Venezuelan Vixen: Meet the woman preparing for MMA’s most daunting challenge
Known as the 'Venezuelan Vixen', Julianna Pena is set for the biggest opportunity of her life at UFC 269. But is there more to her than meets the eye? Or is she just an attention-seeking 'clown', as Amanda Nunes suggested?
This weekend in Las Vegas, Pena takes on the all-conquering Brazilian for her bantamweight crown.
Whatever the outcome in the co-headline bout topped by Charles Oliveira's first lightweight title defense against Dustin Poirier, the 32-year-old Pena has come a long way.
Born and raised in a "little, tiny garage" in Spokane, Washington, the youngest of four siblings with a Mexican mother and Venezuelan father, hence her nickname, made the switch to MMA after first joining a cardio kickboxing class to lose weight and channel her aggression in her early 20s.
Talking to BBC Sport in fight week, she spoke of fighting in bar brawls with "dudes in an alley at work" and being run over in 2012, which left her unconscious and her "nose smashed in".
Crafted under the SikJitsu and Valle Flow Striking banners, big expectations were made of the mother of one when she became the first female winner of The Ultimate Fighter by clinching the reality show competition's 18th edition in 2013.
Simple math tells us that Pena has waited over eight years for a shot at glory, with an average of less than a bout per year after the first-round TKO of Jessica Rakoczy which earned her a contract with Dana White's elite promotion.
Indeed, as one might presume, the road has been rocky on the way to facing a foe who many consider the greatest female combatant of all time in Nunes.
For starters, Pena had to wait almost a year and a half from her TUF win until finally putting on the gloves again to take on Milana Dudieva in 2015.
Having been expected to face future strawweight champion Jessica Andrade in March of 2014, Pena suffered a right knee injury and damaged her ACL, MCL, LCL, and meniscus while grappling in training and required surgery and rehabilitation that kept her out of action for the whole of that year.
From 2015 to mid-2016, Pena went on a four-fight win streak to improve to 8-2 but then met her match in current flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko, who finished her by a second-round armbar submission in early 2017.
Announcing an indefinite hiatus later that year to start a family with daughter Grace born in 2018, Pena returned to her profession in July 2019 after a two-and-a-half-year break to defeat the first-ever flyweight women's champion Nicco Montano by unanimous decision.
Given that there was then a loss to Germaine de Randamie before her last win in January against Sarah McMann, the jury is still out on Pena.
"Sara McMann almost beat her. Sara McMann gave up in the fight. If she didn’t give up, she would have beat Julianna. But I beat Sara McMann years ago," Nunes has been quick to point out.
At a press event to promote their long-awaited meeting delayed by Nunes' battle with Covid, the Brazilian ripped into her loudmouth foe by calling her "delusional" and a "clown" who "wants attention".
"That's it," Nunes concluded.
But is it? Or is there more to Pena than meets the eye, and does she actually have a chance against 'The Lioness'?
With her inactivity and a 10-4 record, it is difficult to gauge what Pena has, or not. Coming off the back of two defeats in inferior promotions, it beggars belief as to how she got onto the Ultimate Fighter in the first place, never mind win it.
But win the competition she did, in thrilling fashion, with her rear-naked choke finish of veteran and top-ten ranked Shayna Baszler considered the biggest upset of the season on the way to her final demolishing of Rakoczy.
Only topped twice in the UFC, those defeats have come to elite competition in Shevchenko, herself challenging Nunes in the GOAT conversation, and De Randamie who took Nunes all five rounds to the cards in one of her most grueling fights in recent memory while rocked in the second.
"I feel like a lot of people are sleeping on me and they think I'm a sacrificial lamb but I definitely think that, you know, I know that I'm definitely not and everyone loves an underdog," Pena insisted to TMZ.
There are accusations that Pena has merely earned her title shot by trash talking, claiming that Nunes has been "ducking" her until White finally forced them to meet to settle a grudge.
Breaking character from the smiley, laid-back individual typical of her home state of Bahia in the northeast of Brazil, Nunes is clearly riled this time and this could work to her foe's advantage if her plan is to merely go out and knock Pena's head off.
"I’m always focusing and I know I have 25 minutes to finish her. I just have to take my time and pick the shots at the right times and finish the fight. No matter what she shows up with Saturday night, I’m going to have the answers and I will finish her," Nunes has vowed to counter such assumptions.
Pena has cited her wrestling as giving her the edge over Nunes, who she perceives to be weak on the ground, and said that the clash is a "perfect style match-up".
But to Yahoo Sports, Nunes has claimed that "nothing" concerns her about her opponent while the "delusional" insult came about from Pena having been finished on the mat herself in two of her last four outings.
"Everything about her game, I’ve seen before. I’ve beat the most tough girls many times, even her training partner, best friend. It’s the same style. When I see Miesha Tate fight, you see Julianna Pena fight. They’re pretty much the same fighter," Nunes claimed.
"Julianna has all the holes where I can finish her on the floor as well," Nunes also said at the press event.
"Germaine finished her. Germaine de Randamie is a striker and she finished Julianna Pena [on the ground]. I feel like my game is way above all those girls she fought.
"We’re going to see what’s going to happen. I just need a mistake from her. In striking, in the floor, whatever she brings up, I’m going to have the answers and I’m going to finish the fight," she guaranteed.
Bad blood aside, though, there is some mutual respect between the two. Pena admitted she is "inspired" by Nunes, to which Nunes conceded "she’s definitely a very good fighter" in return.
Yet as Pena quipped while they traded barbs this week, for all their bravado and predictions one of the women is "going to be dead wrong".
"We will see," she finished, perfectly setting up a fiery showdown on Saturday night.