Julianna Pena was walking through the ARIA Resort and Casino with her cousins when a group of people surrounded her, chanting “Pena, Pena, Pena!”
Her first response was to look around to see who they were cheering for at the Las Vegas casino. Then she remembered: She was the UFC champ.
“I’m like, ‘This is so awkward,’” Pena said on The MMA Hour. “I just kind of wanted find this random person, and to know that it was me...I know you step into the spotlight, but for me, I’m not this person that needs all that type of attention.”
Pena will get that either way as the owner of one of the biggest upsets in the sport’s history, a second-round submission of now-former two-division champ Amanda Nunes at UFC 269.
Of course, those closest to Pena believed she had the ability to beat the dominant Nunes when most of the MMA world counted her out. Her daughter, Issa Cruz, was her No. 1 fan. She’d been shuttled from practice to practice for over one year as her mom trained for back-to-back fights, one of which was cancelled when Nunes fell out due to COVID-19. Even with the exhausting schedule, Cruz told her mom again and again she would win, right up to the night before UFC 269.
And after the fight, there was another reminder.
“I had her by the hand, she said, ‘Momma, I told you you were going to win. I told you, mom,’” Pena said. “When she woke up that morning, she says, ‘Momma, I want to be a winner like you when I grow up.’ That’s what we do it for, moments like that.”
After a brief media flare-up over Pena’s label of “first mom champ,” Pena took extra care to raise up Nunes as a mother and said she only intended to emphasize her struggles in giving birth to Cruz and getting back into championship shape. Lost in translation as the message was, she pointed to a moment backstage between Cruz and Raegan Ann Nunes at UFC 269 as proof there was no bad blood.
“Amanda is a great mom champ, and she has been a phenomenal champ-champ,” Pena said. “I am the new camp, and her daughter hugging my daughter just showed me that baby is raised in a house with two loving parents that show her love day in and day out, because some kids don’t just go up to other kids and start hugging them. The fact that they were embracing each other shows me how much love that girl has in her life and how great of a mom Amanda is.
“Plus, fight week, you’re around all these men, coaches, and [Cruz is] following me around to all these practices. She’s around a bunch of dudes, so the second she sees a little girl her age, she’s going to want to hang out. So it was pretty cute.”
Cruz will be in tow for Pena’s next move, a vacation to celebrate the win and a break from the grind. Then it will be on to her first title defense, which appears set as an immediate rematch against Nunes.
Pena hasn’t quite gotten used to the idea of being a UFC champion. Back in her native Washington, her win the stuff parades are made of. She’s not fully comfortable with the idea of a whole street full of people chanting her name. But she no longer needs to be reminded of whom they’re cheering for.
“It would be crazy if they did throw a parade, but I guess you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do,” she said. “It’s champ sh*t only from here.”