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As the second round of the women's bantamweight title fight at UFC 269 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas unfolded, it looked by all appearances that it was about to get ugly for Julianna Peña. She found herself standing across from champion Amanda Nunes — widely proclaimed as the greatest women's MMA fighter in history — in a toe-to-toe slugfest.
Both women were landing cleanly.
One did not need to be an MMA expert and only needed to have seen Nunes' highlights to know that this wasn't good for Peña.
Or, at least, it shouldn’t have been good.
Nunes is arguably the hardest puncher in women's MMA. And for the majority of the second round, Peña stood in front of her and went blow-for-blow. As each punch landed, the expectation was that the heavy-handed Nunes would land the crushing shot that would end the fight as she had so often previously.
There was one person, though, who sounded the alarm. About 90 seconds into the second round, UFC Hall of Famer Daniel Cormier, working the broadcast, saw Nunes going for the kill shot. And he didn’t like what he saw.
“This is going to fatigue the champion,” Cormier, a former light heavyweight and heavyweight champion, said. “She is loading up on her shots and she’s as reckless as we’ve seen in a long time trying to get to Julianna.”
About 45 seconds later, as the crowd was in a frenzy as the fighters stood on the logo in the canvas and traded, Cormier raised the alarm again.
“This is what Julianna wants, guys,” he said.
And sure enough, seconds later, Peña grabbed Nunes around the waist and slung her to the ground. She quickly took Nunes’ back and submitted her with a rear naked choke. It might have been the second-greatest upset in women’s MMA behind Holly Holm’s 2015 stoppage of Ronda Rousey.
Nunes was invincible, until she was not.
Before the fight, Peña boasted about what she would do even if few believed her. And while Nunes had COVID-19 that had forced the postponement of the fight and some other vague issues that she’s subsequently said negatively impacted her performance, it wasn't like Peña just showed up and was awarded the belt.
She stood in the pocket with the women's MMA equivalent of Francis Ngannou, took shots on the chin and then not only lived to tell about it, but was able to celebrate a championship victory. She had to weather a storm to get that title.
They will rematch on Saturday in the main event of UFC 277 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas and Peña expects more of the same.
“I took some shots,” Peña told Yahoo Sports. “It wasn’t like it was just a walk in the park and I just got her down and choked her. You could see the mouse underneath my eye and the swelling that I had. I took some very heavy shots. And I think that the main difference in this rematch is not even a difference. It’s a similarity. I’m still going to take some shots. I’m still going to get in there — me and Amanda are literally the two best fighters in the world — and I’m expecting to get hit. If you’re not expecting to get hit, you’re definitely in the wrong sport. I fist fight in a steel cage for a living.
“And I think that the most important thing is, I don’t want to desensitize anybody, but the fact is that I’m going to get hit. And I’m going to go in there and it’s the one who backs up and who can’t take the shots that’s going to be the loser. And I think that the most important thing is that I know what kind of will I have. I know what kind of chin I have. I know the adversity that I can face and the type of fighter that I am. I am the wall Amanda bashes up against when she realizes that she can’t put me out with just one shot. I think that that’s the main difference.”
Any time there is a huge upset like that, the pressure is on the winner to prove it wasn’t a fluke. Nunes, somewhat incredibly, remains a massive favorite. She is -275 to win at BetMGM and regain the title.
Peña, though, has an advantage this time. She called her shot last time, even though many simply snickered behind her back and disregarded what she said as just pre-fight trash talk.
But it wasn’t trash talk that allowed her to take those clean shots from Nunes.
She took the punches she knew she was going to get and didn’t back down or back off. She proved herself and if it means doing the same thing again on Saturday, she’s content with that.
“Your mentality, your brain, your positive self-talk, your mental state is so important in fighting,” Peña said. “They say that it’s more mental than it is physical and I absolutely agree with that. You have to know that you’re the best. You have to know that you’re going to win. And you can’t be deterred by these negative demons that are trying to eat your brain every single night when the lights go out.
“You have to have the mental fortitude to beat that, and to just be strong-minded and have that mental fortitude to go through anything. Fight through that adversity, and know that I’m going to literally die in there, if that’s what I have to do and I’m willing to do that. And if you’re willing to do that, then you will be successful.”