Pena said Nunes agreed to fight her all the way back in 2016 after UFC 200, when she beat Cat Zingano and Nunes submitted Miesha Tate to capture the bantamweight crown. Since then, she said Nunes has gone out of her way to avoid a showdown.
A reported bout with COVID-19 that ruled Nunes out of UFC 265 was just another reminder of that for Pena, who said she’s been in training camp since March for the fight. In a way, Pena believes her prediction that Nunes would pull out is a form of mental victory over the two-division champ, whom she feels is given leeway that others don’t get.
“When you’re the champ and you have beat everybody that they put in front of you so far, you can do whatever you want, you can do wrong,” Pena said on The MMA Hour. “I would be, I’m sure, when I get there, pulling the same moves. But at the same time, if you’re not going to fight for the belt at 135 pounds, and if the weight cut is an issue, or if you don’t want to come down and compete at this weight class any more, then we’ve got to keep the division pushing.
“I think other fighters that have had the belt have been stripped for less. [Former UFC flyweight champion] Nicco Montano didn’t even get a break at all. They were just like, ‘You’re done.’ So they stripped her right away. And in the men’s division, too, I feel like they strip people a lot faster.”
When Pena showed up at UFC 265 to support her training partner Michael Chiesa and show the world she was ready to fight, she said she didn’t hesitate to point out to UFC President Dana White that the headliner of the pay-per-view event was an interim heavyweight fight put together just four months after Francis Ngannou had claimed the crowd.
“He literally told me you can’t even compare the two,” Pena said of the UFC boss’ reaction.
Pena doesn’t fault White, whom she said has “always done right by me” and “been there to back me up” when she needs help. She’s more frustrated with the circumstances she’s been asked to endure, and she pins that on Nunes and her reps at American Top Team.
When she said she confronted ATT owner Dan Lambert about the three-month delay, he couldn’t give her a straight answer on why a COVID positive would push the fight back so far.
“He gave the shrug and starts looking around, but the reality is this guy is in Dana White’s back pocket, and they’re close friends, and so they’re going to make happen whatever’s best for them,” she said. “They’re very smart and methodical about how they do these things. I think that that’s what it was – whatever works best for them. And Dana’s told me, when you’ve done as much for the division as Amanda has, you get away with a lot more and you have leeway in the company, and she has been showing that hand over fist.”
Pena didn’t get the best impression of Nunes’ famed MMA gym in 2013 after she won The Ultimate Fighter 18 and trained at ATT for one week. She said Lambert flew her to the gym and put her up in a hotel during her time there. But once in the gym, she said an ATT coach she didn’t name told her that the female fighters were “shooting their butts with steroids.”
“They were welcoming me into the gym, and he was like, ‘The girls shoot themselves in the ass in the bathroom – they do it to each other,’ and I’m like, ‘No, they don’t,’” Pena said. “And he was like, ‘I swear to god, they’re all on steroids.’ I literally didn’t believe him, and he was literally like shaking me in the head, [saying], ‘I promise, they’re doing it.’ That was my experience training at American Top Team. But that was pre-[U.S. Anti-Doping Agency].”
Reached for comment via text, Lambert’s response to a request for comment was brief: “LOL.” Pena didn’t remember Nunes training at ATT during her brief time there.
Pena has since moved from her home with Sikjitsu in Spokane, Wash., to Chicago, where she’s joined up with a new group of training partners. She’s also raising her daughter as a single mom, juggling child care with sessions on the mat as she prepares for the biggest fight of her life.
The betting odds have Pena as a significant underdog to unseat the champ, but she’s used to that status. She can understand why everyone downplays her and gives Nunes the benefit of the doubt. In the cage, she aims to change that.
And if Nunes can’t show up in December, Pena said, the UFC should strip her of the bantamweight title and move on.
“For whatever reason, she’s done a lot for the division, so she can basically get away with murder, and everyone else has to eat it,” Pena said. “It’s going to happen, I just need to continue to be patient. Hurry up and wait, as they say.”