UFC 269: Julianna Pena 'not afraid' of two-weight champion Amanda Nunes

By Ben CollinsBBC Sport
Amanda Nunes, Dana White and Julianna Pena during the UFC 269 news conference
Amanda Nunes (left) is the first UFC fighter to defend titles in two divisions while holding both simultaneously

It's seen as the UFC's mission impossible - trying to beat two-weight champion Amanda Nunes.

Next to take on that challenge is Julianna Pena who challenges her in Las Vegas on Saturday, more than five years after the American first called out Nunes.

A few months later defeat by Valentina Shevchenko pushed Pena down the pecking order and she became a mother before working her way back into title contention.

Nunes, meanwhile, remains unbeaten since 2014 and is now widely regarded as the greatest female fighter in mixed martial arts history.

But while Pena admits "I'm inspired by Amanda", the 32-year-old believes she will be the one to end Nunes' five-year bantamweight reign at UFC 269.

"Amanda is a great champ," she tells BBC Sport. "I admire that she's been able to retain her belt for so long.

"But I'm just not afraid of her. I feel like I'm the new champ and that this is my time.

"I've never felt better and I've never been more focused, mentally or physically. I'm ready to step into the light."

'I'm not some imposter, I've been working my whole life for this'

Julianna Pena
Julianna Pena is hoping to be the first person to beat Amanda Nunes since Cat Zingano in 2014

Born in Washington state to a Mexican mother and Venezuelan father, Pena has been through the wars to earn her first shot at a UFC title.

Dislocated elbows, torn knee ligaments and broken fingers and toes are par for the course for MMA fighters but Pena has also been involved in bar brawls, "fought dudes in an alley at work" and was run over in 2012, leaving her unconscious with her "nose smashed in".

"I've sacrificed my body, my time, to be who I am and where I am," she says. "I've missed parties, birthdays and all kinds of good times for this sport and for this moment.

"These are the sacrifices you have to make in order to be a champion and that's what I believe I am. I'm ready to sacrifice myself one more time in order to cross that finish line.

"I'm worthy. I'm not some imposter that just fell out of the sky into a title shot. I've been working my whole life for this and I finally have the opportunity to reach my full potential."

With Nunes having dispatched most of her other leading bantamweight rivals, Pena's wish to take on the dominant Brazilian, 33, was finally granted.

After losing to Shevchenko in January 2017, Pena gave birth to daughter Issa and returned to the octagon in July 2019 - with, she says, extra motivation for her past three fights.

"My daughter is that reminder every day that you have to get up and strive for your dreams because nobody's going to hand you anything in this life," says Pena.

"My intentions are to be a role model for women and young girls, for mums and single mums, for Latinas and for my daughter. To let her know that, with hard work and dedication, anything you want in life is possible."

'Anywhere the fight goes, I'm comfortable'

Julianna Pena secures a rear-naked choke submission against Sara McMann in January 2021
Pena claimed a submission win over Sara McMann in her last fight in January at UFC 257

Pena came in to the UFC as a highly rated prospect after winning the Ultimate Fighter series in 2013 but admits she underestimated Shevchenko, who in 2017 was yet to begin her dominance as flyweight champion.

Shevchenko lost to Nunes shortly before and after that, contributing to the Brazilian's 12-fight win streak, and Pena says some of those opponents were "already defeated" before stepping into the octagon with Nunes.

"You saw that when people fought Ronda Rousey as well," she said. "I'm bringing something better. I fear no-one at 135 pounds [bantamweight]; this is my division.

"I've had those losses, I've made those mistakes and I've learned from them," added Pena, who now has a 10-4 record.

"I took Valentina for just being a 17-time Muay Thai world champion and thinking 'OK, well if I get this fight to the ground I've got it made'.

"I was young in the mind as far as not taking her seriously on the ground. I was overzealous and got caught but that's experience which is invaluable."

An experienced wrestler, Pena says it is a "perfect style match-up" for her, even though Nunes is often described as "a monster" because she is so strong in every facet.

'The Venezuelan Vixen' feels she will be stronger if the fight reaches the championship rounds, with only four of Nunes' nine title fights having gone beyond the first round, but endurance has been the Brazilian's main focus in her training camp.

And this week Nunes called Pena "a clown" and "delusional" for having so much faith in her grappling having lost by submission in two of her past four fights.

"Her opinion of me is none of my business," said Pena. "I just need to focus on myself and what I know I can do.

"I'm versed everywhere. I can fight on the feet, in the clinch, on the ground. Anywhere the fight goes, I'm comfortable.

"I can't tell you what she's going to do, I just know that I'm going to respond to it."

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