August 12, 2022

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Nunes will get revenge, recaptures title from Peña

9:16 AM ET JULIANNA PEÑA IS one of many youngest members of an extended line...

9:16 AM ET

JULIANNA PEÑA IS one of many youngest members of an extended line of Peña members of the family who’re unbothered by judgment or criticism.

Her father, Ernie, left a small agricultural village in Venezuela when he was 12 looking for higher alternatives. He ultimately emigrated to the U.S. by way of a scholarship program and attended Seattle Pacific College. Coming from so little and altering his life a lot, Ernie by no means had the posh of caring what folks suppose.

“This man doesn’t care about any of that,” Peña says. “We might be searching for college garments and as an alternative of taking us right into a dressing room, he’d actually strip us down proper there to see if it could match. He would not care what anyone thinks. He would at all times say, ‘I do not care if the President of america walks by way of that door. For those who act up, you are getting an ass whooping.’ I believe that put a chip on my shoulder within the sense of, ‘I do not care what you concentrate on me.’”

Peña’s mom, Pamela, additionally emigrated to the U.S. She was born in Mexico however grew up in southern Idaho. She was very a lot a minority of their Idaho neighborhood, which impacted how she raised her youngsters.

“She’s at all times been headstrong, and I believe I performed an element in that,” Pamela stated about Julianna. “I’d discuss to my daughters and say to them, ‘Do not allow them to inform you that you may’t do something. For those who really feel like you might be proper, you at all times communicate up.’ And that’s how Julianna has lived her life. That is how all of my daughters have lived their lives.”

Within the second week of December 2021, many individuals thought Julianna Peña could not beat Amanda Nunes. However Peña did not take heed to the hate. She submitted Nunes with a rear-naked choke within the second spherical of their title combat at UFC 269; and as a 6.5-to-1 betting underdog, she recorded the fourth-biggest upset in UFC title combat historical past. Within the speedy aftermath of the combat, UFC commentator Joe Rogan flatly summed up the general public’s sentiment in regards to the combat.

“I knew nobody who was selecting Julianna Peña [to win],” he stated.

At UFC 277 this weekend in Dallas, Peña (11-4) is tasked with doing the unthinkable once more. She’s going to face Nunes in a right away rematch of their title combat seven months in the past — and regardless of the actual fact she grew to become the primary lady ever to submit Nunes in that bout, she is as soon as once more thought-about an underdog.

Can Peña upset Nunes a second time? That is the query round UFC 277. The betting line implies that Peña’s probabilities of doing it once more are solely 25 p.c. She’s not presupposed to win. Identical to she wasn’t presupposed to win in December.

However what if the primary combat wasn’t an upset? What if Peña was at all times constructed to beat Nunes, and all of us missed that? What if the one factor standing in the best way of Peña defeating Nunes was the doubt others may undertaking onto her, which occurs to be the one factor she’s most resistant to?

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“To beat Amanda, you have to be prepared to get in her face and sort of not give a f—,” says UFC welterweight Michael Chiesa, a longtime teammate of Peña’s. “That is an enormous a part of Julianna’s persona. I suppose one of the best ways to say it’s that she is simply loopy sufficient to not see the problem in entrance of her typically — the problem that different folks see.”

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ALMOST NO ONE has believed in Peña’s potential greater than her longtime head coach Rick Little. And even he discovered himself intimidated by Nunes forward of their first combat. It was Amanda Nunes, in spite of everything.

“I went from figuring out we have been going to win to being scared out of my thoughts,” Little says. “[Nunes] was ripped, on weight, wanting good. I began to get nervous, for certain. I began moving into the hype and the lore. I went from calling all people, saying, ‘Watch this,’ to being actually quiet — as a result of she scared me.”

Exterior of the last-second chilly ft, Little has been one of many greatest believers in Peña all through her profession. She was 19 when she walked into his health club in Spokane, Washington, searching for nothing however a enjoyable approach to train. Little’s facility was new, however he’d been teaching for years, primarily out of his storage. His shoppers have been nearly completely grownup males. Some took it severely. Others did not. Attendance was sporadic. It was a bunch of men, greater than a ‘crew’ or ‘college.’

