Peña finds shocking UFC title victory at end of rocky road

Dec 11, 2021, 10:15 PM | Updated: Dec 12, 2021, 12:17 pm
Amanda Nunes, left, fights Julianna Pena during a women's bantamweight mixed martial arts title bou...

Amanda Nunes, left, fights Julianna Pena during a women's bantamweight mixed martial arts title bout at UFC 269, Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Chase Stevens)

(AP Photo/Chase Stevens)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — 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.'”

___

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

United States' Christian Pulisic controls the ball during the international friendly soccer match b...
Associated Press

US World Cup worries grow, 0-0 draw vs Saudis in last tuneup

The United States ended its World Cup tuneup matches in unimpressive fashion, playing a 0-0 draw against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday night at Murcia, Spain, that saw oft-injured Gio Reyna come off in the 30th minute because of muscle tightness. Christian Pulisic returned to the depleted U.S. lineup after missing Friday’s 2-0 loss to No. […]
14 hours ago
Attorney Alexandra Benevento, center, speaks with reporters during a news conference announcing a c...
Associated Press

Sex abuse allegations spread against cheerleading industry

Sprawling allegations of abuse against cheerleaders reached Tennessee on Monday in a case that escalates the accusations facing some of the sport’s top institutions. An adult coach sexually assaulted teenage boys at Premier Athletics, according to allegations in a federal lawsuit filed in Memphis that is similar to a previous complaint against Rockstar Cheer in […]
2 days ago
New York Yankees' Aaron Judge looks out before a baseball game against the Boston Red Sox Sunday, S...
Associated Press

MLB playoff primer: Things to know as postseason nears

Major League Baseball’s postseason has a little more heft this season. The playoffs are rapidly approaching, with the final regular season games set for Oct. 5. The postseason begins two days later with a field of 12 teams — up from last year’s 10 — and includes a best-of-three format for the opening wild-card round. […]
2 days ago
Dallas Cowboys cornerback Anthony Brown (3) strips the ball from New York Giants wide receiver Ster...
Associated Press

Veteran Giants receiver Sterling Shepard has torn ACL

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — Veteran wide receiver Sterling Shepard tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on the New York Giants’ final offensive play in their loss to the Dallas Cowboys, coach Brian Daboll said Tuesday. Daboll had indicated after Monday night’s game that the injury to New York’s leading receiver was […]
2 days ago
Stephen F. Austin safety JaTerious Evans brings down the Warner quarterback for a sack during an NC...
Associated Press

‘Whoa, 98-0’: Coach of team on end of huge loss OK with it

Two days after his Warner University football team lost 98-0 to Stephen F. Austin in one of the most lopsided games of all time, Dialleo Burks channeled his inner P.T. Barnum. Like the 19th-century circus impresario once said, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. It was in that vein that Burks recalled a conversation […]
2 days ago
United States' Kahleah Copper runs past South Korea's Heo Yeeun during their game at the women's Ba...
Associated Press

Kahleah Copper’s FIBA diary: Rest, rest, rest

SYDNEY (AP) — Rest, rest and more rest. There’s been a lot of basketball in a short time and finding time to recover has been key to staying fresh and having success. You have to take care of your body. I have to give a huge thank you to the training staff of Courtney (Watson), […]
2 days ago
Peña finds shocking UFC title victory at end of rocky road