Months removed from the show, the opposing coaches are two days away from the event that brought them together for reality TV: The UFC 277 title rematch of the Peña upset that shocked the world at UFC 269.
UFC fighters on TUF often talk about the information gleaned from time on set with their rivals. Nunes just walked away shaking her head.
“I just think she’s weird,” Nunes said of Peña at the UFC 277 media day. “But she’s in her own world, and I just did my own thing, so we didn’t see each other that much.
“We saw each other just a couple times when the fights happened, but she was on her phone, doing something else, not looking at me. You know what, girl? You stay there. No worries, and let’s do what we came here to do, and that’s it.
“I didn’t learn anything about her. ... She’s just, I don’t know, she’s in her own world. So I didn’t even want to interact with anything.”
Pena heard Nunes’ comments and countered that she was taking it easy on a legend who’d been dethroned and was badly losing the competition portion of TUF 30.
Whatever the reason, there wasn’t a whole lot of sizzle to drive the featherweight and bantamweight champ into fight week. But Nunes needed no extra motivation for the rematch.
Just seven months ago, the former champ-champ picked herself up off the octagon at UFC 269 with a thought ringing in her head. Her arms had been dead within one round against Pena.
“I really didn’t know what happened right after,” Nunes said. “When I got up from the floor, I was like, ‘What the f*** is going on?’”
Nunes said she hadn’t fully recovered from a bout of COVID-19 in training camp. She wasn’t herself in the octagon, and she and those closest to her knew it.
“It was just a mess, that camp,” she said. “But for some reason, I wanted to fight that day.”
She took the gamble, and it massively backfired. Only one of her belts remained in her possession.
Nunes thought about retiring from the sport with a submission loss to Pena. After all, she reasoned, she’d accomplished everything she’d set out to do, winning a pair of titles, setting her family up for financial independence, and leaving an indelible mark on women’s MMA and the UFC.
As soon as she got back to the hotel, she said, “I was kind of like, sad-hungry, at the same time.”
Nunes could have flown back from Las Vegas, but she decided to drive back to Florida with her partner Nina Nunes and their daughter Reagan. That way, she would have time to think, and to formulate a plan.
When she arrived back home, Nunes resolved to leave her longtime gym, American Top Team, to start her own camp. She built the facility with her family, draping every one of her fight banners on the gym walls. She chose the routines and the training rhythms.
Nunes said she didn’t need much from Peña on the set of The Ultimate Fighter. What she needed was to feel like herself again. And so whether Peña was a trash-talking weirdo or the absent presence that left little impression, she took her fate into her own hands.
On Saturday at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Nunes will own the outcome of the rematch, and it may be her final statement — or the start of her next chapter.
“This was the opponent that I needed,” she said. “I feel like she really brought that fire back.”