UFC bantamweight champion Julianna Peña joins Yahoo Sports' Kevin Iole to preview her rematch Saturday against Amanda Nunes at UFC 277 in Dallas. "The Venezuelan Vixen" talks about her life-changing win over Nunes in their first bout and why she's sticking to the 135-pound division.
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KEVIN IOLE: Hey, folks. I am Kevin Iole. And of course, I know you know who that is.
That is the Champ, Julianna Peña. One of the biggest upsets in recent times. Julianna is probably not going to say it was an upset. She called her shot.
But according to the sportsbooks, it was an upset. She defeated Amanda Nunes. And now she's going to fight her once again, on Saturday, in Dallas, in the main event of UFC 277. Julianna, welcome. It's got to be heady times being you these days. Everywhere you go, everybody's patting you on the back for beating the GOAT.
JULIANNA PEÑA: Yes. Hi Kevin, thank you so much for having me. And you know, champ life is good life.
KEVIN IOLE: Yeah, no doubt about it. I mean, you got done filming "The Ultimate Fighter." You spent a couple of weeks going nose to nose with Amanda.
What is that like? What are we-- what is it like that we don't see on camera? Like, are there any things that happened that you could share, that kind of give you an insight into what makes her tick?
JULIANNA PEÑA: I just make her tick, I know that. Because I remember catching her in her van outside of my practice, like, peering through the windows. And it was a long time before we finally realized that we were being spied on.
And we were like, "Hey!" And then they turned on the lights and they backed the car up in reverse and they sped away. I was like, I intrigue her. I obviously got her-- in her-- she's thinking about me. And I think that that's probably what makes her tick, just me in general, I think, is what is enough to make her tick.
KEVIN IOLE: A lot of times when a big underdog wins the first fight, you almost have to win that rematch to prove it was legitimate. I mean, and that's kind of an unfair thing. Because beating a great fight or twice in a row is difficult to do. How do you go about doing this?
I mean, you know, obviously you came up with a perfect game plan the first time. And I have to be honest. When you were slugging it out, before you submitted her, I'm going "Oh boy, this is not going to be good for Julianna."
And then sure enough, it was not good for one of you. But it wasn't you. But what do you-- how do you go about it a second time? Do you have to change the plan of attack? Or does the same thing work?
JULIANNA PEÑA: Well, I appreciate your honesty, Kevin. And I think that that's a good point that you say that. Because I took some shots. It wasn't like I was just a walk in the park and just got her down and choked her.
KEVIN IOLE: Right.
JULIANNA PEÑA: And you could see the mouse underneath my eye and the swelling that I had. I took some very heavy shots. And I think that the main difference in this rematch is not even a difference. It's a similarity.
I'm still going to take some shots. I'm still going to get in there. Me and Amanda are literally the two best fighters in the world. And I'm expecting to get hit.
If you're not expecting to get hit, you're definitely in the wrong sport. I fist fight in a steel cage for a living. And I think that the most important thing is too, you know, I don't want to desensitize anybody.
But the fact is that I'm going to get hit. And I'm going to go in there. And it's the one who backs up and who can't take the shots that's going to be the loser. And I think that the most important thing is that I know what kind of will I have.
I know what kind of chin I have. I know the adversity that I can face, and the type of fighter that I am. And I am the wall that Amanda bashes up against when she realizes that she can't put me out with just one shot. And so I think that that's the main difference.
KEVIN IOLE: You mentioned "the will." And to me, that's an important thing. And I-- like, when you were slugging it out with her at that point, when we saw her knock so many people out. And that fight with Cyborg was you know, just so amazing and so explosive.
And you look at Cris, somebody that big. And Amanda's hitting her, and Cris finally wilted, right? So that's why I think everybody expected you to do the same thing.
But is that what it is? The will, you referenced the will. Was it more up here than a physical thing that kept you on your feet and still throwing?
JULIANNA PEÑA: I definitely think that that's a great point. Your mentality, your brain, your positive self-talk, your mental state is so important in fighting. They say that it's, you know, like, more mental than it is physical.
And I absolutely agree with that. You know? You have to know that you're the best. You have to know that you're going to win.
And you can't be deterred by these negative demons that are trying to eat your brain every single night, when the lights go out. You have to have the mental fortitude to-- to beat that. And to just be strong-minded, and have that mental fortitude to go through anything. Fight through that adversity, and know that I'm going to literally die in there, if that's what I have to do and I'm willing to do that. And if you're willing to do that, then you will be successful.
KEVIN IOLE: That is-- that is a crazy thing. When you had the rematch, you know, you knew you were going to get the rematch because she had earned it with her, the long run that she was on and everything. But did you ever think of doing 45 just because saying, hey, now I'll get both belts, and if I beat her a second time?
JULIANNA PEÑA: You know, I think that there's going to be-- there's a-- people are going to get mad at me. And then there is a little bit of a flip side to, there's girls that just obviously can't make 135. But for the most part, the 45 division, which has two people in it, honestly?
I really can't name more than 2. It's just girls in the 35 that don't want to cut weight. So then they just move up to 35.
Then they had to create a whole 'nother division at 125. Because Valentina couldn't beat Amanda 2 times. So then they went and cut weight and-- and created a division for her to move down to 125.
The real fights, the-- the-- the best fights, are at 135. And-- and I don't want to put the cart before the horse. But my main focus is staying at 35.
