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Two openly gay fighters to square off for title at UFC 224 in historic first

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Amanda Nunes defends her belt against Raquel Pennington on Saturday night.

Equality California's Equality Awards
Amanda Nunes speaks at Equality California’s Equality Awards in Los Angeles in 2016.
Photo by Noel Vasquez/Getty Images for UFC

For the first time in UFC history, two openly gay fighters will compete for a championship title.

UFC 224, Saturday night at the Jeunesse Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, will be headlined by Amanda Nunes vs. Raquel Pennington for the UFC women’s bantamweight (135-pound) title. (Update: Nunes defended her title by beating Pennington in five rounds).

Nunes, who is Brazilian, was crowned champion on July 9, 2016, at UFC 200. She won the belt by defeating MMA pioneer Miesha Tate via submission (rear-naked choke) in the first round. She was the first, and only, openly gay fighter to win a UFC championship belt. Nunes’ first title defense happened at UFC 207 on Dec. 30, 2016.

In that fight she obliterated Ronda Rousey in less than a minute; winning via technical knockout due to punches. Rousey was returning after a yearlong hiatus prompted by losing the bantamweight title to Holly Holm (who would lose it to Tate). Rousey, whose MMA career broke records and saw her cross-over into pop culture like no fighter has ever done before, left the UFC after the loss to Nunes to join the WWE.

Despite being a champion, a slayer of the legendary Rousey, and the first gay, Brazilian, and woman of color to win a UFC belt, the 29-year-old Nunes has not experienced a tremendous amount of exposure or publicity. The Florida-based fighter, whose partner is fellow UFC fighter Nina Ansaroff, has not been celebrated a great deal by the UFC’s in-house media machine.

Nunes herself has been vocal about the lack of promotion she has received from the UFC. In September last year she told Kevin Iole of Yahoo Sports that, “I know I’m not the beautiful girl and I don’t have the blonde hair and the blue eyes. I am not the kind of face the UFC wants to put out there, but I’m OK with that.”

The UFC, and MMA in general, has a long history of promoting female fighters based on their looks. Fighters past and present are on record stating that the promotion has no idea how (or no desire) to promote women who are queer or do not fit mainstream/conventional beauty standards. The UFC is also a platform for many fighters who either support or are supported by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has recently lead a ‘gay purge’ (according to Human Rights Watch) in his territory causing many LGBTQ+ Chechens to flee in fear of their lives.

Given the UFC’s track record, it’s not that surprising that the organization is not overtly highlighting this historic moment in mixed martial arts. However, on the UFC’s “Embedded,” Nunes and Ansaroff’s relationship is highlighted.

MMA: UFC 202-Pennington vs Phillips
Raquel Pennington
Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

Nunes’ opponent also has a relationship with a UFC fighter. Pennington, who is based in Colorado, is engaged to Tecia Torres, a former training partner of Nunes and Ansaroff.

The 29-year-old Pennington entered the UFC in 2013. Her path into the world’s grandest MMA promotion came via the organization’s long running reality show “The Ultimate Fighter.” On that show Pennington was one of eight female fighters who lived together in a house and fought in a tournament to win a lucrative UFC contract. The women on the show were put in teams, each coached by either Rousey or Tate.

In the TUF house, Pennington spoke about her coming out story and what it was like to be gay in MMA. Her candid, albeit quiet, nature and exciting fighting style won over many fans.

Pennington, who was on Team Tate, was eliminated in the semifinals, but was still signed by the UFC. She’s fought eight times since then, winning all but twice. To earn her title shot, she beat Tate at UFC 205 in November 2016. She has been sidelined since then after breaking her leg in an ATV accident.

Though this is the first time two gay women will compete for a UFC title, achievements by gay women in MMA are nothing new. Openly gay fighters have been a part of women’s MMA since its inception and they make up a large portion of the UFC roster, as well as the rosters in other promotions such as Bellator and Invicta FC.

The first woman to enter a UFC octagon was gay. Liz Carmouche made her walk to the cage ahead of her opponent Ronda Rousey at UFC 157 in 2013. That bantamweight fight, which was won by Rousey, determined the UFC’s first ever female champion. Since then the UFC has opened three other weight divisions for women (with another possibly on the way).

Outside of the UFC many gay women have made name’s for themselves, too. The outspoken and unapologetic Tonya Evinger (who now competes in the UFC) was Invicta bantamweight champion between 2015 and 2017. And Jessica Aguilar lifted the World Series of Fighting strawweight belt in 2014 and held it until she signed for the UFC in 2015.

Both Nunes and Pennington have already done enough to solidify themselves as notable fighters in the young history of women’s MMA. And their fight on Satuday is an intriguing match-up that promises action and bloody noses. Both Nunes and Pennington are known for their striking ability and aggressive nature.

Nunes will enter the cage as a decent-sized favorite, thanks to the level of competition she has on her record. Last time out she defeated Valentina Shevchenko, whom many consider likely to win the UFC women’s flyweight championship in the near future.

Being the underdog won’t bother Pennington, though. She’s been one for most of her career. She opened a lot of eyes by outclassing Tate in her last fight and it is well within her ability to cause a similar upset on Saturday.

But whatever the outcome, and despite any reluctance from the UFC to highlight it, history is being made at UFC 224. Amanda Nunes vs. Raquel Pennington represents just the latest instance of queer women reaching excellence and elite-status in the sport of MMA. It may be the first time two gay woman have competed for a UFC title against each other, but it won’t be last.

UFC 224 is available on pay-per-view. The main card begins at 10 p.m. EDT.