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Coach says Amanda Nunes ‘underestimated’ Julianna Peña: ‘She’s not a good fight for Amanda’

MMA: UFC 269-Nunes vs Pena
Julianna Peña (right) hurt Amanda Nunes on the feet before submitting her at UFC 269.
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Julianna Peña scored one of the biggest upsets in MMA history at UFC 269 when she forced two-division queen Amanda Nunes to submit to a rear-naked choke in the second round of their bantamweight title bout — and Peña’s longtime jiu-jitsu coach Luiz Claudio believes the UFC’s newest bantamweight champion was overlooked and underestimated by Nunes.

Speaking on this week’s episode of MMA Fighting’s Portuguese-language podcast Trocação Franca, Claudio reacted to the “surreal” experience of seeing his protege dethrone a legend of the sport, and said he believes Nunes “definitely” didn’t treat Pena the same way she has treated the likes of Holly Holm and Germaine de Randamie in the past.

“I do think she underestimated [Peña],” said Claudio, a black belt under Rickson Gracie. “Same thing [that happened with] Anderson [Silva]. I love Anderson, I respect him a lot, his style is to showboat, but unfortunately [Chris] Weidman touched his chin and we lost the fight. And I think that’s normal. [Nunes] had no one left to beat, really. Who else was she supposed to beat? Julianna, and who else?”

“I don’t think Amanda underestimated her to a point of not training,” he continued. “I think she trained hard, she knew Julianna wasn’t easy. If we do have a rematch, she will obviously [be motivated]. We poked the lioness. We’ll respect her. It’ll be complicated. If this rematch happens, it’s the rematch of the century.”

Peña was coming off a single victory over Sara McMann when the UFC announced her as Nunes’ challenger at UFC 269, however Claudio bristles at the idea that Pena didn’t deserve her title opportunity, citing the fact Megan Anderson — who had just challenged Nunes for the UFC featherweight crown — had the same MMA record of 10-4 going into the fight.

“Why was Amanda saying Julianna didn’t deserve it if she just fought someone who had the same [record]? What’s the beef?” Claudio said. “Julianna said, ‘Amanda is afraid of me because she lost to Cat [Zingano] and I’m not a good fight for her.’ And it’s a fact, right? She’s not a good fight for Amanda.”

“I’ve always spoken good things about Amanda and American Top Team,” he continued. “I’ve never said, ‘Oh, Amanda will lose,’ because we knew it was going to be a war. But I’ve always said in every interview that Amanda … I think she was mad about the things Julianna said. It happens sometimes, to take things personal, and I think she was upset.”

Claudio admits he believed that Nunes would have a rough cut to 135 pounds after not defending her bantamweight belt in two years, and thought her punching power wouldn’t be as heavy at the lighter weight class.

That said, he feared for the worse during a tough opening round.

“When she landed that first high [kick], I said, ‘Wow, that was not a kick, that was a gun shot,’” Claudio said. “Everything we had trained — we knew she could kick, that she had a good front kick, and her high kick was absurd. … [But] when Julianna got kicked the first time, I was like, ‘Sh*t, are we going to lose like that? So quick?’

“Everything we trained, the checks, she did nothing. The second kick landed and I said, ‘We’re losing this fight.’ When Amanda took Julianna’s back, she submits people from that position. I thought, ‘Please God, we may lose, but let’s at least put up a fight, five rounds.’”

Peña, however, made it out of the first round and began to turn the fight in her favor in the second, hurting Nunes on the feet before transitioning to her jiu-jitsu skills.

“When she took Amanda to the ground, I said, ‘We won the fight,’” Claudio said. “When she took her back, I knew she would catch her. That choke she does, she doesn’t need the hooks in. She’s done that choke for a long time and we perfected it over time. When you put your chin down, she doesn’t strangle you on the neck, you feel the jaw — it feels like it’s going to break.

“I don’t know if Amanda got tired or what. [Peña] hurts people from that position. I won’t say what I don’t know, but Julianna taps everyone from that position. I don’t think Amanda quit. I think she really felt it, and every athlete knows sometimes you’ll win and sometimes you’ll lose.”

The UFC is expected to book a rematch between Peña and Nunes as soon as both are ready to reenter the octagon in 2022. Claudio “obviously” wants Pena to win by submission again the second time around, but more than anything, “we want to leave with our hands raised.”

“I never felt fear whenever Julianna said, since the night we fought Cat at UFC 200, that she wanted to fight [Nunes], that she wanted to fight the best and challenge herself,” Claudio said. “The entire time she was saying in practice, ‘I’m going to win, I’ll become champion.’ Julianna wanted it so bad.”