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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘That belt is mine’: Spokane fighter Julianna Peña to defend bantamweight title Saturday in anticipated rematch with Amanda Nunes

Spokane’s Julianna Peña, left, holds her UFC women’s bantamweight championship belt in her home gym in the Mead area on Dec. 27. At right is her coach, Rick Little.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
By Charlotte McKinley For The Spokesman-Review

Amanda Nunes had four words for Spokane native Julianna Peña on the recent season finale of The Ultimate Fighter.

“That belt is mine.”

Peña’s response? “We’ll see. That’s what you said last time.”

That last time, at UFC 269 in December, Peña (12-4) shocked the world, ending Nunes’ impressive 12-fight win streak and claiming the Ultimate Fighting Championship women’s bantamweight title. The loss was just the fifth in 26 fights for Nunes.

Now they’re ready to face off again. Saturday’s rematch in Dallas headlines UFC 277 and is the most anticipated women’s fight of 2022. The rivalry between the two fighters seemed to heat up even more after the two took part as coaches in The Ultimate Fighter.

Coaching TUF was a natural fit for Peña. She was once a competitor on the reality television show on ESPN+ that takes 16 mixed martial arts athletes, separates them into two teams coached by current UFC fighters, puts them into a house and has them fight their way to a six-figure UFC contract.

Peña began lobbying for a chance to coach since the return of TUF last year.

“I got a great idea! Is there coaches for the new season of TUF yet??” she tweeted on March 10, 2021, regarding TUF 29. “Amanda and I would be great coaches for the upcoming new season!”

Peña got her wish.

Along with Sik Jitsu coach Rick Little and Gregory Boxing coach Wayne Gregory, she stayed in Las Vegas for the five weeks of filming the 30th season of the show.

The first episode, starring Peña and Nunes, was released on May 3 and featured eight heavyweights and eight female flyweights. They were split into two teams: one coached by Peña, the other by Nunes.

Mohammed Usman, Zac Pauga, Jordan Heiderman and Bobby Maximus joined Peña’s team as her four heavyweights with Helen Peralta, Juliana Miller, Hannah Guy and Laura Gallardo rounding off her female flyweight team.

For Peña, having her team fight against Nunes’ team was a different challenge from when she fought in the TUF house, or when she faced Nunes in UFC 269.

“I definitely felt the nerves like I would if I was fighting,” she said. “Every time one of my fighters got in there, I felt like it was me fighting Amanda.”

Peña’s team ended up winning, and while she was excited to beat Nunes in another arena, she was thrilled to see her fighters create their legacies and make a name for themselves.

“Instead of me needing to win for myself, it was exciting to see them be able to win and tell the world about their story and who they are,” she said. “It was less about me and more about my fighters.”

Now, three of Peña’s fighters will be featured on an Aug. 6 UFC card headlined by Thiago Santos vs. Jamahal Hill: Zac Pauga vs. Mohammed Usman for the Ultimate Fighter heavyweight title and Juliana Miller vs. Team Nunes’ Brogan Walker for the women’s flyweight title.

Meanwhile, Peña has her own fight to look forward to: a rematch against Nunes – the basis for both athletes being competing coaches.

While coaching her team, Peña had to find ways to train aside from when she would jump in with her girls as an extra body. On days off from TUF, she’d run or “glove up and spar.”

“On the weekends my coach, Wayne Gregory, and (I) would spar every Saturday morning,” she said.

The mental aspect was large too – Peña saw her opponent almost every day for five weeks while coaching against her team and training to retain the bantamweight championship title.

Nunes was surprised at the lack of trash talk Peña did in the show, according to an interview with MMA Fighting.

“I’m not interested in being petty with her,” Peña said. “I’m not interested in trying to create a big drama show. I just care about winning these fights.”

According to Peña, there was nothing she needed to say – her achievement in the octagon did that.

“Winning should be able to speak for you,” she said.

Nunes’ loss also speaks for itself with Peña thinking that her opponent will show up differently when the two run it back on Saturday.

“She’s gonna come guns blazing and she’s gonna do everything that she can (to beat me),” Peña said. “I definitely think that she’s going to take me a lot more seriously than she did the first time.”

Little agrees.

“We’re anticipating Amanda doing two things: being normal Amanda and trying to murder you in round one and maybe a more calculated Amanda trying to conserve her cardio,” he said. “Whatever she’s doing, every time she fights, she’s out there trying to hit home runs.”

Peña is not worried about what Nunes is going to throw at her.

“My main focus is what I do and how I do things, and I’ll be ready to react to everything that she brings.”

The Saturday fight can be watched via ESPN pay-per-view.