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Pregnant Julianna Pena explains decision to put UFC career on hold, timetable for return

Julianna Pena hasn’t been seen in a UFC cage since January — and now we know why.

Pena revealed this past weekend that she is pregnant with her first child and has decided to put her MMA career on hold while she prepares for the big day. In an appearance Monday on The MMA Hour, the UFC bantamweight contender elaborated on her situation, explaining that she is expecting a baby girl with her fiancée, Louis. “The Venezuelan Vixen” also alleviated any concern that her fighting career may be over, stating that she intends to return to the UFC once she is able to do so in 2018.

“I think that I’ve always wanted to be a mother,” Pena explained Monday on The MMA Hour. “That’s something that I always wanted to do, I’ve always wanted to have kids. And I think that, coming from a large family, it’s just always something that was kinda innate in me as a kid growing up, just always to have that motherly thing that I can call my own. So I think things just started to fall into place. Once you deem yourself worthy and you find yourself in a good spot, and then you find a man that is worthy of you — things just kinda fell into place that way and I fell in love, and I just think that it was the right timing for me.”

Pena said she and her fiancée plan to name their first child Isabella, although they nearly settled on the name Valentina, which would’ve been a remarkable turn of events considering that’s the same name of the only woman to hand Pena a loss in the UFC: Valentina Shevchenko.

Regardless, Pena said she was excited to begin the next chapter of her life. She expects to give birth to Isabella sometime in the beginning of January, and she admitted that the timing of her announcement — and keeping her pregnancy a secret for most of 2017 — was a purposeful decision.

“It wasn’t something that I was wanting to divulge to the fans,” Pena said. “If you think about it, in like four days, I’ll be in my seventh month of pregnancy. And so I think that they didn’t know that I was pregnant, and then in three more months I’ll be popping out the baby, and then I can get back to business as soon as I get the whole motherhood thing and working out schedule down pat, and get back into shape, and then get back into fighting shape and a fight camp. So I think it’s just one of those things where I didn’t want them to think that I was going to be out forever now that I’m having a baby.”

Pena, 28, is currently the third-ranked women’s bantamweight on the UFC roster. The winner of The Ultimate Fighter 18, Pena has racked up a 4-1 record since the conclusion of the show — a run highlighted by decision wins over Cat Zingano and Jessica Eye.

Pena admitted that she isn’t sure how the next year of her life will play out, however she made it abundantly clear that she “absolutely” intends to continue her UFC career as soon as she can.

“I think this is just going to give me something more to fight for, and I think it’s going to be exciting,” Pena said. “I know that a lot of people think that I’m not going to be able to do it, and it’s just one of those things where I’ve been having to continue to prove myself. I’ve went through some crazy experiences in my life where, if I can come back from those experiences, I know for a fact that I’m going to be able to come back from this type of experience. And not to mention, there’s a lot of beautiful women that fight in the UFC and they’re mothers as well, so I think those girls are kinda an inspiration and they definitely are killers in their own right. So I just look forward to seeing what kind of fighter I am after giving birth.”

Pena said she is currently targeting an Octagon return in “maybe eight months to a year,” although she admitted that her goals may be a tad too ambitious. All of this is new for her, after all.

“It’s kinda a difficult thing because I’ve never given birth, and all of my sisters have given birth and their timelines are different,” Pena said. “With me coming from a professional athlete aspect, I think it’s a little bit different because I’m used to working out, I’m used to being in camp all of the time. So I think for me, I set a little goal for myself, and then when someone asks what my goal is and when I’ll come back, they just kinda giggle to themselves, and then their wife comes walking by, they’re like, ‘Haha, she thinks she’s going to take a fight in eight months,’ and the wife kinda chokes and laughs too. So I’m like, ‘Is that too soon? Am I being unrealistic?’

“So I don’t know, but I think the most important thing for me is, this is the very first time that I’m having my first baby, and I think that the bonding that you make with your child within the first year is so important, and I don’t want to be rushing so crazy back to the sense where I’m like, it’s selfish, in a camp where I’m like, ‘Screw you, baby. I’ve got to get in the Octagon and go get in a fistfight.’ I want to make sure that my baby is loved and that I have everything scheduled, and to make sure that I can deal with the pressures of being a mother. Then if I can add more onto that, then I will.”

When Pena does return, she’ll return to a bantamweight division that may look very different from the one she left in Jan. 2017.

Back then, before her UFC on FOX 23 fight against Shevchenko, Pena was being discussed as one of the top contenders for the women’s 135-pound title. She ended up losing that contest due to a stunning second-round armbar from the decorated striker. Pena admitted the manner of the loss left her “pretty heartbroken,” and now she intends to prove something to herself once she is able to come back next year.

“I think that I focused a little too much on putting my sights ahead of me, that I probably shouldn’t have done,” Pena said. “Everyone kept talking about the title fight, the title fight, the title fight, and I had made some comments kinda being an a-hole, and I was getting responses like, ‘Yeah, we love it, keep that going.’ And I just kinda felt like, overall, I wasn’t staying true to who I was, and I think that I just kept focusing too much getting to the title, as opposed to looking at the fight that was right in front of me. And I think that it showed in my fight. I was overzealous, I was crazy, thinking, ‘Okay, if I can just get this fight to the ground, I’ve got it.’

“I wasn’t assuming that a 17-time Muay Thai world champion had good submissions and stuff, and I just think that I was just more focused on punching a hole through her face than being smart and squaring up and doing what I needed to do and what I know I can do. So, in the back of my mind, I think, I really want to get back to the division to prove to myself that I’m better than that and it wasn’t a thing that is going to define me as a fighter. I think that it took me awhile to come to terms with the fact that I had lost, because I’m sure I cried for like three-and-a-half hours after I lost, and no one could talk to me and I was just a freaking wreck. But otherwise, I definitely think that I’m over it and I’m happy.

“I lost to Valentina that night, but I feel like I won more. I won a wonderful fiancée, who treats me amazingly, like a queen. And I won a baby, a gift of life, and a blessing from God. So at the end of the day, I think I truly won more.”

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