MMA journeywoman Julianna Pena defeated MMA superstar Amanda Nunes by submission with a rear naked choke in the second round at UFC 269 on Saturday to win the bantamweight title from the long-reigning two-division champion. The shocker was a 10-to-1 upset, and as per betting odds, MMA has seen bigger. In reality, however, there has never been a bigger upset than Pena stopping Nunes.
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Nunes the GOAT
In 2015, MMA trailblazer Ronda Rousey was knocked out by Holly Holm; statistically the biggest-ever upset in MMA. However, while billed as a giant underdog, Holm was a three-division world champion in professional boxing and 9-0 as an MMA fighter.
Pena, meanwhile, had won two of her last four fights in the past five years and was inactive for 30 months between 2017 and 2019 (more on that later). Essentially, the 32-year-old got the title shot on Saturday because she was one of the few bantamweights Nunes hadn’t cleaned up.
And while Rousey went into the Holm fight undefeated — and had finished her previous four fights in 66, 16, 14 and 34 seconds respectively — she hadn’t dominated a row of quality fighters like Nunes. Unbeaten in seven years, the 33-year-old had amassed a 12-fight winning streak with world champion scalps of Valentina Shevchenko, Miesha Tate, Rousey, Holm and Cris Cyborg. The first woman to simultaneously hold two world titles, Nunes had reigned atop the 135-pound bantamweight and 145-pound featherweight divisions for three years.
Standing up to power
Nunes is a knockout artist with tremendous stopping power. Out of her 21 wins, 13 had come via vicious KOs. It was thus even more impressive that Pena (3 KOs out of 11 wins) had Nunes hurt on the feet.
The first round went as expected. Nunes dominated and secured knockdowns; the power disparity for everyone to see. The Brazilian started the second round beaming ear-to-ear, and went in for the kill. But Pena struck back, landing clean, strong jabs. Both women got hurt in an extended exchange of jabs, but an increasingly-tired Nunes grew reckless while Pena slipped and ducked.
Pena has heavy hands and — while not pretty or technical — the American’s striking sets up clinches and takedowns. On Saturday, however, she hurt Nunes, with overhand rights and left hooks to the temple, staggering the Brazilian. Backed up against the cage and getting tagged repeatedly, Nunes went for a last-ditch grapple. Pena took her down, took her back and submitted an exhausted Nunes even though the chokehold wasn’t properly secured.
Michael Chiesa, UFC fighter and Peña’s teammate, told the reporters: “Julie was well prepared to handle Amanda’s power. When she came out and went toe-to-toe with her in Round 2, I knew that was the momentum shift where she would take over the fight.”
Pena’s career in UFC jump started in 2013 after she won the 18th season of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ — the promotion’s reality TV/talent hunt show. Earmarked for big things, Pena suffered a career-threatening injury when she tore the ACL, MCL, LCL, meniscus and hamstring in her right knee during training. The ‘worst injury ever’ forced her to sit out for over a year. Pena also did not compete in 2018 because of the birth of her daughter. Two submission defeats in four fights pegged her back in the rankings, with the general consensus being that she got a title shot because there was nobody else in the division.
“I feel like a lot of people are sleeping on me, and they think that I’m a sacrificial lamb. But I definitely think that, you know, I know I’m definitely not a sacrificial lamb, and everybody loves an underdog. So, I’m just ready to get out there and bring something better to the table,” she had said before the title fight.
Trash talk, bad blood
Saturday’s meeting, in fact, was a long time coming. According to Pena, Nunes had promised a fight after she won the title back at UFC 200 in 2016. Since then, Pena had claimed that Nunes was ‘ducking’ her.
“This has been something that has been brewing since UFC 200 that was, what? Five years ago? You’re going to act like I’m just making this up and trying to trash-talk? These are facts that have happened in my career,” Pena said to Nunes at the pre-fight presser.
Originally, the two were supposed to fight each other at UFC 265 in August, after Pena called out Nunes in January. But the latter had to pull out after contracting COVID-19, and Pena implied that it was another excuse.
As it stands, Pena’s upset win has thrown a spanner in the UFC’s works. Had Nunes won, the promotion would have tried to set her up with Kayla Harrison, a two-time Olympic gold medallist in judo and an MMA champion with the Professional Fighters League. The 31-year-old’s contract with PFL expired in October and UFC president Dana White confirmed that talks were ongoing with Harrison.
“For a Kayla Harrison, the Amanda Nunes fight was huge,” White said at the post-fight presser. “If they would have faced off, it would have been a massive, mega-million dollar fight. … Let me tell you, if Amanda Nunes had won tonight, the Kayla Harrison fight would have been one of the biggest fights that you would have ever seen.”
For now, the fight to make is a rematch between Pena and Nunes. And as impressive as her win was, Pena would again be an underdog in the second fight.
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