LAS VEGAS – When Dana White strapped the bantamweight belt around Julianna Peña's waist after one of the biggest upsets in UFC history, the promotion's president immediately thought back to the first time he met her about eight years ago.
The way White remembers it, Peña found him at his sons' jiu-jitsu tournament. She charged up to the executive, stuck out her hand and said: “I'm going to fight for you someday, and I'm going to be a world champion.'"
Peña's journey from that cheeky introduction to this triumphant moment led her down a path she never could have anticipated, including detours for major reconstructive knee surgery in 2014 and the birth of her daughter in 2018. She pursued her dream relentlessly against those life obstacles and despite two recent losses, culminating in a showdown Saturday night with the most accomplished champion in women's mixed martial arts history.
When Peña emerged from UFC 269 as the first new bantamweight champion since 2016, nobody in the sport appeared to be less shocked than the 10-to-1 underdog herself.
“I’m not surprised,” Peña said. “I know that I have a big, huge will and determination. You can do anything you want in this life. I’ve been through the wash. I have done it all. I’ve torn everything you could possibly think of. Ran over by cars, hit by dudes in the alleys. I’ve done it all. Nothing was going to stop me from getting this belt. This has been 13 years grinding, and it’s finally come to fruition. It’s my time.”
Peña's time as the UFC's new 135-pound champ began with a career-defining victory over an opponent who hadn't lost since 2014.
Although she took plenty of damage from Nunes' punches and barely escaped the first round without losing by submission, Peña displayed shockingly effective striking that was too much for Nunes, the best striker in the women's sport. Nunes got hurt and tired in the second round before failing to escape the rear naked choke that ended her reign.
Nunes had beaten up almost everyone she had faced for the past seven years, including famously merciless knockouts of Ronda Rousey and Cris “Cyborg” Justino. Peña took Nunes' big shots and stayed upright — and Nunes didn't have the energy or the fortitude to come up with another plan.
“It doesn’t matter how strong you are, how big you are, how hard you hit,” White said. “At the end of the day, in a five-round fight, it comes down to who’s in better shape.”
Peña’s memory of her first meeting with White is somewhat different: She says she tracked him down at a Las Vegas gym shortly after the UFC got into women's MMA and made plans for women to appear on “The Ultimate Fighter,” the promotion’s long-running reality show. She found White in the back of the Syndicate MMA gym and said: “‘My name is Julianna Peña and I’m going to win ‘The Ultimate Fighter.’”
Peña did exactly that in November 2013, but she wrecked her right knee in training a few months later and couldn't fight again until 2015. She first challenged Nunes after winning at UFC 200 in 2016, but Peña felt Nunes never took her seriously as a title challenger, and the perceived disrespect fueled her training.
Nunes is still the UFC’s 145-pound featherweight champion, but White and Peña both said she can have a bantamweight rematch next if she wants it. Peña’s confidence will only grow, and even White wonders whether the 33-year-old Nunes’ best days are suddenly, shockingly done.
“She’s been on top forever,” White said. “She has a lot of money, and she has a baby now, a family. These things change you.”
Peña plans to celebrate her title over the holidays with her daughter, but the experience is still so new to her that she's got to learn how to to do it properly. When she first won the fight, she didn't realize why it had been stopped because she didn't feel Nunes' tap — and after she finally realized she was a world champion, she climbed onto the cage to unleash a primal scream — fueled by just a smidgen of fright.
“I’ve been doing this for 13 years, and I’ve never jumped on the cage before,” she said. “They told me, ‘This is the time to get on the cage.’ When I got up there, I was like, ‘Oh, this is kind of scary.’”
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