Really, there was no other way. Jessica Rakoczy swept a frozen Raquel Pennington on the judges' scorecards, and just like that, Saturday's TUF 18 Finale was set with dual Team Rousey vs. Team Tate finals on the men's and women's bracket, just the way it should be. Hollywood couldn't have scripted it any better. (Well, except for the two botched weight cuts and random clip show. But whatever, you get the idea.)
Now that the final episode has come and gone, I thank all of you for joining Julianna Pena and I for this historic season of The Ultimate Fighter. A few bumps in the road may have slowed things down at times, but hopefully you had some fun along the way. So with that said, for the final time, let's hear from our finalist.
Al-Shatti: Real quick to start, on a conference call earlier this week I heard you say something about how Ronda Rousey messed with your food. Wait, what now?
Pena: Well I didn't mean her, I meant Marina (Shafir), but I mean, there's no difference if you ask me. They were all in the kitchen and I didn't want to be around them, so I stepped outside as I put my chicken on bake in the oven. Then when I came back it was on high broil. The whole thing was smoking up. Basically they were just trying to ruin my food, but I caught it in time. It was just annoying.
Al-Shatti: Messing with someone's food? That's cold-blooded. How'd you know it was Marina?
Pena: The house sold her out. They were all in the kitchen sitting there talking about me, I'm pretty sure, and then when I came back in I checked it and it was smoking. Later on the rest of the cast told me it was Marina. I thought it was pretty weak.
Al-Shatti: Alright, well getting back to the episode, it's finally official. It's you vs. Jessica in the finale. Were you surprised Raquel seemed to freeze up?
Pena: It did surprise me, for sure. I didn't know what was happening there, but I thought that she could've done more to win that fight. She didn't, for whatever reason.
Al-Shatti: During your time in the house, were you at all close to Jessica?
Pena: No, I wasn't. She didn't really like me too much, I guess, so I didn't speak to her.
Al-Shatti: It's kind of weird how this all played out. Yeah, it's Team Tate vs. Team Rousey, but it's also the first pick (you) vs. the last pick (Jessica). Have you thought about that?
Pena: Well, I have a problem with reading too much into things, so that just... it almost freaks me out in a sense. First pick against last pick, it's like a true underdog thing. In the beginning I was a total underdog and nobody thought I was good. Everyone treated me like a chump, and I was definitely the underdog in all my fights. And now I'm fighting the person who was picked last, who some people didn't perceive as a threat. It's kind of weird to wrap my head around it. I still haven't been able to, but I embrace it all.
I don't view myself as a favorite or an underdog or anything like that. I'd like to talk trash all day and say I'm going to win, I'm going to be the best, I'm number one, but I've seen MMA for many years now and I believe that anything can happen in there. I'm looking at her as one serious, serious threat. Threat to my career and threat to my ego, threat to me as a person and a human. She's trying to take my unborn baby and it's not going to happen.
Al-Shatti: Some of these girls have been in this game forever, but really, you're still so young. You just started this, and now you're officially a UFC fighter. Did you ever, at any time, think this could actually happen?
Pena: Absolutely not. I honestly believed Dana the first time he said women would never fight in the UFC. I wasn't expecting him to change his mind, so I always thought it was just going to be a pipe dream. Now that it's actually a real thing, it's very mind-blowing. It's just crazy to know that the UFC has opened up the division and it's just... it really is somewhat of a dream come true. This is why women get in the game. This is why we fight. We want to be respected and we want to be recognized as UFC fighters, just like the men.
Al-Shatti: So it's safe to say this is all surreal to you now that it's actually about to happen?
Pena: It is. When I had my first amateur fight, the gloves that I used were the UFC gloves you can buy at the store. I remember thinking I was being a poser, so I quit using them. I'm not a UFC fighter. Women aren't allowed to fight in the UFC. I didn't use them anymore, I didn't fight with them on. But now, it's real life. I'm wearing the gloves, and I can legitimately wear everything UFC and be able to back it up and legitimately say when somebody asks me what I do for a profession, I'm a professional UFC fighter. That's kind of crazy. It kind of sets of a whole different tone for when you first meet people.
I met a woman the other day who had no legs and no hands, she had meningitis, and she said, ‘well what do you do for a living?' I said, well, I'm a UFC fighter. And she just thought that was amazing. It was pretty cool. Not everybody can say that. Everybody wants to say that, I train UFC, I do UFC, but it's real for me.
Al-Shatti: In many ways, this is a two-part process. Part one is fighting and living in the house, but then the second part is all mental, this weird, agonizing wait for finality. How do you feel like you've grown in the months since taping?
Pena: Mentally I feel like I've grown in the sense that I can't continue to be so hard on myself. That's easy to say, but it's something that I'm still working with on a daily basis. I try as best as I can to not be so hard on myself, but it's something that... I don't know, I guess I have high expectations. I got into this sport wanting to be the champion, and I got into this sport really, truly believing that I was one of the toughest girls in the world. Maybe not as tough as Cyborg or something like that, but I'm willing to take that chance and fight her one day.
