Fresh off the heels of Ronda Rousey breaking the gender barrier for the UFC, The Ultimate Fighter would host the first ever co-ed season. TUF 18 would feature coaches Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate and a slew of bantamweight fighters just on the outside of the UFC.
Heading into the season, everybody’s mind was exactly where you’d imagine it was. “Will they? Won’t they?” took over forums and conversations immediately.
Team Tate members Chris Holdsworth and Julianna Pena didn’t take long to give fans their first bit of bait to bite on. In the third episode, the two were caught poolside discussing relationships and agreeing that “friends with benefits” are something they’re both “all about.”
While nothing more than conversation came of it, it took a little more convincing when Pena got home.
“It was very embarrassing because they let you know ahead of time what the episode looks like the day before they air it and it was just mortifying because I had a boyfriend at the time,” Pena explained. “He was thinking I was trying to pick up Chris Holdsworth. I had a lot of explaining to do after that and no amount of explaining was going to make me look innocent.”
Early drama aside, Pena won the contract and would go down in history as the first woman to win TUF. And after remaining on the UFC roster for eight years now, it’s all working out for Pena, and with a title shot on the horizon, she has a chance to cement herself further in UFC immortality, as a win over Amanda Nunes would be impossible for anybody to ignore.
With such huge strides in her career, it’s hard to imagine a time when Pena was a starving artist not only fighting in the TUF house, but wanting to go back when it was all over.
“When I got out of the house I was almost begging for them to put me back in,” Pena said. “I was having to deal with other real-world problems. I was like, ‘oh man, I didn’t have to deal with any of this for the last seven weeks.’ I don’t even want my phone. I’ll chuck it out the window right now, I don’t care about it. So I loved that seven weeks of just pure focus.”
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