Now that I've become the champion, I have opened up the door to a whole list of girls that you know, are gunning at a shot at me. And that is what I wanted. That is what I called for.
And I'm in this division to fight the best of the best. And so I got a lot of work to be done at 135 before I start being lazy and not wanting to make the weight class anymore.
KEVIN IOLE: I don't want to get-- make this sound more than it is, but you're fighting in the main event. And of course, you know, Ronda Rousey's fought in a main event a number of times. And there have been women that have fought in the main event.
But in title fights it's rare that this happens, right? You see like, Amanda-- I mean, excuse me, Valentina fights a lot of times. She's that co-main. And you have a male fight.
The fact that they put you guys as the main event, that it means that they expect you to deliver and put on a show, right? They want that main event. They don't want to have a 15-second injury, like over the last 2 weeks, I guess, there's some jinx on you Guys, Right? But they expect a show, right? I imagine that you feel that, that honor of living up to that.
JULIANNA PEÑA: You know, I don't want to make the moment be bigger than what it is. And I can't be all like, "Oh my gosh, I'm the main event," or anything like that. I'm just going to go get in that fight. Supposedly we're going to be fighting for 25 minutes. And that's just my main focus.
If they put me first on the card, if they put me last on the card, it makes no difference to me. The most important thing is that I know what kind of fighter I am. And I know what kind of fighter Amanda is.
And I know that no matter what, when that cage door closes, there will be sparks. There will be fireworks. And it's going to be a show, no matter where we're at on the card.
And with that being said, you know, I'm very honored, as a matter of fact, to be the main event. And it's an exciting time for me. And I'm ready.
KEVIN IOLE: Do you feel you broke her last time? I mean, a lot of people thought when she tapped, that was a sign that mentally she broke. And you know, that once you break, then you never get back. What-- how do you look at that?
JULIANNA PEÑA: Well, it's hard to say that I broke her. Because she's saying the whole time that she broke herself. And that herself was, you know, she has 100 reasons why she lost to me that night.
And there's all these excuses that she has. But I definitely think that anytime that you've gone to look back at any of Amanda's fights, you can see that when the going gets tough, and if it's not going her way, she'll wilt and she'll quit. And I definitely think that that's what happened in my fight. It wasn't that she was tired. It wasn't that she was gassed.
It was that I punched her and she didn't know where she was. And that resulted in her tapping out. And that's just me having a strong will, and a "never giving up" type of an attitude.
KEVIN IOLE: I know you can't plan these things. But I wonder, does it mean you have to start a little faster this time? Because if you start fast, and let's say you'll whack her in the first 20, 30 seconds with a big shot.
Maybe it puts a little, lets a little doubt creep in. And as you said before, a lot of this is mental, nonphysical. Do you think a quick start is imperative for you?
JULIANNA PEÑA: You know, I think that if you go back to any of Amanda's fights and look at her in the first round, that she is an explosive, powerful, sprint type of an athlete. And that she is the most dangerous in the first round. I've never seen her lose a first round.
And so I think that with that being said, it doesn't matter. Like you said, you can't really, you know, predict a future on what's going to happen. I just know that whatever she brings, I will be ready for. And I will be able to react and to bring my own set of-- of power. And I'll be ready for everything that comes my way.
KEVIN IOLE: How has life changed, as a champion? I mean, you struggled around for a long time to get to the top. You had some time off.
You had a lot of things that happened in your life. Now that you're the Champion, describe what that means to you. Not just on Saturday night, when they refer to-- you're the last to walk, and they refer to you as the Champion. But in your everyday life, how does it affect you?
JULIANNA PEÑA: Let's see. Sometimes when I'm with somebody that will name drop, other than me, I get seated at a restaurant faster than having to wait for an hour and a half. So that's nice. Otherwise, in my regular day to day, I can tell you my 4-year-old doesn't give a hoot.
And neither does any of the regular people that I'm around that's around me, either. I remember when I came home you know, for about the first hour, I was like, "Ma, Mac and cheese. Give me my water."
And then like, after the hour and a half was up, they're like, "You got two legs, girl. Get up and get it yourself." You know? So I like the fact that I have people that are around me to keep me humble and to keep me grounded.
I think that's a really important aspect to have in my life. Because at the end of the day, you know, MMA is still a growing sport.
KEVIN IOLE: Yeah.
JULIANNA PEÑA: And when I go to regular places, it's like, no one knows who I am, you know. But that's my job, is to go to these places so that they do know who I am, so that maybe I can get some more of that champ love. But it's a work in progress. I'm not satisfied to have won the first time.
I still got a lot of work to do. And if I can do that on Saturday, maybe I can get some more people that will care about the sport and care about me. And-- and maybe instead of just me getting sat first, I'll be able to get a free meal.
KEVIN IOLE: (LAUGHS) No, exactly. Now, maybe you get a SportsCenter Top 10 on Saturday night. You know what that would entail, right? Then who knows what free things you're going to get?
JULIANNA PEÑA: Yeah. Hey, if it's free, I want two.
KEVIN IOLE: Well, it's going to be free for me to watch this and I'm going to be excited to see it. Julianna Peña is going to fight Amanda Nunes on Saturday, in the Main Event of UFC 277. Julianna, always fun talking to you. The best of luck. I can't wait to see the fight on Saturday.
JULIANNA PEÑA: Thank you so much for the time, Kevin. I appreciate it. I'll see you later.
KEVIN IOLE: Be well, champ. See you.
JULIANNA PEÑA: You too.