Among the many explanations that circulated in the wake of Pena’s shocking upset of Nunes this past Saturday was that the former two-division champ simply quit. Three-time UFC challenger and commentator Chael Sonnen explicitly used that word, explaining it was Nunes’ mind and not her body that capitulated when the going got tough.
The newly crowned UFC bantamweight champion agrees that Nunes carries a fatal flaw as a competitor. But Pena refutes the claim that “The Lioness” tapped out for any other reason than the most immediate one: She was running out of air.
“She had no choice but to tap,” Nunes said Monday on The MMA Hour. “People want to say she quit – she didn’t quit, she was getting choked. She had no choice but to tap – I would have broke her neck. She tapped because she had no choice.”
The submission that was called in the wake of the upset was a rear-naked choke, and on its face, that appeared to be mostly right; Pena didn’t have her hooks in, but her arms were triangled around Nunes’ neck. Pena, however, said the submission hold was specifically tailored to work even without the traditional position.
“[My coach] Rick [Little] and I have been working this choke for a while, and it was the same pretty much as I got with Sara McMann,” she said.
Of course, there was a lot that led up to that exact moment. Pena didn’t wilt under the power in Nunes’ hands and feet. Unlike other competitors, she continued to press forward, taking punches to give her own. Whatever deficit there was in power between them, she said the fight began to shift as another one was revealed in Nunes. That was where the tides began to turn.
“It was in the first round,” Pena said. “It looked like the naked eye – I mean, these are million-dollar cameras, and they’re great, but you would think that they would get the shot of, like, I’m about to snap this girl’s arm, I’m about to have the first-ever victory by straight armlock. That’s what was playing in my mind. People are probably like, ‘Oh, she’s going to choke her,’ but I’m like, ‘Dude, her arm is going to snap in half. I have her arm.’ I wish people could see that; I don’t know if they saw it or not, I haven’t seen the full fight yet.
“I had her in trouble in Round 1, and I knew that’s the moment. I was like, man, if this is how our grappling exchanges are going to be, I can do this all night long, and especially the amount she was breathing. She was just like, [panting], and I’m just, cool.”
Most pundits believed Pena’s path to victory was through clinch-fighting, wrestling and grappling. Some of The Ultimate Fighter 18 winner’s best moments happened when she overwhelmed her opponents with ground and pound. The biggest problem seen with applying that to Nunes, however, was that she would have to weather the storm that had felled so many others.
Pena was never convinced that the champ was invincible, and one of the reasons she wanted the fight so badly and campaigned for it so loudly was because she believed she had the skillset to expose Nunes’ weakness.
“She’s a fighter that doesn’t do well when she’s fighting against adversity,” Pena said. “When she’s the bully and she’s the pressure, she’s great – girls fold, they crumple. But when she is being bullied and when she is being pressured, that’s what she can’t handle, and that’s what I knew was the case. You saw that when she was fighting Cat Zingano; Cat Zingano broke her, and I think maybe in Invicta I saw somebody else break her, too. She’s had losses. Those types of scenarios I knew still existed in her, and it just needed a chance to break through and rear it’s ugly head, and the only way to do that is to get somebody tired and make them work and make them fight.
“I told everybody: The only way you fight this type of firepower is when you fight fire with fire, and I knew that was how it was going to be. It was going to take more than one shot to put me away and put me down. I can take a shot, as you guys have seen from my previous fights. I think that when I was rocking her on the fight, I saw my team, I just see in my peripheral view, my team going ‘Go, go, go get her!’ So that’s when I pressed her to the cage, and the takedown was there, and the choke came in just as I practiced as well. The stars were aligning.”
Up until the fight, Nunes treated Pena as an also-ran, a fighter whose losses had revealed her true identity as a subpar fighter. With submission losses to striking specialists Valentina Shevchenko and Germaine de Randamie, Pena’s record was easy fodder for attack. As the fight neared, Nunes grew more bold with her words, calling the challenger “delusional.”
All the while, Pena said, she stayed calm and waited to prove everyone wrong. She didn’t need any extra ammo to rev up after a yearlong training camp and five years of delay in getting the fight. And after it was over, she had a hard time coming to grips with how smoothly her predictions had materialized.
“I definitely think she dismissed me, but no, I didn’t use it as motivation,” she said. “I just knew who she is as a fighter and how the fight was going to play out, and it played out pretty spot on to the way that I practiced and the way that I had been training for. I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was over in Round 2, but at the end of the day, you’re always a little bit shocked, like, ‘Man, it’s all over?’”