In different phrases, Little had a bunch of fighters to work with, however he’d by no means actually had any college students.

“Nobody pays their dues, nobody appreciates you, nobody listens,” Little says. “To have somebody are available in who wished to study? The way in which she listened and actually programmed herself to throw punches precisely like she was instructed was unbelievable. I really stopped her one time early on and stated, ‘Hey, the place did you field earlier than? The place did you study this?’ And she checked out me and stated, ‘Uh, you simply confirmed me.’ She was simply an incredible listener.”

This was in 2008, 5 years earlier than the UFC would signal Ronda Rousey as its first feminine athlete. MMA was not but thought-about a sustainable profession for girls, however Little virtually begged Peña to decide to the game. He did not know precisely the place it could lead, however he knew immediately that Peña was particular. He noticed the Peña household’s headstrong trait. Because the competitors obtained extra fierce, he noticed a girl who was prepared to (in Chiesa’s phrases) ‘sort of not give a f—.’ Maybe there was no UFC championship for Peña to aspire to at the moment — however that did not imply glory wasn’t achievable for her.

“I simply stated to her, ‘I do consider that with the intent and focus you could have, you may be the perfect on this planet at this,” Little says. “I simply knew she needed to do it.”

And albeit, Little wanted her to do it for his profession. After experiencing what he had with Peña — working with a younger athlete possessing the expertise of a world champion — he could not return to the best way issues had been earlier than. Had Peña by no means pursued MMA, Little believes he would have give up teaching way back. He believed in Peña’s potential a lot that working with something much less had misplaced its attraction.

“He knew about me earlier than I knew about myself as a result of he understands ranges of competitors,” Peña says. “He understood the place I used to be within the sport. He really promoted his personal fights, and sooner or later he was like, ‘You are preventing on my present.’ And I am like, ‘What are you speaking about? You may’t simply signal me up.’ And he stated, ‘[I don’t charge you to] come to the health club. So, you are preventing.’ I cried for hours about it. Even after I received my first combat, I cried as a result of I used to be scared.

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“My dad obtained on his arms and knees and begged me, ‘Please do not ever combat once more.’ And I did. I promised him to by no means combat once more. Then every week glided by and I used to be like, ‘When’s the subsequent one?’”

Earlier than lengthy, Peña was hooked. She dropped out of school after attending one quarter and knowledgeable her household — Ernie, Pamela, two sisters and a brother — that she meant to pursue MMA full time.

As a sport, girls’s MMA was nonetheless a piece in progress. However Peña? The muse of what she would turn into was all there. She had a pure work ethic and a capability to duplicate what was being taught to her below the strain of competitors. Most significantly, time was on her facet. In 2008, not many 19-year-old girls dedicated their lives to MMA. From the second she began, she was forward of the sport.


FIVE YEARS INTO her skilled profession, Peña grew to become the primary lady to win The Final Fighter actuality sequence in 2013. She’d made good on Little’s prediction she might be one thing on this sport. Issues have been up and down ever since.

Coming off the present, Peña known as for a title shot towards the then-champion Rousey, a request that was roughly laughed off inside MMA circles. Regardless of her success on the present, nobody noticed Peña as a risk to Rousey.

“I had fought 4 women in a row [on TUF], whereas Ronda had come into the UFC and had a belt handed to her,” Peña says. “I used to be like, ‘If I can combat them, I can combat this girl.’ I am a nasty matchup for her.’ I stored calling for that combat, however everybody was like, ‘Get out of right here scrub, you are not in her league.’ Nobody ever gave me a shot.”

The next yr, Peña was scheduled to combat Jessica Andrade when she tore her ACL, MCL, LCL, meniscus and hamstring in a health club accident. In line with Little, the primary offender behind the harm was Peña’s incessant have to do extra. She had snuck her manner right into a wrestling follow he did not need her to take part in after she’d spent the morning lifting weights.

