Julianna Pena hasn’t fought since late January, when she suffered a surprising submission loss to Valentina Shevchenko at UFC on FOX 23. Pena has since revealed that her absence has been the result of the 28-year-old fighter being pregnant with her first child. But the division has still continued on while Pena has been away, and Shevchenko’s victory over “The Venezuelan Vixen” propelled Shevchenko into a shot at UFC women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes.
After a few false starts, Shevchenko and Nunes finally squared off last month at UFC 215, coincidentally on the same evening as Pena’s own gender reveal party. That night, Pena discovered that she and her fiancée were having a baby girl, while at the same time, Shevchenko fell just inches short in her pursuit of UFC gold, losing a controversial split decision to Nunes.
But surprisingly, there was a little something extra riding on the fight for Pena too.
“It’s funny enough, I didn’t watch the fight — I still haven’t — but I said if Valentina wins this fight, I’ll name my baby Valentina,” Pena said Monday on The MMA Hour. “And at the end of the night, I checked. I just love that name. I don’t know why, I just love the name Valentina. I think it’s such a beautiful name. And she lost the fight, so I was like, ‘Nope, her name is not going to be Valentina.’”
Was Pena really one judge’s scorecard away from naming her first child after the only woman to defeat her in the UFC?
It appears so, but there’s more to the story than one would expect. Pena said the whole situation just kind of happened by coincidence. The way she explains it, she’s had a curious relationship with the name Valentina before she ever even found out about Shevchenko, and long before Shevchenko halted her four-fight UFC win streak with the first submission loss of Pena’s MMA career.
“Before I even knew Valentina entered the division, like before I’d even thought about Valentina, I remember (MMA manager) Danny Rubenstein one time told me that he had known this girl that makes these beautiful Mexican dresses, and that she could like make a custom dress, and I asked him, ‘Well, what’s her name?’ And he said, ‘Valentina.’ And I was like, wow, that’s such a beautiful name,” Pena said.
“So whenever anyone would be like, ‘Well, if you’re going to have a kid, what would name it?,’ I would always say Valentina. So then when they were like, ‘You’re fighting Valentina,’ I’m kinda superstitious, I was like, ‘I don’t think this is a good thing. Like, this is the name that has been coming to me, reoccurring in dreams all the time,’ and stuff like that. So I thought it was really weird.
“So, losing to her was one thing, but then also the other thing, thinking okay, well, I’m pregnant — the girl, I don’t want to stray away from that name. But then I thought, well that’s just going to be kinda weird, because then everyone’s going to be like, ‘Oh, you lost to Valentina, so you named your baby after her?’ And then, of course, that salty voice in my mouth from the loss is probably going to make me madder, at that point. So I was like, she didn’t win the belt, her name’s not going to be Valentina, I’m over it.”
Pena and her fiancée instead settled on the name Isabella for their baby girl.
Pena said Monday that she is excited by the prospect of starting the next chapter of her life as a mother. She expects to give birth to Isabella some time in January, and is targeting a goal of returning to the Octagon before the end of 2018. When she does return, she hopes to pick back up right where she left off, vying for title contention among the group of top contenders in the women’s 135-pound division.
And Pena said UFC officials have been nothing but supportive of her decision to take time away from the sport.
“I told them a long, long time ago. A long time ago,” Pena said. “They were so supportive, and they were just like, ‘You know what, Julianna, there’s women out there that get pregnant and lose their babies due to miscarriage all the time. There’s women that have spent thousands of dollars trying to get infertile insemination and they lose the baby. There’s people that have waited too long in their life and then their baby’s messed up, or they just have waited so long in their life that they cannot physically get pregnant.’ They’re like, ‘Fighting is always going to be here. You’re still young.’
“‘Go have your baby. We are so happy for you. And we’ll be here when you get back.’ So I was just really happy with the response that I got from Dana (White) and from (UFC matchmaker) Sean Shelby. They were very supportive.”