If life was fair, Julianna Pena might be in line for a shot at UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey right now, or at least two or three fights into her UFC career. Instead, she travels to Fairfax, Virginia to face Milana Dudieva this weekend as a prospect making her first appearance since winning season 18 of The Ultimate Fighter in November of 2013.
What happened since her first-round TKO victory over Jessica Rakoczy has been well documented, as she suffered a January 2014 knee injury that could be described as both devastating and almost catastrophic. The injury, sustained while preparing for a UFC 171 bout against Jessica Andrade, required surgery by the renowned Ronald Kvitne and an arduous rehab, but after a few rough days, Pena never lost hope that she would one day fight again.
“The doctor was extremely positive and hopeful that I would be able to return to fighting within a year,” Pena said of the reconstructive surgery. “And I was just so positive that this was not going to hold me back. At first I was in a dark place, but once I started putting in the work and doing everything that the doctors requested of me, I was like ‘what knee injury?’”
Now in Fairfax, Pena survived training camp with her Sikjitsu team, with the only thing left being the waiting until fight night. For most, that waiting is tougher than the fight. For Pena, it’s the opposite.
“The waiting sucks too, but the actual fight is the real test of what’s gonna happen and who’s gonna be walking out the winner and who’s gonna be walking out the loser,” she said. “That’s probably the thing that I have the most anxiety for. Yeah, of course the countdown gives me anxiety too, but not knowing the outcome of the fight also plays a big part in wanting to get it over and done with.”
At this point in the week, it’s usually wise to steer clear of the normally affable and engaging 25-year-old. Removed from her hometown of Spokane and about to throw hands with someone trained to beat her, Pena puts no gloss over what’s going to go down on Saturday. There is nothing more real than this to her, and now it’s time to put her game face on.
“I put in so much time and dedication into making sure that I perform to the best of my abilities, so when it gets down to the wire, I am not a regular person anymore,” she said. “I just think in my head ‘I’m a killer.’ I turn into a nice person afterwards, but even walking up into the cage, all I’m thinking is ‘I don’t have a heart, I’m already dead, and I’m going to do everything in my power to beat this person before they have the opportunity to beat me.’”
One look at her walk-in before the Rakoczy fight makes that transformation a reality opponents may not want to face. Pena gets mean when it’s time to fight, and with submission wins over Shayna Baszler and Sarah Moras on TUF 18 and the first-round TKO of Rakoczy in the season final, she’s proven to be more action than talk. So what’s the switch for “The Venezuelan Vixen?” A lot of her peers call fight night the payoff, the reward for all the hard work in training camp. Pena looks like she’s making a trip to the darkest place you can go to, and she doesn’t deny that, not for one second.
“I think the only one who has been very vocal about that has been my mom,” she laughs. “My mom is always bragging to people like ‘I don’t know what it is, she just flips a switch.’ And that’s true. I try to put myself in a really dark and nasty place. I try to imagine all these bad things, like this person stole my grandma’s pearls or something like that. I act as if I had a baby, and this person’s trying to steal my baby away. I just get into this really scary place that you can only get into when you know that you’re about to get into a fistfight and when you know the odds and the stakes and that there’s only going to be one winner and one loser.”
So no payoff, no reward?
“The payoff is just proving to myself that I still got it and that I can still compete,” she said. “A lot of the time, people are saying ‘I’m so excited for your fight; aren’t you excited?’ I think in my head, no, I’m not excited to get in a fistfight. (Laughs) I don’t think people understand that this is a real thing and I take it extremely seriously. So for me, the payoff is just going in there and getting my hand raised. I would do it for free. I don’t care about the money. I care about my pride and the fact that I feel like I’m one of the best fighters in the world and I just want the respect from that. And if I can get the respect, then everything else will fall into place.”
Pena’s no holds barred approach to the sport, one in which she strips away the euphemisms and gets right down to the basics, is reminiscent of Rousey. And while the former TUF winner has some more winning to do before she can call for a shot at the bantamweight queen, given her desire to finish fights and her history with Rousey, who coached against Pena’s coach Miesha Tate on TUF 18, there could be a rivalry brewing a year or so down the line. Pena knows it too, and with a number 13 ranking already in her back pocket, a win this weekend could start accelerating that process.
“I feel like I’m the breath of fresh air that the 135-pound division needs, and I feel like a lot of people have been waiting for me to come back from this injury and make a splash in this division,” she said. “I get a lot of messages on social media from people saying that they miss me and they need me and that I’m the real contender and that they believe in me. They see me being the champ one day and I think that the most important thing has been to continue to work my ass off because when I look at the division, I don’t really see anybody who’s standing out too much to me. I feel like the division is very thin and that there’s only so many times you’re gonna want to see a rematch with the same people. So with the way that I fight and as raw of a fighter that I am, the division needs a fighter like me.”
No arguments there, making this the most welcome of returns. Pena isn’t celebrating yet though. There’s a fight to finish first, and she has every intention of doing just that.
“I definitely don’t want to go out there and play patty cake and throw a bunch of pink bunny punches and go dancing around on my bicycle all day,” she said. “I’m trying to finish the fight and I don’t want to be in there for very long, so in my mind I’m thinking ‘get in and get out as fast as possible. Break their will, get your hand raised.’ Then I can be nice and relax and all that weight comes off my shoulders. But until then, I just have so much pent-up aggression, especially from being out for this long and not being able to perform this last year. It’s just been terrible for me. I just want to be able to get in there and show the world that I didn’t die and that I’m back and that I’m a contender and I need to be taken seriously.”