Last night, for the first time in The Ultimate Fighter history, 32 bantamweights, 16 males and 16 females, fought alongside each other on an equal stage, all focused on one singular goal: clearing the elimination round and entering into the TUF 18 house.
There were a few surprises along the way, yet when the dust settled, 24-year-old Julianna Pena emerged from the heap as the No. 1 overall women's pick of Team Tate. Pena will get thrown right into the fire, as she's set to square off against the season's prohibitive favorite, Team Rousey's Shayna Baszler, next week. But until then, she joins us in our weekly Thursday morning Q&A, where she'll break down all the action that took place inside the TUF house, both in front of the cameras and behind the scenes.
If you have any TUF questions you'd like to ask Pena, big or small, please write them in the comments below and she'll be sure to answer you next week. Rec'd comments will get first priority. Now with that said, let's kick off the season in style.
Al-Shatti: Welcome, Julianna! It's a pleasure. First of all, you just must be glad this show is finally airing. Has the wait been tough?
Pena: Extremely. I've been very nervous.
Al-Shatti: Nervous about what, specifically?
Pena: I have a feeling that there's going to be some embarrassing moments. I don't want to be portrayed in some sort of different light. They told us before the show started, ‘We're going to portray you exactly how you are,' so I guess I shouldn't be too nervous.
Al-Shatti: Well I'd imagine this all felt a little surreal. When you finally made it, the first women's TUF and you're inside that gym, and Dana White is giving his speech -- what's that moment like?
Pena: It's extremely motivating. We're standing there and he's talking to us saying, ‘You don't want to be that person on the bus who didn't give their 110-percent and lay it all on the line tomorrow. You don't want to be that person.' I'm just shaking my head up and down, yes sir! (Laughs.) You got it. It's so true. I don't want to be that person tomorrow, and that's exactly what I did.
It's very validating. I come from a town that I've lived in my whole entire life. Some people tell me to quit fighting. A majority are kind of like, ‘Oh, you're still doing that fighting thing?' A lot of them kind of turn their noses up to it. Some of say I'm never going to make it. A lot of them want to see me get my ass kicked. So it's extremely gratifying to see myself on TV doing the damn thing. (Laughs.)
Al-Shatti: You were one of the last girls to fight to get into the house. For those that don't know, what's that process like? I'd imagine there's a ton of downtime.
Pena: Well I brought my unicorn pillow and slept on that for a bit, then I just tried to take in my surroundings. I was kind of getting freaked out, the people that I knew and had trained with (Miesha Tate and Bryan Caraway) were going to be cornering against me in my fight coming up. So that was strange.
I probably got there a good two and a half hours before I actually fought. Since I was one of the later fights, some of the people that came back inside the room were losers. They're crying, they're bawling their eyes out. You can hear people next door bawling their eyes out. It was sad. You don't really have anything to say to them, you know? It's nerve-wracking. You hear people out there yelling and you're like, ‘Oh, no. I'm going to be next.' And then you're not the next fight, you're the next one after that. You're on pins and needles, basically. You're walking on eggshells just waiting.
Al-Shatti: By the time you got out there, between the bizarre environment, the cameras and fighting an opponent on one day's notice, were you the most nervous you've ever been for a fight?
Pena: No, actually. As a matter of fact, after I won, you can see the look on my face is very serious. Most people are jumping up and down screaming. ‘Yay! I made it into the house!' I think for me, I had higher expectations of myself. I hadn't even touched the tip of the iceberg after I won that fight. I had my eyes on a bigger prize and I was thinking, this is just the beginning and I still have to win every fight after this. And then after that, maybe then I can smile.
I'm always nervous before every fight, but then once you're about to walk out, all that fear leaves you. You're not scared. It's more of an anxious feeling. You're ready to get it over and done with. I was nervous, but it wasn't the most nervous I've ever been because I expected to win.
Al-Shatti: Dana White had high praise for your fight...
Pena: It was surreal! Hearing Dana talk about me and how much he liked me, saying that the rounds could've been 10-7 rounds -- he complains about 10-8 rounds, but you never hear Dana talking about 10-7 rounds -- it was a huge compliment and it made me feel so good. Some of the other comments he made about the other fights, if that were me, I would've been devastated. I would've completely crumbled up and died! (Laughs.) But to hear him talking about my fight, and how he likes me and my style, it put a smile on my face from ear to ear.
Al-Shatti: Luckily you got into the house, but there were some huge veteran upsets along the way.