I just hate the idea that somebody thinks they're tougher than me. This is my sport, this is my thing, and I don't like the idea of letting some girl try to take that away from me. It makes me continue to push harder. So yeah, maybe I might be a little hard of myself, but I think it's merited. This is not an easy thing. It's not something that's going to come easily to you. You have to work hard and I like that.
Al-Shatti: It seems like your time in the house, without question, was a mixed bag. I'm sure it was an incredible journey, but it also appeared like you battled through a lot of negativity from your fellow castmates. Looking back on it now, how do you view this experience?
Pena: I definitely view it as a blessed opportunity. Looking back on it now, I realize that in order for me to have made it to the finals, and in order for me to have been successful on The Ultimate Fighter, everything had to play out exactly how it did. It's a good thing they were against me and it's a good thing they pigeonholed me, in a sense. It was the gasoline that made my truck go. It was the fuel that lit my fire and made me successful enough to make it to the finale.
If they would've been kissing my ass and I would've been the most popular girl in the house, I don't know if I would've been as successful. You look to the left, you've got to knock this person's head off. You look to the right, you've got to knock this person's head off. You've got to kill these people. If they would've been nicer, I don't think it would've benefitted me in any way. So looking back, I just realized that I'm grateful that's exactly how it played out. That's what I needed to push forward, that's the kind of motivation that I needed to prove all them wrong.
Al-Shatti: Well, it's finally here. Tell me, when the lights draw low Saturday night, and you're walking out into a flood of screaming fans, what do you think that moment is going to be like?
Pena: It's going to feel surreal, and at the same time, I'm not going to focus half a second on any of that. I'm not going to be looking at the crowd. I'm not going to be looking at Bruce Buffer, waiting for him to call my name. I probably won't even hug my corners. I'm just going to go and get in there and take care of business. It's all business. I'm going to do the best I can to just focus and channel being a cold-hearted killer.
Jamesglory asks: Do you personally think Ronda and her coaching staff, could have done better with the weight cut problems? How can this be improved for the future series?
Pena: I'm not sure because I wasn't a part of their team and I don't know what they were doing as far as weight cutting goes. But do it think it can be improved in the future? Maybe weigh your heaviest fighter on a daily basis and literally keep track of them like that? Maybe not come to house and bring them burgers and Armenian barbecue.
John Duck Kim asks: Now that you've been confirmed as a finalist, how has your life in public been lately? Lots of autograph/photo requests? Do people hang out near your house? Do you see more people who you've never seen cling to you? What's changed most in your life?
Pena: Yeah, I've been going to a couple MMA shows and people have me sign their cell phones and have my sign their Carhartt jackets and stuff. To me, I'm such a normal person, I'm just like, people, it's reality TV! This is not a big deal! And then I think about how I was when I saw a fighter that I loved, the superstars in my eyes. I realize how excited I was the first time I met Cris Cyborg, or the first time I met any huge celebrity. I was star struck. So to me it's actually very humbling, and it makes me feel pretty good that they're taking the time and they want my signature, they want my picture. It's really crazy. I'll sit there and do that all day, that's the easy part.
The part I don't like is when they've been drinking and they get grabby, and they want to touch me and feel on me, and be really demanding of me. Like, hey, little girl, over here right now! Excuse me? Who do you think you are? Guys will point to me and corral me over to them. Na, I'm not going over there. You're trippin'. That's probably the thing that's changed the most.
cusecopper asks: Don't think anyone has asked this of you yet on this board, but what are your thoughts on returning to TUF as a captain of one of the teams? Team Pena vs. Team Baszler in TUF 22!
Pena: Sign me up! (Laughs.) Absolutely. The thing that's most appealing is that I'm a Leo lion. I like to be in charge, I like to be the boss. I like to dictate and have people do whatever I tell them... except in my gym nobody listens to me or does what I say or takes me very seriously. (Laughs.) But I think it would be awesome!
logan48227 asks: Aside from yourself, who do you think handled the TUF experience the best in the house?
Pena: Christopher Holdsworth.
@Heidroe asks: After going through TUF do you have a better understanding of what it takes to be the champ?
Pena: I don't know because I've never been the champ before. I mean, in my head, I've been a champ for like 24 years. In my head, I'm freakin' one bad mamma pajamba. I don't have the belt around my waist so I can't say that I'm the true champion, but in my own mind I already am. Maybe if I get the belt one day, I'll know what it takes to be the champion. I haven't gotten there yet, but I'm looking forward to getting there.
The Ultimate Fighter 18 is over, folks. Catch the live finale this Saturday night at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT on FOX Sports 1. Thanks for joining us all season! Portions of this interview have been edited for concision.
(Editor's note: Watch Pena's recent appearance on The MMA Hour below.)