- MMA columnist for ESPN.com
- Analyst for “MMA Live”
- Covered MMA for Las Vegas Sun
JULIANNA PEÑA IS one of the youngest members of a long line of Peña family members who are unbothered by judgment or criticism.
Her father, Ernie, left a small agricultural village in Venezuela when he was 12 in search of better opportunities. He eventually emigrated to the U.S. through a scholarship program and attended Seattle Pacific University. Coming from so little and changing his life so much, Ernie never had the luxury of caring what people think.
“This man does not care about any of that,” Peña says. “We’d be shopping for school clothes and instead of taking us into a dressing room, he’d literally strip us down right there to see if it would fit. He doesn’t care what anybody thinks. He would always say, ‘I don’t care if the President of the United States walks through that door. If you act up, you’re getting an ass whooping.’ I think that put a chip on my shoulder in the sense of, ‘I don’t care what you think about me.'”
Peña’s mother, Pamela, also emigrated to the U.S. She was born in Mexico but grew up in southern Idaho. She was very much a minority in their Idaho community, which impacted how she raised her kids.
“She’s always been headstrong, and I think I played a part in that,” Pamela said about Julianna. “I would talk to my daughters and say to them, ‘Don’t let them tell you that you can’t do anything. If you feel like you are right, you always speak up.’ And that is how Julianna has lived her life. That’s how all of my daughters have lived their lives.”
In the second week of December 2021, many people thought Julianna Peña couldn’t beat Amanda Nunes. But Peña didn’t listen to the hate. She submitted Nunes with a rear-naked choke in the second round of their title fight at UFC 269; and as a 6.5-to-1 betting underdog, she recorded the fourth-biggest upset in UFC title fight history. In the immediate aftermath of the fight, UFC commentator Joe Rogan flatly summed up the public’s sentiment about the fight.
“I knew no one who was picking Juliana Peña [to win],” he said.
At UFC 277 this weekend in Dallas, Peña (11-4) is tasked with doing the unthinkable again. She will face Nunes in an immediate rematch of their title fight seven months ago — and despite the fact she became the first woman ever to submit Nunes in that bout, she is once again considered an underdog.
Can Peña upset Nunes a second time? That’s the question around UFC 277. The betting line implies that Peña’s chances of doing it again are only 25 percent. She’s not supposed to win. Just like she wasn’t supposed to win in December.
But what if the first fight wasn’t an upset? What if Peña was always built to beat Nunes, and we all missed that? What if the only thing standing in the way of Peña defeating Nunes was the doubt others might project onto her, which happens to be the one thing she’s most immune to?
“To beat Amanda, you’ve got to be willing to get in her face and kind of not give a f—,” says UFC welterweight Michael Chiesa, a longtime teammate of Peña’s. “That’s a big part of Julianna’s personality. I guess the best way to say it is that she is just crazy enough to not see the challenge in front of her sometimes — the challenge that other people see.”
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ALMOST NO ONE has believed in Peña’s potential more than her longtime head coach Rick Little. And even he found himself intimidated by Nunes ahead of their first fight. It was Amanda Nunes, after all.
“I went from knowing we were going to win to being scared out of my mind,” Little says. “[Nunes] was ripped, on weight, looking good. I started to get nervous, for sure. I started getting into the hype and the lore. I went from calling everybody, saying, ‘Watch this,’ to being really quiet — because she scared me.”
Outside of the last-second cold feet, Little has been one of the biggest believers in Peña throughout her career. She was 19 when she walked into his gym in Spokane, Washington, seeking nothing but a fun way to exercise. Little’s facility was new, but he’d been coaching for years, primarily out of his garage. His clients were almost entirely adult men. Some took it seriously. Others didn’t. Attendance was sporadic. It was a group of guys, more than a ‘team’ or ‘school.’
In other words, Little had a group of fighters to work with, but he’d never really had any students.
“No one pays their dues, no one appreciates you, no one listens,” Little says. “To have someone come in who wanted to learn? The way she listened and literally programmed herself to throw punches exactly like she was told was incredible. I actually stopped her one time early on and said, ‘Hey, where did you box before? Where did you learn this?’ And she looked at me and said, ‘Uh, you just showed me.’ She was just an amazing listener.”
This was in 2008, five years before the UFC would sign Ronda Rousey as its first female athlete. MMA was not yet considered a sustainable career for women, but Little practically begged Peña to commit to the sport. He didn’t know exactly where it would lead, but he knew right away that Peña was special. He saw the Peña family’s headstrong trait. As the competition got more fierce, he saw a girl who was willing to (in Chiesa’s words) ‘kind of not give a f—.’ Perhaps there was no UFC championship for Peña to aspire to at that time — but that didn’t mean glory wasn’t achievable for her.
“I just said to her, ‘I do believe that with the intent and focus you have, you will be the best in the world at this,” Little says. “I just knew she had to do it.”
And frankly, Little needed her to do it for his career. After experiencing what he had with Peña — working with a young athlete possessing the talent of a world champion — he couldn’t go back to the way things had been before. Had Peña never pursued MMA, Little believes he would have quit coaching long ago. He believed in Peña’s potential so much that working with anything less had lost its appeal.
“He knew about me before I knew about myself because he understands levels of competition,” Peña says. “He understood where I was in the sport. He actually promoted his own fights, and one day he was like, ‘You’re fighting on my show.’ And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? You can’t just sign me up.’ And he said, ‘[I don’t charge you to] come to the gym. So, you’re fighting.’ I cried for hours about it. Even after I won my first fight, I cried because I was scared.
