With the ever-changing rotation of contenders coming and going in the UFC’s bantamweight division, one name has emerged as a top choice to face current champion Amanda Nunes. That’s 26-year-old Julianna Peña, who scored her biggest win to date taking out Cat Zingano at UFC 200. Since winning The Ultimate Fighter reality show, she’s gone 4-0 in the UFC.
And she’s ready for her title shot.
In fact, she’s to the point where it feels a little absurd for her to have to lobby for it. While making an appearance on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour, she said she believes her resume speaks for itself — particularly with the last remaining fighter in the top five who is coming off a victory.
"It is annoying," Peña told Ariel Helwani. "It’s annoying and it’s embarrassing. I feel like I shouldn’t have to do this song and dance and shout off of the rooftops like a wild, screaming banshee being like, ‘gimme my title shot!’ Holly [Holm] beat the oldest lady in the division, Marion Reneau. She beat like two old ladies, then she fought to a draw, which was like a coin flip as to who won the fight, [Raquel] Pennington or Holly, and she gets a title shot out of thin air. Bethe Correia beat Shayna Baszler, who didn’t get past me on The Ultimate Fighter and she gets a title shot just by waving her hands, you know.
"Miesha [Tate] got her second title shot after being 1-0, against Ronda [Rousey], after she beat Jessica Eye she got another title shot to campaign against Holly. I beat Jessica Eye, nothing happens. I beat Shayna Baszler, nothing happens, and Shayna Baszler was in the top 10 back then. I keep beating these people that other people have beat and they get title shots, and I don’t get title shots, it is annoying. But I know that in anything in life you’ve got to work hard and you’ve got to work for stuff. If I want this I just have to keep working, and that’s what I plan on doing."
Peña has been impressive since returning from a severe knee injury suffered in early 2014, scoring wins over Milana Dudieva and Eye. In her last fight, in which she was installed as an underdog against the high-ranked Zingano, she overcame some early adversity to take a unanimous decision.
In the aftermath of that fight, Amanda Nunes — who took the title from Tate on that same card in emphatic fashion, winning via first round submission (rear-naked choke) — stated that she wasn’t overly impressed with Peña’s performance.
"Well, I’m not impressed with her performance when she fought Cat Zingano either," Peña said in response.
And when thinking back to Nunes’ other suggestion that Valentina Shevchenko — who defeated Holly Holm at UFC on FOX 20 on Saturday — should fight Peña next to determine a challenger for her crown, Peña laughed. She said she’s more than proved her worthiness since coming into the UFC via TUF in 2013.
"I don’t know how many more times I can prove myself," she said. "You know, when I was on The Ultimate Fighter it was just Ronda and Miesha winning back then, while I was winning on The Ultimate Fighter. When The Ultimate Fighter got out, Ronda was still winning and then I got injured, and then when I came back I was still winning. I’ve been winning this whole entire time. I’ve been winning since I stepping foot in the UFC Octagon. I’ve been consistently winning since stepping on the show. I don’t know how much more I can improve myself.
"I think that that’s pretty funny. It just sounds like [Nunes]’s ducking the both of us, because she’s just had gotten a fight with Valentina, she knows what she’s working with. And she knows that I’m just getting warmed up and a five-round fight with me would be atrocious. She knows I’m going to stand right there in the pocket with her and throw blows. So I definitely don’t think that she welcomes that, and she’s kind of biding her time as much as she can."
When the tweet was clarified to possibly mean that Shevchenko might be the one Nunes was saying needed to further prove herself, Peña doubled down.
"I don’t know what the heck she’s saying," she said. "[Nunes] needs to prove herself a little more. You’re the champion, you should be expecting any and all on-comers at any given point in time."
Peña said that she wasn’t surprised to see Shevchenko upset Holm in Chicago.
"I’ve been saying for a while now that ‘Harmless Holly’ couldn’t hurt a fly," she said. "And especially in a five-round fight."
Asked if she thought Holm was overrated, Peña expressed her frustration.
‘A little bit," she said. "I think she kind of got thrown into the mix and got into the top ten beating up some people that have not been around as long. So I think she got really lucky with the choices of opponents she’s had."
Since Rousey lost the belt to Holm at UFC 193, the belt has since changed hands twice more. Meanwhile, some of the top contenders — like Zingano — have been knocked off their perch, as well. Peña said the tumult within the women’s bantamweight division over the last eight months was something she predicted would happen if Rousey were to fall.
She also said it was ultimately a good thing to see the spotlight extending to other areas of the division.
"I have no idea," she said. "I just know that the division has been changing a lot now that Ronda is not the champion, and this is what I knew was going to happen after that.
"Just because Ronda’s been a one-trick pony who’s kind of been being able to rack up all these wins and being so dominant. I knew the second that she would lose it would be more of an open division for the rest of us and once she was exposed, that it would be a lot harder for her to first off get back in there, and second off get back in there and win her belt back. I think it’s good for the other girls to finally show the world that there are other 135-pound women out there other than Ronda Rousey."
One scenario that lingers out there is the possibility that Rousey comes back from her hiatus, and is given the title shot against Nunes. UFC president Dana White has stated that when Rousey returns, she will get first crack at the title, regardless of any meritocratic order that has been established during her absence.
Asked if she thought that is fair, the "Venezuelan Vixen" said ultimately it wasn’t. But then again, she understands why that would be the case.
"No, I don’t think it’s fair, absolutely not," she said. "But, I know that Ronda is a big part of the reason why we have a division in the first place. So you’ve got to pay respect where respect is due, and I definitely respect her for the fact that she was blazing trails in order to get us into the UFC in the first place. She’s a big name, she’s the money fight, and they definitely want to see her with her belt back. If she decides to come back, I’m sure that they’re going to give it to her."
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