Julianna Peña believed. She might have been the only one.
Peña entered Saturday night’s UFC 269 co-main event as a 6½-to-1 betting underdog against Amanda Nunes, and who could argue with that? She was up against the greatest fighter in the history of women’s MMA, and a two-division champion.
Amanda Nunes walked into T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas to defend her bantamweight championship. Now Nunes only owns the featherweight title.
Peña did exactly what she had been saying she would do in the leadup to this bantamweight title fight. She said she would go right at Nunes. She said she would make Nunes quit.
To many, including this observer, Peña’s words sounded like nothing but empty bluster. The 32-year-old from Spokane, Washington was just 1-1 in her last two fights, and as recently as 2020 had been choked out by a kickboxer. What threat could she possibly pose to Nunes, the No. 1 fighter in the ESPN women’s pound-for-pound rankings and a winner of 12 straight fights, in a run of success that extends all the way back to 2015? I was not alone in casting this title bout as a mismatch.
And it started out looking like one. Peña did come forward, as she said she would, but throughout the first round Nunes beat her to the punch again and again. Nunes took Peña to the canvas midway through the round and dominated her there. It was looking like another day at the office for the GOAT.
Then it wasn’t. Round 2 began with Peña once again coming forward, but this time her jabs were landing. So was the occasional right hand. Nunes was returning fire, but without her usual precision. The champ was loading up with power, but she missed again and again, and all that did was tire her out.
Julianna Pena says confidence was the key after dethroning Amanda Nunes with a shocking submission win at UFC 269.
By the middle of the round, the defending champ looked to be fading, and that only emboldened the challenger. After backing up Nunes with her strikes, Peña took the fight to the canvas and immediately locked in a rear-naked choke. Nunes quickly tapped.
Shocker of all shockers.
This was the biggest upset in MMA history. I know, the betting odds do not quite align with that claim — Peña was technically the fourth-biggest underdog ever to win a title fight — but consider the sport’s previous huge surprises.
Purely by the numbers, the greatest MMA upset was Holly Holm‘s 2015 knockout of Ronda Rousey. That was a shocker, too, considering that Rousey was undefeated and had finished her four most recent previous opponents in 66, 16, 14 and 34 seconds. Rousey was as dominant a force as the sport has ever seen. But Holm had been a three-division world champion in boxing. Her resume at that time far outshined what Peña brought into Saturday’s fight.
Much the same could be said of Matt Serra, who was a +850 underdog on the night in 2007 when he knocked out the great Georges St-Pierre. Serra might not stand head and shoulders above Peña in terms of MMA accomplishments, but the GSP he defeated that night was a brand new champion still young in the game.
Nunes, by comparison, has long been entrenched at the top of the sport. She had not lost a fight since 2014, and she owns victories over all the greatest in women’s MMA history. Rousey. Holm. Cris Cyborg. Valentina Shevchenko, twice. Not a soul on Earth would have disputed the 33-year-old Brazilian’s claim as the GOAT.
So when Nunes feebly tapped out to the choke at 3:26 of Round 2, T-Mobile Arena erupted with the kind of noise made by fans who’ve just witnessed history. Improbable history.
Improbable to us, for sure, but not improbable to Julianna Peña.
“I’m not surprised, motherf—ers!” Peña exclaimed when the microphone was put in front of her afterward inside the cage. She was quoting what Nate Diaz had said, much to the amusement of the fans, after he choked out Conor McGregor in 2016. The crowd roared in appreciation for Peña’s recitation as well.
Few, if any, in that crowd believed Peña had what it took to beat Nunes. But her belief in herself carried Peña to a moment that will go down in the annals of UFC history.
“I told you,” added Peña. “Don’t ever doubt me again. Willpower, strength and determination, it will take you places.”