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Julianna Peña wants to prove 2021 upset of Amanda Nunes was no fluke

Julianna Peña stunned the mixed martial arts world when she submitted former bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes in the second round of their December title bout. (Chase Stevens/AP)

Ask teammates from the Sik-Jitsu Mixed Martial Arts school in Spokane, Wash., and they’ll say the greatest upset in recent UFC history was hardly unexpected.

Seven months ago, Julianna Peña (12-4) entered her December bout against former champion Amanda Nunes as a massive underdog. Nunes (21-5) had reigned supreme since 2016, when she seized the women’s bantamweight belt, then defended it five times while also taking and defending the featherweight crown along the way.

Nunes had defeated some of the sport’s biggest names, at times in devastating fashion. Her strikes were so concussive they seemed to strike fear in opponents well before they were thrown.

But in December, Peña, a 6.5-to-1 betting underdog, overwhelmed Nunes and earned an unfathomable upset over the former champion. On Saturday, they’ll run it back at UFC 277 in Dallas.

“It’s frustrating,” Peña, 32, said Thursday during the pre-fight news conference. “They say that she slipped on a banana peel and that’s why she lost that night, and I don’t think that’s the case. And that’s what we’re doing here. We’re going to run it back and do it again, and then maybe you guys will finally put some respect on my name.”

In 2014, Peña, then a relative newcomer to the UFC, was recovering from a gruesome training accident in which she tore her ACL, MCL, LCL, meniscus and hamstring. Later that year, Cat Zingano defeated Nunes via third-round technical knockout.

The fight showed that Nunes, now 34, could be exhausted and outmuscled if her opponent survived her power in the first round and took the fight to her. But Nunes responded to the defeat in emphatic fashion, winning her next 12 bouts from March 2015 to March 2021, accumulating several title belts en route to becoming the most accomplished women’s fighter in the sport’s history.

Despite that dominance, Peña and her team felt the flaws exposed in Nunes’s 2014 fight boded well for the Washington state-born brawler, who started mixed martial arts at 19 after walking into a Spokane gym seeking “a fun way to exercise.”

“When Julie first got into the UFC and we were looking at people she could fight — long before Amanda was champ — we looked at Amanda Nunes as a great matchup,” longtime teammate Michael Chiesa said in a recent phone interview. “When Amanda lost to Cat Zingano, we were like, ‘That’s the fight for Julie. Julie would maul that girl.’ ”

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Peña and Chiesa evolved under Rick Little, owner of Sik-Jitsu in Spokane, but Peña’s 2014 injury was one of several interruptions that stalled her professional career in the following years.

A four-fight UFC winning streak through 2016 included a win over Zingano and pushed Peña into the title contender conversation, but her January 2017 loss to Valentina Shevchenko curbed any hopes for a shot against Nunes. Peña, who became pregnant with her daughter later that year, would not return to the octagon until July 2019, when she defeated Nicco Montaño. The following year, an injury limited her to one fight: a submission loss to Germaine de Randamie.

She rebounded in January 2021, submitting Sara McMann via rear naked choke, then proceeded to call out Nunes for “ducking” her going back to 2016. Some found Peña’s broadsides delusional. Peña insisted she could outlast the two-division champion.

When they entered the octagon in December, Peña proved willing to engage Nunes in the pocket, disregarding her opponent’s trademark striking power. Peña fought a competitive first round but found herself in compromising positions on the ground. In the second round, she took control.

Peña stung Nunes with powerful jabs. Nunes fatigued and became reckless. Peña continued to swing and land. With less than two minutes left in the round, Peña mounted Nunes’s back, then slid and tightened her forearm against Nunes’s neck, forcing a quick tap-out.

The crowd at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas erupted. UFC commentator Daniel Cormier shrieked. His partner, Joe Rogan, called the result “the biggest upset in the history of the sport.”

In what will be her first title defense at UFC 277, oddsmakers still view Peña as the underdog. But Peña is confident she can win again.

During a recent interview with Chiesa, she depicted the rematch as an opportunity to prove that her upset wasn’t a fluke.

“Winning the belt is something that I already expected for myself, but I’m not content with that. That’s not satisfying enough to me,” she said. “I want to go in there, close this chapter on this book and solidify my legacy by defending my belt properly for the first time. And then I’ll be able to breathe and say, ‘All right ol’ girl, you did it. You are the champion.’ ”