It was almost as if one could hear the combat sports world’s collective jaw hit the floor.
“The Ultimate Fighter” Season 18 winner Julianna Pena authored Sherdog’s 2021 “Upset of the Year” when she submitted Amanda Nunes with a rear-naked choke and captured the undisputed Ultimate Fighting Championship women’s bantamweight crown in the second round of their UFC 269 co-main event on Dec. 11 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Nunes conceded defeat 3:26 into Round 2, suffering her first setback in more than seven years.
It was a shocking development to everyone but Pena herself.
“I told you,” she told longtime UFC commentator Joe Rogan. “Don’t ever doubt me again. Will power, strength and determination—it will take you places.”
Pena charted a treacherous course in the first round, where the champion honed in on her leg with kicks, dumped her to the canvas and progressed to her back before hunting a potential rear-naked choke. Undeterred and infused with self-belief, “The Venezuelan Vixen” lured Nunes into a dogfight in Round 2. There, Pena hammered the heavily favored American Top Team standout with persistent jabs and thudding right hands, marched through the return fire and allowed fatigue to do the rest.
“Everybody thinks I am just only versed on the ground or that I’m just a ground person, but in mixed martial arts, you have to be versed everywhere: on the feet, in the clinch,” Pena said at the post-fight press conference. “I’m confident on the ground. Wherever the fight goes, I’m comfortable. It’s not that I have one specific specialty. I like to go wherever the fight takes me, and I just let the fight take place however it does naturally.”
Slowly but surely, the aura of invincibility that had long surrounded Nunes weakened and then disappeared altogether. Pena executed a takedown, advanced to the back with surprising ease and locked her arms in place around the Brazilian’s exposed neck. A meek tapout followed soon after, as if Nunes was resigned to her fate.
“I put the choke on, but I didn’t realize that she tapped,” Pena said. “I remember when I took her down, I thought, ‘Man, I wish somebody could tell me how much time I have left in the round’ because I didn’t know how much time was left. After that, the ref picked me up and they threw me in the corner—I think it was either the commissioner or the ref—and I said, ‘What happened?’ And he said, ‘It’s over. You’re done. Congratulations.’ I was like, ‘I didn’t even know.’”
The loss was Nunes’ first since Sept. 27, 2014. It snapped a legacy-defining 12-fight winning streak during which she defeated Valentina Shevchenko (twice), Miesha Tate, Ronda Rousey, Holly Holm and Cristiane Justino, as the “Lioness” became widely recognized as the greatest female mixed martial artist of all-time. Her 1,981-day stay atop the women’s bantamweight division ranks as the fourth-longest single reign in UFC history behind Anderson Silva (2,457), Demetrious Johnson (2,142) and Georges St. Pierre (2,064).
The monumental nature of the victory was not lost on Pena.
“Amanda’s been such a great champion, and she’s done so much for the sport,” she said, “so for me to take down arguably the greatest of all-time is something that’s still sinking in right now.”
Pena welcomed talk of an immediate rematch, knowing it would offer the chance at validation.
“We can do it next,” she said. “I’m free next month, two months from now. Whenever they want to do it, I’m ready. If she wants to do a rematch, we can do a rematch. I’ve always been a company girl. Whatever they want to do. We’ll talk about that later. I just want to enjoy the moment right now.”
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