Nunes and Pena are set to collide in the co-main event of UFC 269, where Nunes will once again put the bantamweight title on line that she won back in 2016. “The Lioness” has been an unstoppable force since her UFC 200 submission over then-champion Miesha Tate, racking up five defenses of the 135-pound title and capturing a second belt at 145 pounds to become the most decorated female fighter in UFC history.
As fate would have it, Pena also competed at UFC 200. The TUF 18 winner defeated Cat Zingano that night to push her way into title contention before inactivity and eventual losses to Valentina Shevchenko and Germaine de Randamie derailed her pursuit.
And when Nunes looks at her opponent’s UFC journey, and the dangers Pena brings into Saturday’s title bout, Nunes doesn’t see anything she hasn’t seen before.
“Honestly, what Julianna has is just nothing to lose,” Nunes said Thursday at UFC 269’s pre-fight press conference. “So I just have to be sharper because I’ve seen her style many times in my whole career. Her best friend is Miesha Tate. If you watch Miesha Tate fight, it’s the same fighter right there. So I’ve seen it before.”
“She has to say what she has to say, and that’s fine,” Pena responded. “That’s part of the game. We’ve been talking about this fight for a very long time. At UFC 200, when she beat Miesha, she said that she would fight me — and she didn’t. She let Ronda Rousey cut the line.”
“You were losing!” Nunes interjected. “You were losing all your fights!”
“I actually won and I beat the girl that rag-dolled you, as a matter of fact,” Pena retorted, referring to Zingano’s 2014 win over Nunes. “I beat the girl that beat you that night, and you said at your press conference that you would fight me, and you absolutely did not fight me. You let Ronda Rousey cut the line after she got knocked out. You picked a can and you’ve been continuing to pick cans. Everybody that you pick has already lost and been defeated.”
“You never were a contender,” Nunes replied coldly.
Nunes has been the lone constant among the UFC ranks throughout the last half-decade, fending off all challengers across two weight classes while winning 12 consecutive bouts. She’s beaten all-time great rivals from both the past and the present, knocking out Cris Cyborg and Ronda Rousey in less than a minute, and twice outpointing Valentina Shevchenko when the UFC’s dominant flyweight champion was still fighting at 135 pounds.
Pena, on the hand, has only fought three times since early 2017, sandwiching wins over Sara McMann and Nicco Montano between a submission loss to Germaine de Randamie — the latter of whom is one of Nunes’ many title conquests.
Despite that, Pena has been aggressive with her criticisms of Nunes. That trend continued on Thursday when she accused Nunes of ducking the pair’s previously scheduled meeting in August at UFC 265, which was postponed after Nunes tested positive for COVID-19.
“She doesn’t [welcome the matchup],” Pena said. “She didn’t show up.”
“Of course I took longer. I got COVID,” Nunes replied. “I had to recover, of course. I don’t need to lie. Like, why? Why am I going to lie [that] I got COVID? I did. I had it, I recovered. Now I’m here, ready to go, ready to kick Julianna’s ass.
“I’m the kind of fighter, I don’t play with my opponents,” Nunes added. “I’m always focusing and I know I have 25 minutes to finish her. I just have to take my time and pick the shots at the right times and finish the fight. No matter what she shows up with Saturday night, I’m going to have the answers and I will finish her.”
As has been the case with many of her title defenses, Nunes is a heavy betting favorite to win at UFC 269. As of this writing, she’s more than a 10-to-1 favorite on several sportsbooks.
With those kind of odds comes an inevitable reality for Pena — if she manages to pull off the upset on Saturday, she’ll likely need to defeat Nunes twice, as an immediate rematch could follow. It’s a challenge that Pena welcomes, even if Nunes doubts things will get that far.
“Yes, [I expect to give her] an immediate rematch,” Pena said. “And when I win that fight, I will be 11-2 in the division, which is a better bantamweight record in the history of the bantamweight division. And as far as walking up to 145, I don’t know, I’m pretty comfortable in knowing that 135 is my proper weight class. But we’d have to cross that bridge when we get there.”
“You know that’s not going to happen,” Nunes shot back. “You know that isn’t going to happen, right? You’re not going to be a champion, girl.”
“We will find out Saturday night,” Pena said. “One of us is going to be dead wrong. We will see.”