It's been a long road back to the Octagon for The Ultimate Fighter 18 season winner Juliana Pena. After winning the season, Pena was on the fast track in the division before a devastating knee injury in January of 2014 sidelined her momentum and career.
At UFC Fight Night 63 on Saturday in Fairfax, Virginia, Pena was able to get her career back on track with a dominating win over Milana Dudieva. So dominant was her win, 'The Venezuelan Vixen' scored a Performance of the Night bonus.
Pena was moved enough by the award that she had to hold back tears at the post-fight press conference.
"I'm just happy to be here and I'm pumped to get back in the cage. It's been a really long and grueling road this last year and a half trying to get my knee back to where it was and now that I'm here, I just gotta stay positive. I gotta believe in myself and I most certainly do," Pena told the media.
"I don't want to talk about [the bonus] because I'm going to start crying. That's the best thing that's ever happened to me. It really is.
"It's surreal. It feels like a blur here. It really does."
Pena declined to specify the financial hardships she's suffered through in her time away from the Octagon. She did note, however, that winning the money wasn't just financially beneficial, but somewhat of a career milestone as well.
"It's extremely emotional for me," she said. "When I was on The Ultimate Fighter, I finished everybody on that show. At the end of the season, the fans got to vote on who they think could get the bonuses. I didn't get Submission of the Season. I didn't get Fight of the Season. I didn't get any bonuses on that.
"When I fought in the finale, Gray Maynard and Nate Diaz stole my knockout money, so I didn't get that. I feel like I'm never getting bonused on anything and that's probably my fault for being out for a year, but it's just a blessing so much of over emotions that are flowing through me right now because I really needed it," Pena argued.
As for going forward, Pena told the media she wants to beat a top 5-ranked opponent to get to the ultimate goal, a title shot. If asked on a hypothetical basis how ready she is, Pena said she'd be able to fill in for Bethe Correia opposite Ronda Rousey if it ever came to that.
For now, though, she said she's enjoying the win and relieved to have finally earned the performance bonus nod from UFC management.
"What a blessing," she noted. "What a blessing to be working for this company and to be representing the UFC. I'm honored."