“My dad got on his hands and knees and begged me, ‘Please don’t ever fight again.’ And I did. I promised him to never fight again. Then a week went by and I was like, ‘When’s the next one?'”
Before long, Peña was hooked. She dropped out of college after attending one quarter and informed her family — Ernie, Pamela, two sisters and a brother — that she intended to pursue MMA full time.
As a sport, women’s MMA was still a work in progress. But Peña? The foundation of what she would become was all there. She had a natural work ethic and an ability to replicate what was being taught to her under the pressure of competition. Most importantly, time was on her side. In 2008, not many 19-year-old women committed their lives to MMA. From the moment she started, she was ahead of the game.
FIVE YEARS INTO her professional career, Peña became the first woman to win The Ultimate Fighter reality series in 2013. She’d made good on Little’s prediction she could be something in this sport. Things have been up and down ever since.
Coming off the show, Peña called for a title shot against the then-champion Rousey, a request that was more or less laughed off within MMA circles. Despite her success on the show, no one saw Peña as a threat to Rousey.
“I had fought four girls in a row [on TUF], while Ronda had come into the UFC and had a belt handed to her,” Peña says. “I was like, ‘If I can fight them, I can fight this girl.’ I’m a bad matchup for her.’ I kept calling for that fight, but everyone was like, ‘Get out of here scrub, you’re not in her league.’ No one ever gave me a shot.”
The following year, Peña was scheduled to fight Jessica Andrade when she tore her ACL, MCL, LCL, meniscus and hamstring in a gym accident. According to Little, the main culprit behind the injury was Peña’s incessant need to do more. She had snuck her way into a wrestling practice he didn’t want her to participate in after she’d spent the morning lifting weights.
Those injuries forced Peña out of action for an entire year, but she returned strong in 2015, racking up three consecutive wins. At that point, she was in the mix for a title shot against Nunes, but she accepted a bout against Valentina Shevchenko in January 2017. It was a fight that never made sense to Little, as Peña was already viewed as a title challenger, while Shevchenko had lost to Nunes the previous year. Little considered it a high-risk, low-reward situation.
Peña’s life and career were in the midst of a transition at that time. She’d decided to move from Washington to Chicago to live with her new boyfriend. It meant she wasn’t training with her original team full time anymore. When she arrived in Denver to face Shevchenko in early 2017, her team wasn’t a unified, dialed-in unit. She wasn’t training like a professional.
“If you just go and look at the UFC Countdown [preview show] for that fight, Valentina is punching and kicking trees in the forest and then it takes you back to Chicago where I’m holding hands with my new boyfriend, walking the dog,” laughs Peña. “You know what I mean? It’s like, ‘What are you doing?'”
Peña lost to Shevchenko via armbar in the second round of that fight, erasing any immediate title shot chances. Within months, she was pregnant and announced she’d be taking another lengthy layoff from MMA.
She wouldn’t fight again until 2019 when she picked up a win over Nicco Montaño. She was hit by injury again in early 2020, which limited her to one appearance against Germaine de Randamie in October. That fight also ended in a submission loss, when Peña tapped to a guillotine choke in the third round.
Going into 2021, Peña had just one win in nearly 3.5 years. Since winning TUF, she’d made six appearances in six years. She’d been competitive against Shevchenko (the No. 1 pound-for-pound female fighter today) and de Randamie (a former UFC featherweight champion). Still, her potential as a world champion was utterly hidden under multiple layoffs and an unimpressive overall record.
Nevertheless, after picking up a win over Sara McMann in January 2021, Peña went on a verbal assault on Nunes. She accused the most dangerous female fighter of all time of ‘ducking’ her.
Many in the MMA space found Peña’s attacks to be (at best) misled or (at worst) completely delusional. Why on earth would Nunes avoid a fight against Peña? For what reason? How could Peña herself believe such a thing?
But if you consider every detail of Peña’s life and career, it’s not so outrageous.
“You could see there was a really fair fight there,” Little said. “I don’t want to be cocky, but if you dissect the fight and watch Amanda at 135, you will see she is very human and had to gut out some very tough fights. And then I look at Julie, and this girl just keeps hitting the gas every round. I loved the matchup.
“I can’t wait to fight this girl. She has to knock you out in round one. And if she doesn’t, I can’t see her beating you.”
IT TOOK ERNIE and Pamela years to come around to their daughter’s chosen career path.
Even when Peña made it to the finals of TUF in 2013, Ernie was against the whole thing. He remembers the UFC sent a video crew to his home in Washington, ahead of his daughter’s finals appearance, and interviewed him for close to an hour. They left with only a few seconds of usable footage because he spent the entire interview talking about how he wished his daughter would do something else with her life.
Pamela admits they never had a choice. She always thought her daughter would have made a great lawyer or an FBI agent. But part of raising a headstrong child is knowing you don’t always get a say in what she does. When Peña dropped out of college to follow MMA, Pamela eventually got behind it. Even when Ernie was still against it, she found herself cageside, screaming for her daughter to tear an opponent apart.
Ultimately Ernie came around and is supportive of his daughter’s choices. As much as he can’t stand watching her take punches, he recognizes how special she is within the sport. For his daughter to face a challenge like Nunes, she had to be confident. She had to be willing to walk through fire and believe she would come out on the other side. And that is, unquestionably, his headstrong daughter.
“It’s cute to me, [when they say] ‘Oh, it was the biggest upset in history,'” Peña said. “I was 100 percent, fully committed to walking out of there with my hand raised and with that belt … And I am absolutely ready to do it again.”
If she does, maybe don’t call it an upset.
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