These accidents compelled Peña out of motion for a complete yr, however she returned robust in 2015, racking up three consecutive wins. At that time, she was within the combine for a title shot towards Nunes, however she accepted a bout towards Valentina Shevchenko in January 2017. It was a combat that by no means made sense to Little, as Peña was already seen as a title challenger, whereas Shevchenko had misplaced to Nunes the earlier yr. Little thought-about it a high-risk, low-reward scenario.

Peña’s life and profession have been within the midst of a transition at the moment. She’d determined to maneuver from Washington to Chicago to dwell with her new boyfriend. It meant she wasn’t coaching with her authentic crew full time anymore. When she arrived in Denver to face Shevchenko in early 2017, her crew wasn’t a unified, dialed-in unit. She wasn’t coaching like knowledgeable.

“For those who simply go and take a look at the UFC Countdown [preview show] for that combat, Valentina is punching and kicking bushes within the forest after which it takes you again to Chicago the place I am holding arms with my new boyfriend, strolling the canine,” laughs Peña. “You already know what I imply? It is like, ‘What are you doing?’”

Peña misplaced to Shevchenko by way of armbar within the second spherical of that combat, erasing any speedy title shot probabilities. Inside months, she was pregnant and introduced she’d be taking one other prolonged layoff from MMA.

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She would not combat once more till 2019 when she picked up a win over Nicco Montaño. She was hit by harm once more in early 2020, which restricted her to at least one look towards Germaine de Randamie in October. That combat additionally resulted in a submission loss, when Peña tapped to a guillotine choke within the third spherical.

Going into 2021, Peña had only one win in almost 3.5 years. Since profitable TUF, she’d made six appearances in six years. She’d been aggressive towards Shevchenko (the No. 1 pound-for-pound feminine fighter in the present day) and de Randamie (a former UFC featherweight champion). ​​Nonetheless, her potential as a world champion was completely hidden below a number of layoffs and an unimpressive general report.

However, after selecting up a win over Sara McMann in January 2021, Peña went on a verbal assault on Nunes. She accused probably the most harmful feminine fighter of all time of ‘ducking’ her.

Many within the MMA area discovered Peña’s assaults to be (at finest) misled or (at worst) utterly delusional. Why on earth would Nunes keep away from a combat towards Peña? For what purpose? How may Peña herself consider such a factor?

However if you happen to contemplate each element of Peña’s life and profession, it is not so outrageous.

“You would see there was a very honest combat there,” Little stated. “I do not wish to be cocky, however if you happen to dissect the combat and watch Amanda at 135, you will notice she could be very human and needed to intestine out some very powerful fights. After which I take a look at Julie, and this girl simply retains hitting the fuel each spherical. I liked the matchup.

“I can not wait to combat this girl. She has to knock you out in spherical one. And if she would not, I can not see her beating you.”


IT TOOK ERNIE and Pamela years to come back round to their daughter’s chosen profession path.

Even when Peña made it to the finals of TUF in 2013, Ernie was towards the entire thing. He remembers the UFC despatched a video crew to his residence in Washington, forward of his daughter’s finals look, and interviewed him for near an hour. They left with only some seconds of usable footage as a result of he spent your entire interview speaking about how he wished his daughter would do one thing else with her life.

Pamela admits they by no means had a alternative. She at all times thought her daughter would have made a fantastic lawyer or an FBI agent. However a part of elevating a headstrong baby is figuring out you do not at all times get a say in what she does. When Peña dropped out of school to comply with MMA, Pamela ultimately obtained behind it. Even when Ernie was nonetheless towards it, she discovered herself cageside, screaming for her daughter to tear an opponent aside.

In the end Ernie got here round and is supportive of his daughter’s selections. As a lot as he cannot stand watching her take punches, he acknowledges how particular she is inside the sport. For his daughter to face a problem like Nunes, she needed to be assured. She needed to be prepared to stroll by way of hearth and consider she would come out on the opposite facet. And that’s, unquestionably, his headstrong daughter.

“It is cute to me, [when they say] ‘Oh, it was the largest upset in historical past,’” Peña stated. “I used to be 100 p.c, totally dedicated to strolling out of there with my hand raised and with that belt … And I’m completely able to do it once more.”

If she does, perhaps do not name it an upset.