Ever since Julianna Peña was injured and replaced in the women's bantamweight title fight against Amanda Nunes by Irene Aldana, there has been as much talk about Alexa Grasso as there has been about Aldana.
Grasso won the UFC flyweight title in spectacular fashion at UFC 285 in March in Las Vegas, avoiding a spinning back kick from champion Valentina Shevchenko and submitting her with a rear-naked choke. Grasso did it as a 6-1 closing underdog.
Grasso is Aldana's teammate, and so the comparisons have begun in earnest. "If Grasso could defeat Shevchenko, why couldn't Aldana beat Nunes in the main event of UFC 289 on Saturday at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia?" the chatter has gone.
UFC featherweight Diego Lopes, a teammate of both Grasso's and Aldana's who has helped coach both women, has predicted that Aldana could pull off a similar upset.
Nunes and Shevchenko are widely considered the two greatest women's MMA fighters in the sport's history, but both Aldana and Grasso went into their fights optimistic. Grasso pulled it off and now it's Aldana's turn.
Aldana has a similar belief. She heaped praise upon Nunes and said she has great respect for her both personally and professionally. When a reporter referred to Nunes in a question as "one of the greatest of all time," Aldana interrupted.
"She is the greatest of all time," Aldana said."She's done the work to prove that. It's an honor for me to fight someone like this."
There's a small problem Aldana will face that could have a huge impact on the bout, or on it even going off as a championship fight. She'll have to weigh in at 135 pounds Friday, a weight she hasn't made since she defeated Vanessa Melo on Sept. 21, 2019, in Mexico City.
It's not as if she's missed weight each time. Her last fight, a spectacular KO of Macy Chiasson, was contested at a 140-pound catchweight at Chiasson's request. Aldana missed weight at 139.5 against Yana Santos [then Kunitskaya] at UFC 264. She was 136, the limit for a bantamweight non-title fight, against Holly Holm and was 135.5 for a non-title fight with Ketlen Vieira.
It's been nearly four years since she hit 135 exactly, and Aldana is 35 years old. It's reason enough to wonder, though Aldana dismisses it.
She took the fight as a late replacement but was training for another fight and said she's had plenty of time to prepare.
"I'll make the weight, no doubt," Aldana said. "I've worked hard and this has been a good camp. That's not an issue."
The issue may well not be her weight, but how she holds up to Nunes' power. Nunes is one of the better strikers in the UFC, with her vicious punching power setting her apart. If she hits someone squarely on the chin, the fight is usually over in an instant.
Aldana, who is bidding to become the fourth Mexican to win a UFC world title in 2023 following Grasso, featherweight Yair Rodríguez and flyweight Brandon Moreno, is an elite striker herself. She was quick to point out, though, that though she's an elite striker in her own right, she's not a one-dimensional fighter by any stretch.
If the fight gets to the floor, she's confident she'll compete well, though Nunes has a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and a brown belt in judo.
"You can't go into a mixed martial arts fight and expect it to be all one way, fighting on the feet," she said. "That's why the sport is so great that anything can happen. If you're going to get anywhere in this sport, you have to be comfortable and able to fight in all the [disciplines]. I know at some point, this fight is probably going to go to the floor, and I'll be ready for that kind of fight if it does."
Rodriguez, Moreno and Grasso all proved that. And while Mexico remains a boxing-mad country that idolizes fighters such as Julio César Chávez Sr., Canelo Álvarez, Ricardo López, Salvador Sánchez, Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera, among others, Aldana noted that MMA is surging in popularity as well.
She hopes to ride that wave to another stunning title victory by a Mexican woman who entered the bout as a huge underdog. While Shevchenko closed as a 6-1 favorite against Grasso, Nunes isn't quite as big. Nunes is -315 and Aldana is +260.
"I have been watching Amanda closely for a long time and I know how great she is, but I watched her because we anticipated facing her eventually," Aldana said. "We knew that fight could happen at any time. It will be one of the hardest things I've ever done, and I can't afford mistakes, but this is something I have worked so hard for and I feel things have come together nicely."