personally and I think that's what is breaking this sport down.
"It's a job, it's what we do. We are all sportsmen. Most of us come from traditional background where we respect each other and I think it should be that way in every fight."
Ansaroff largely believes talk that the friendship between all four could be tested by this fight is merely just that — talk. She sees the fight as nothing different from the times she and Torres used to spar in camp and Nunes would shout instructions from outside the cage. The only thing Torres and Ansaroff wouldn't sign off on is that both couples would necessarily be joining each other at the same after party.
"We don't have the personality where [anything negative] would happen," Ansaroff said. "Some people do but we don't. The way our friendship is, we don't take things too personally. It's not something like that. We would probably laugh about it afterward. We would talk about it. We are not that kind of people so it wouldn't happen for us."
Nunes, 29, will look for the third defense of the title she won by submitting Tate in 2016. The fight will also mark her fourth straight headlining role in a pay-per-view, as women continue to get a strong push by UFC in the post-Ronda Rousey era.
"It's extremely exciting just in the fact that for one, where women's MMA has come to today and that we have this opportunity here to headline a UFC event," Pennington said. "And obviously it's 2018 so just being openly gay and being able to be myself and going up against another basically fellow partner, it's extremely exciting. I get lots of things all the time whether it comes from the sport in general or needing advice. The fact just having this opportunity inspires a lot of people."
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