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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Patience was a big thing’: Spokane native Julianna Peña recalls her journey to become UFC champion

By Charlotte McKinley For The Spokesman-Review

Spokane native Julianna Peña rocked the world when she defeated Amanda Nunes last month to become the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s women’s bantamweight world champion.

After they touched gloves in their Dec. 11, 2021, bout, the two athletes traded blows. The fight went to the ground with Nunes on top for the rest of the round. Peña kept attacking, landing Nunes in a straight armbar.

“I was literally thinking in the first round, ‘I can’t believe I’m gonna have a win. First ever in UFC history by straight armbar,’” Peña said. “I literally thought I was gonna get the first tap, first submission, straight arm bar. And then that didn’t happen.”

Not to be deterred, in the second round Peña came out as a dominant force striking Nunes repeatedly. Eventually the flurry of fists was too much for the former champion to handle. Peña took Nunes down, scrambled to her back and submitted Nunes via rear-naked choke at 3:23 of the second round.

“I knew that it was over the second that I took her down and she gave (me) her back,” Peña said.

The new bantamweight champion intended to celebrate her victory in humility. “I don’t really like to celebrate that much in their face because I feel like it’s rude. I just gave her a hug and tried not to be too celebratory.”

Rick Little, her coach, had other ideas.

“Rick made me celebrate, he really did, because he boosted me up like a little child on (top of) the cage,” Peña said. “I’ve never in my 13 years gone on (top of) the cage.”

Peña cites Little as someone that got her to where she is now. “(He had) unwavering belief in me, even at times when I wanted to quit, even at times when I tried to quit. He never gave up on me.”

After being crowned the new UFC women’s bantamweight champion of the world, life went back to normal for Peña.

“I still had to wake up Monday morning and take my daughter to school at 6:30. I still had to mop my own floors and do my own laundry,” she said. “It was almost like a big smack in the face, ‘wake up, back to reality.’”

There were some changes, however. Peña’s phone has been ringing nonstop with people wanting to get interviews, have her on podcasts and pitch her their ideas. “My best friend said it best,” Peña said. “‘Everybody wants a piece of gold.’”

Peña had been calling for a fight against Nunes since UFC 200. During the post-fight interviews, after both athletes won their matches on that card, Nunes said that Peña was her next fight. Despite the call-out, it took five years and several different opponents for the two to meet inside the octagon.

“During UFC Countdown, her coach said ‘people have been saying that Amanda’s been ducking this fight. Julianna just needs to be real with herself.’ That’s not true,” Peña said. “In the (UFC 200) press conference, she literally said that I (was) next. I’m not making that up.”

Regardless of frustrations at being passed over, Peña’s motivation came from the fact that Nunes could “run but can’t hide.” She would have to fight Peña eventually.

“Patience was a big thing for me,” Peña said. “If you continue to focus and dedicate (yourself), what you want will eventually present itself.

“I definitely think that that faith in God has also helped me achieve my goals. It’s something that’s going to help me achieve more goals in the future.”

Peña is not content with stopping at the bantamweight championship title.

“I want to defend, (and) I want to prove to everybody that it wasn’t a fluke,” she said. “I want to go out there and give (Nunes) the rematch and defend this belt as many times as possible.

“There is a sense of justification by having the belt,” Peña added.

However, the justification she feels from winning the belt and proving the world wrong is not the biggest factor for her. She wants to take people on the journey with her, regardless of if they were for or against her.

“If I wasn’t your champion before, now I am. Let me prove to you that we can change the sport, and we can make it bigger and better than it was before,” she said.

Peña wants to be an inspiration for people with a passion. “If you truly pursue (your passion) with your whole heart, and with good intentions, and you’re determined with your will and your mind to make it work, you can make your dreams come true,” she said. “I’m proof of that.”

A rematch with Nunes is on the UFC’s docket for the upcoming year.

According to Peña, Nunes is not one of the UFC’s big money-makers. “She has had several things happen to her where they wouldn’t put her as (the) main event because she couldn’t sell it or because she would pull out. She needs a partner; she needs the other side of the fight,” she said. “I am that other side. I am that star power. I am the one that is saying ‘hello, I’m here, let’s do this.’”

In an interview with ESPN, CEO of the UFC Dana White predicts the rematch will surpass the current top women’s fight, Ronda Rousey vs. Holly Holm, in box office sales.