It's customary for UFC president Dana White and other executives to take Ultimate Fighter contestants out for dinner and drinks after the season wraps. That was the case following TUF 18 and it was at that gathering that Ronda Rousey approached Julianna Pena, Pena said.
The two women were clear enemies on the show. Pena was on the team of Rousey's rival Miesha Tate. She also beat Shayna Baszler, who went on to be one of Rousey's close friends. They exchanged words on a couple of occasions.
So Pena was surprised that Rousey, the UFC women's bantamweight champion, would come up to her in that setting.
"She said I was gonna give her a tougher fight than Miesha could ever dream about, but when that day comes, 'I'm still gonna kick your ass,'" Pena said. "That's a straight quote. I'll never forget it. In my mind, I was like, 'Girl, you're already 6 feet under and you don't even know it.'"
Pena (5-2) won TUF 18 in November 2013 and had enough heat with Rousey that it might have only take one or two wins to get her that title shot. Her presence invigorated the division -- until Pena tore essentially every ligament in her knee in January 2014.
"The Venezuelan Vixen" lost a year of her career recovering from surgery, but she'll return against Milana Dudieva at UFC Fight Night: Lamas vs. Mendes on Saturday in Fairfax, Va.
"I'm pumped," Pena said. "I feel like I had so much momentum coming off of the show and so much support and then all of a sudden I got hurt and I died. Everyone forgot about me and I fell off the face of the planet. So, it's my job to keep my face and name out there for the people out there to recognize and for the people to be aware that I'm coming back and that I didn't die and that I'm still here and that I'm still gunning for the belt."
Pena is 25 years old, probably not quite in her prime yet. And she believes she is still only about two strong wins away from a title shot. Pena wants to turn heads, not just get her hand raised, against Dudieva.
"I'm going to make it my goal to put on as exciting and devastating performance as possible," she said. "I want a finish and I want it in the first round and I want it to come in a convincing matter."
That thinking comes with a vision of the future. Pena wants nothing more than to see Rousey across the Octagon from her, maybe as early as this year.
"I think Ronda is great," Pena said. "In one sense, she's my hero. She's put women's MMA on the map and I think she is a fantastic athlete, a fantastic fighter.
"I've gotta believe I can beat anybody on any given day. Not only that, I'm not afraid of Ronda. I think that's the difference between a lot of the opponents she's faced. She's been so much the bully in the situation. No, I'm the bully. She just hasn't faced a fighter like me before."
Pena dominated on The Ultimate Fighter, finishing Baszler, Sarah Moras and Jessica Rakoczy to become the show's first female winner. The Washington state native was scheduled to face Jessica Andrade in March 2014 before getting hurt. Dudieva will represent her first true test outside of TUF.
"If I win, hopefully it'll make me a bigger star and just refresh everybody's memories and everybody's mind that I am a force to be reckoned with," Pena said.
Pena clearly has mixed feelings about Rousey. She doesn't like the champion, but respects her. More than anything, though, she wants to take her belt away.
"I wake up every morning and every night just thinking about this girl," Pena said. "She consumes a lot of my thoughts, to be honest. I'm just looking forward to the day that I see that happen."
As for that conversation the two women had after TUF 18, it was mostly one-sided. Pena plans on giving her response in the cage. The sooner, the better.
"I just smiled and nodded and I thought my own thoughts in my heard," Pena said, "which were, 'Yep, no. You're already dead.'"