On November the 30th 2013, a highly talented young Washingtonian came of age in front of an adoring crowd at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nevada. Having seen her journey throughout the process of The Ultimate Fighter, Julianna Peña was becoming a darling of the MMA world. Possessing good looks, likeability and enough talent to take her to the forefront of the division, ‘The Venezuelan Vixen’ was on the cusp of WMMA’s favourite buzz phrase of the time, ‘Crossover Appeal’.
4-2 in professional MMA when she entered the show, Peña won a comprehensive decision over Alaskan career Featherweight Gina Mazany in the preliminary round, and took her place in the house expected to be picked early by one of the two coaches. Bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey won the toss, and chose to pick the first fight, leaving Miesha Tate with her pick of the fighters. With Cody Bollinger, formerly on the books of Bellator.
And knockout artist Chris Beal going to Tate and Rousey respectively, there was a glaringly obvious first pick on the women’s side. The highly ranked and hugely experienced ‘Queen of Spades’ Shayna Baszler was the consensus favourite, but Tate who lives in Spokane, WA and is an occasional real-life training partner of Peña, went with the Venezuelan instead.
With huge pressure already on Julie’s shoulders, Rousey compounded that by matching the two first-round picks first up. In a season that started with as much rivalry as any in history and as much anticipation as to how the Rousey-Tate dynamics would play out as ever seen on The Ultimate Fighter, Julianna Peña vs Shayna Baszler was shaping up as one of the most important fights in the show’s history.
Pena vs Baszler in The Ultimate Fighter
In a close-fought opening round, Peña exploited her advantage over Baszler on the feet but was also forced to escape numerous submission attempts from her seasoned rival. In the second, Peña flew off of her seat and landed hard knee strikes early on to set the tone of the round. She took a dazed Baszler to the ground at the midway point and achieved back mount. Julianna eventually submitted Baszler with a rear-naked choke after 3 minutes of the second round and emerged as a much-fancied favourite for the tournament.
The run would continue as she submitted Sarah Moras in a rematch from April 2012, when a doctor’s stoppage saw Moras victorious, before stopping experienced boxer Jessica Rakoczy in the finale.
Seen by many as a real threat to those at the top of the division, Peña was booked to face Brazilian contender Jessica Andrade at UFC 171 in a huge test of her UFC ready status. However, a devastating knee injury put paid to all of that.
Training in her home state of Washington out of Sikjitsu, Rick Little’s camp that also houses UFC Lightweight Michael Chiesa and Featherweight Sam Sicilia, Peña suffered a torn ACL, MCL, LCL, Meniscus and Hamstring whilst grappling with a male training partner. With just about the most comprehensive knee injury in the sport’s history, the Venezuelan was confirmed out for two years almost immediately – and Dana White was furious.
The UFC President took to twitter to share his anger and claimed that Peña should leave the gym, which sparked a response from an irked Rick Little, head coach of the Spokane gym. As the days went on, more was found out about the injury and its nature. Ariel Helwani suggested his sources informed him that the injury was largely the fault of Peña’s own over enthusiasm, whilst Peña herself confirmed Dana White’s allegations that she had been essentially bullied and attacked by a male teammate.
Promising Big Things At Bantamweight
Whatever the cause, for the promising bantamweight it became less about whose fault it was, and more about a daunting two year rehabilitation. Fast forward to today, and Peña is 3 and a half weeks out from a return, an ahead-of-schedule 16 and a half months from her last fight. ‘Julie’ is slated to take on Milana Dudieva, an 11-3 Russian who like Peña, is 25, is 1-0 in the UFC and is making a return after a longer layoff than she would have liked.
As Dudieva is back after a win over Elizabeth Phillips back in August. The fight will take place at the Patriot Centre in Fairfax, Virginia. The headline attraction will be a huge Featherweight battle, with former Jose Aldo victims Chad Mendes and Ricardo Lamas jostling for position.
There are many recent instances of fighters returning from long lay-offs to post some of their most impressive ever performances. Chael Sonnen returned from an ignominious spell on the shelf against Brian Stann back at UFC 136 and looked hugely improved in all aspects from the fighter he was. More pertinent, Dominick Cruz returned last year after a knee injury put him out for 3 full years.
Only to draw even greater compliment against Takeya Mizugaki than he did as Bantamweight champion. Peña, at only 25 years of age and possessing an admirable positive attitude is a prime contender to do the same. With a ready-made feud with top dog Ronda Rousey from her time on TUF, and a really unknown ceiling of potential, ‘The Venezuelan Vixen’ could be set to be a big part of a new-look top 10 hunting Ronda Rousey down.
Images courtesy of mmamania.com & ufc.com