Julianna Pena won The Ultimate Fighter 18 in November 2013 and tore up her knee two months later. "The Venezuelan Vixen" was out for more than a year, returning with a big win over Milana Dudieva on April 4.
Somehow Pena made it back to the Octagon before her Ultimate Fighter 18 Finale opponent Jessica Rakoczy. The former boxer has not fought since falling by TKO to Pena on Nov. 30, 2013. On Saturday, she'll make her debut in earnest against Valerie Letourneau at UFC 186 in Montreal.
So where has Rakoczy been? She told Ariel Helwani on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour that she moved back to Canada to be with her son after the series wrapped. Rakoczy now lives and trains in Hamilton, Ontario. She had previously trained in Las Vegas, but her 6-year-old son was just beginning school last year and she needed to see things through.
"I needed to start that process for him," Rakoczy said. "The timing was good. I needed to be home with my family."
Rakoczy's son Jesse is a huge part of her life. He has come to every single one of her fights since he's been born and is with her every day at the gym. She said Jesse is a big source of support and is beginning to get exactly what she does for a living.
"He didn't really understand it and now he totally understands it and it's really cute," Rakoczy said. "He brags. It's so funny how mature he has gotten in the past year.
"He sees me get punched. He sees me roll. He wants to do it now. He sees it. It's natural for him."
Rakoczy, 38, said she was booked for a fight at UFC 178 when it was scheduled for Toronto, but pulled from the card when it moved to Las Vegas. She has not minded the time off at all, because she has used it to patch up the big hole in her game: ground fighting. Rakoczy was a legitimate, multiple-time world champion in boxing, but shaky on the ground during TUF 18.
"I knew I needed to work on the ground and obviously perfect that, because I was having lot of problems there," she said. "It's something that I've been drilling like crazy. I feel so much more confident now on the ground. Before I was like a fish out of water there."
Rakoczy's regular coach Dewey Cooper, a former kickboxer and boxer, came up to Canada for her training camp.
Rakoczy (1-4, 1 NC) held her own on the show. She submitted Revelina Berto to get into the house, knocked out Roxanne Modaferri and defeated current women's bantamweight contender Raquel Pennington by unanimous decision in the semifinals.
Now, the Canadian will move down to 115 pounds, which is a much better fit for her. Rakoczy said she could barely reach 135 and would be much more natural at 125. She has also fought at 120, but this will be her first time trying to make 115. Rakoczy doesn't envision a problem.
"It didn't make sense to keep fighting at 135, but I didn't have a choice," she said. "When [UFC president Dana White] offered that to me, I was so thankful. I couldn't believe it. I was like, absolutely."
Rakoczy was a boxer for 15 years, accumulating a 33-3 record. Yet, she said being on The Ultimate Fighter, coached by Ronda Rousey, did more for her profile in a few than all that time boxing.
"It was just incredible," Rakoczy said. "That show really did change my life and I'm so thankful for it. I loved it. I loved every minute of it. I would do it again in a heartbeat."
The current 115-pound champion, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, is a striker just like Rakoczy. It might take a few victories, but that's where Rakoczy plans on being before long.
"I think that would be a great fight," she said. "And that's who I definitely want to fight. As long as Dana sets everything up and I win all my fights and I'm impressive, that's the fight I want."
Rakoczy is just two years shy of 40 with a young son. But she's not putting any timetable on her MMA career. She's still a relative novice in this new sport and getting better all the time. Rakoczy has no plans to hang up the gloves any time soon.
"I think as you get older you figure things out," she said. "I've been doing this for a longtime and I know what my body can handle. When you're younger, you just kind of go for it and you just don't care. As you get older, you get a little smarter about. I want to do this forever, but however long my body will handle it."