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Wearing the champion's belt, Amanda Nunes, from Brazil, celebrates after defeating Raquel Pennington, from the United States, during their UFC women's bantamweight mixed martial arts bout in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, early Sunday, May 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Leo Correa/Associated Press

Amanda Nunes finally emerged from the shadow of Ronda Rousey on Saturday night in Rio de Janeiro

It took longer than it should have.

Nunes had eclipsed Rousey in skill long before she sent the groundbreaking former women’s bantamweight champion scrambling for the safer confines of a pro wrestling ring. But her marketability suffered a setback nearly a year ago when, after an illness caused her to opt out of a UFC 213 title defense against Valentina Schevchenko, UFC President Dana White essentially called her a coward

John Locher/Associated Press

Instead of building her up as an unstoppable force and a must-see attraction, White buried one of his own champions because his feelings were hurt. 

Its OK that Nunes doesn’t have the same level of marketability as Rousey. She’s marketable in her own way, and her fifth-round TKO destruction of the overmatched Raquel Pennington in the main event of UFC 224 will only help build the aura that’s been developing for a few years. 

Pennington was a deserving challenger, at least where records are concerned. She got here on the back of a four-fight winning streak that she capped off by sending Miesha Tate into retirement in November 2016. Then she suffered a horrific injury in an ATV accident, but Pennington recovered and returned to the cage. 

And to her enduring credit, Pennington fought with courage. But at the end of the fourth round, her courage faded. She told her corner that she was done. Her left leg was extremely swollen. Her nose was badly broken. Her face was swelling beyond recognition. For some reason, her corner talked her into continuing the fight. 

Leo Correa/Associated Press

Nunes poured it on early in the fifth round, further breaking Pennington’s nose, which opened and bled on the canvas. She covered her face with her hands and kneeled facedown, waiting for the end. It was over, and then finally, it was officially over. 

Now our attention should turn to the most logical next step available for Nunes: a featherweight superfight with Cris Cyborg. 

Rousey never really wanted to fight Cyborg. The UFC didn’t want them in the cage together, either. 

And who can blame them? Rousey’s lackluster stand-up skills were never going to give her a fair fight against the greatest female fighter in history. And so they were kept apart until Rousey was gone. Rousey can be thankful given she still has her health, after all. 

But Nunes is a different story. She wants to fight Cyborg. She’s called her out repeatedly, which says a lot when you consider how much smaller Nunes is than the featherweight champion. Her style also matches up much more favorably to Cyborg than Rousey’s would have. Nunes is very much a fighter from the Cyborg mold: a counterstriker who, once she smells blood in the water, swarms until her opponent is left in a heap. 

Granted, she’ll need to be a lot better than she was on Saturday. Her striking accuracy left a lot to be desired, and against Cyborg, those flailing punches will cause Nunes a lot of trouble. And even at her absolute best, Nunes will be a significant underdog.

John Locher/Associated Press

But what else is there? We have reached a lull in the bantamweight journey. Nunes has dispatched the best contenders available to her, and no potential opponents have materialized on the horizon. Putting a weight class on hold so the champion can partake in a superfight is usually a misbegotten idea. Not so in this case.

This is one of the rare situations where not only is a champion vs. champion fight warranted, it is required. 

Take the two best female fighters on the planet. Promote the hell out of both of them and treat them with the reverence they rightly deserve. And then put them in a cage together and let them show the world who the best truly is. 

After all, isn’t that the whole point of this sport? 

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