Pena: That was the biggest shock of them all! I was expecting Tara (LaRosa) and Tonya (Evinger) to definitely make it inside the house. I was thinking in my head, ‘I'm going to have to fight these girls.'
Al-Shatti: It was totally surprising. In your eyes, did that give you a sense of relief? Maybe the house wasn't going to be as difficult as you expected?
Pena: Absolutely not. Because even though they didn't win those fights, I knew that the girls they were fighting were extremely tough. Sarah Moras, I've fought her in the past. I know how good her armbar is. Tara was already talking trash, saying, ‘Oh god, if I'm going to be on Miesha's team, I'm going to hang myself from the lights.' I told her straight to her face, ‘You've got to get past Sarah Moras first, missy. That's what you should be focused on.'
I knew for sure those other two girls deserve to be in the house. I had a test ahead of me. Either way, you're fighting skilled girls who have been training longer than I have. So it was still as nerve-wracking, if not more nerve-wracking.
Al-Shatti: Even early on, it feels like the tension between Ronda and Miesha was insanely thick. Could everyone there feel it?
Pena: I can't speak for anybody else, but I could definitely feel it. I know the tension that those two have between them. It was a little awkward. Actually, it was very awkward. (Laughs.) It was very apparent. They don't like each other and you definitely know that they have some issues.
Al-Shatti: Be honest with me, at the end of the day, whose team did you want to be on?
Pena: That's a hard question for me to answer because I was not expecting Miesha to be on the season. At all. Period. So before Miesha had even been presented as a coach, I met Ronda at a UFC show and I was like, ‘Yo, I'm trying out for The Ultimate Fighter. If I make it through, you need to pick me on your team!' She and I have a great mutual friend, Cody McKenzie, who talks to Ronda. I told him, ‘Cody, you need to tell Ronda to pick me on her team.' And he told me, ‘I talked to her. Ronda's going to pick you on her team.' So I was really super stoked at the thought that I could be on Ronda's team. I love the way she finishes fights and her aggressiveness. I just, all around, admire what she does.
After my fight, Miesha jumped up and hugged me, a big hug, and it was unexpected. I was like, ‘Whoa, Miesha. What's up?' I know we've trained together in the past, but we've had our ups and downs like all girls. You stick two women in a room for a month and a half training together and there's going to be some fight, fight, bicker, bicker. I was happy to see her, but at the same time, ‘No! Don't hug me! Ronda's going to see you hugging me and she's not going to pick me on her team!' (Laughs.) But at that point it was really too late. Ronda saw that me and Miesha knew each other, and I instantly knew that she was very uncomfortable with it. When Ronda came up to me afterward, she was like, ‘You've been telling me to pick you on that team. Do you still want to be on my team?' I kind of said, ‘You know what, you're the coach. It's your decision, because obviously you know that I know Miesha, and I can tell by the look on your face, it's kind of making you uncomfortable. If you don't want me on your team, I understand. I respect that.'
Al-Shatti: So even if Miesha hadn't picked you first, you think Ronda would've skipped you?
Pena: I believe I was last on her list. When we got out of the house the last day, she informed me that she picked me last on her list because she didn't trust me with the information that she'd be sharing with her team, and I understand that.
And once I was on Miesha's team, I was very happy to be on Miesha's team. It gave me confidence to know that if you're going to be in this house with strangers, at least you'll be around a few people you're familiar with. I could talk to them like I could somebody that I've known for a long time. So it was actually a blessing to be on Miesha's team.
Al-Shatti: Looking back, what did you think of fighting Shayna Baszler right off the bat? She's arguably the favorite to win the whole show.
Pena: I knew that being the first pick put a target on my back instantly. So I thought it was crazy. When I first started fighting, I used to go to MMA shows all the time. Shayna was somebody that I rooted for in the stands. She's somebody I bought her fan t-shirt and got my picture with. She's somebody that I was like, ‘Woo-hoo! Girl fighter! She's a real one!' I was a fan of hers in the very beginning. So to think about fighting her was like, ‘What?! Are you serious?' It was crazy. It was all surreal. I couldn't believe it. But I was happy. Miesha was confident about it. She gave me confidence and she believed in me, and I believed in myself more importantly. At least, if I lost, I would be losing to the best girl in the house. So either way, it's a win-win situation for me. I made it into the house. I made it into the show, so I was okay with it.
Do you have a question for Julianna Pena? Ask it in the comments below and she'll answer you next week. The Ultimate Fighter 18 airs every Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1. Portions of this interview have been edited for concision.