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Julianna Peña wants to ‘build more hype’ before talking title shot

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Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Going into Saturday’s UFC Fight Night 63 card, it had been nearly a year-and-a-half since Julianna Pena last competed. On the heels of making history by becoming first woman ever to win The Ultimate Fighter reality series, Peña blew out her knee last February as she was preparing to fight Jessica Andrade at UFC 171.

Two other seasons of TUF passed by -- including one that introduced a whole new women’s division -- before Peña could take out her frustration against Milana Dudieva in Fairfax, Va. Maybe that’s why she was talking about challenging for the bantamweight belt sooner rather as she finally came back on the radar.

On Monday, while at an amusement park in Maryland, Peña appeared as a guest on the MMA Hour. And the "Venezuelan Vixen" said that though the victory over Dudieva felt good, she’s not trying to expedite a title shot against Ronda Rousey.

"No, they put a lot of words into my mouth all the time and they always want to bring up Ronda all the time and they always want to make it look like I have this massive beef with her," Peña told Ariel Helwani. "My issue is that I want to be a champion one day and I didn’t get into this sport to be a top ten fighter. I feel like the best approach for me is to continue to take fights and build my name out there, build some hype, and to get people interested in a fight like that. That way I can be more financially set up for myself in the future when that time does come, and I think that only happens by taking more fights.

"And so, It’s not like I think I can just leapfrog everybody and just be like, oh I beat this girl, give me a title shot. I’m not crazy, and I’m not selfish like that. So I think it just makes sense to give me a couple more fights, and then if the boss says ‘ok, you ready,’ then I’m ready. I’ll do whatever they tell me to."

Peña, now 25, represented Team Miesha Tate on TUF 18, and she was able to defeat Jessica Rakoczky (of team Rousey) at the finale in Nov. 2013. UFC president Dana White was big on Peña’s star power coming out of the show, which was one of the reasons he was so incensed to hear about the knee injury she suffered while training at Sikjitsu in Spokane, Washington.

At the time, White tweeted out that it was "the most disgusting thing I have ever heard," and that she would be out for two years. There were also pleas for Peña to relocate and find another gym in the aftermath.

Yet through her rehabilitation, Peña remained at Sikjitsu -- which also houses UFC fighters Michael Chiesa and Sam Sicilia -- and represented Rick Little’s gym when she fought this past Saturday in her return.

Asked if all of that was now water under the bridge, she said it was.

"I think it was a big misunderstanding, the whole situation of what happened with my knee," Peña said. "I made the mistake of calling [Dana] bawling my eyes out on the way to the hospital. Of course, after coming off the show he was just frantic, and that was just the way things panned out for me. And it was a little unfortunate, but like I said, it was a misunderstanding."

She said that ultimately the UFC was happy she stuck to her guns, especially after learning that the knee injury wasn’t as catastrophic as originally feared.

"I think that [Dana] knows that it’s awesome and cool of me to stay loyal to my gym that’s raised me from a babe," she said. "You know I’ve never been anywhere else. I walked into Rick Little’s gym having never thrown a punch in my life or having competed in combat sports before, so I think that it’s awesome that I’ve been able to take it this far and to stick with my coach.

"If you put time on the mat, and you work hard, then it doesn’t matter if you’re training in a hole in the wall -- which is where we used to train -- or training in the most state of the art facilities, hard work pays off. And mat time is the key is, so as I long as I’m doing that, I shouldn’t have a problem."

Peña said that since she’s in shape that she would be ready to jump back into action if asked by matchmaker Sean Shelby. When asked if she had anybody in mind to fight next, she balked at naming names.

"It’s not my style to call anybody out, or to do that kind of thing," she said.  "I heard a couple of rumors but I’ll keep that under wraps and let Sean Shelby and Dana White do their job."