UFC 269: Pena Looks to Stop Nunes Sweep of the Bantamweight Division

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Amanda Nunes and Julianna Pena, UFC
Amanda Nunes and Julianna Pena, UFC 269 Pre-Fight Press Conference Credit: Gabriel Gonzalez/Cageside Press

Julianna Pena is the next one up for UFC bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, but when the talk is over will she become just another contender on the list at UFC 269?

If the women’s bantamweight division in the UFC were playing out like a game of chess, then Amanda Nunes would be the queen that is on the verge of capturing the rest of the pawns opposing her.  What about the other Queen? The Knight? The Rook?  The dangerous and formidable foes that would make more sense for Nunes have long since been removed from the board.  So dominant is she in the UFC that the two biggest fights that are left for her are the twice defeated Valentina Shevchenko and Kayla Harrison, who as of this writing is not even a part of the company.

It is rare that the MMA community almost suggests that a fighter truly has nothing left to do and as such has the grounds to move on, but that is exactly the position Nunes in.  “The Lioness” now seemingly lounges in the savannah of both the bantamweight and featherweight divisions.  At this point, any fight is about the numbers.  After besting the likes of Shevchenko, Cris Cyborg, Ronda Rousey, and Holly Holm, there is no opponent that would further prove her greatness.  At 12 victories in a row, she now only chases the all-time record of 16 consecutive UFC wins.  But surveying the landscape and taking into account that she is a new mother with wife Nina Nunes, it is natural to wonder if she may elect to simply retire on top before reaching the mark.

Julianna Pena has the opportunity, as the last few opponents have, to turn the role of being the next woman up into a historic upset.  “The Venezuelan Vixen” was discovered on The Ultimate Fighter where she became the first female winner of the long-running program in 2013.  She went on to record four UFC victories to reach the cusp of title contention before running into future flyweight champion Shevchenko who halted her momentum.  Pena would not fight again for over two years as she went on a hiatus after becoming pregnant with her daughter.

Since her return in 2019, Pena’s run has not been as stellar as one would hope for a title challenger.  She recorded a victory over the returning Nicco Montano and wouldn’t fight again for another year before losing by stoppage to former champion Germaine de Randamie.  In her last fight, she rallied back to win in the third round being controlled on the mat in the first two rounds by Sara McMann.  Such a run would not suggest she is the one who will dethrone a reigning powerhouse.  But Pena has taken a page from the promoters handbook, tripling down with bravado in interviews to generate bad blood and illicit a reaction to distract from the fact that she enters the championship match off only a single win.

An upset for Pena depends on creating chaos to get inside the reach of the champion and avoided spending as much time at mid-range as possible.  Over the last year, Nunes has wreaked havoc in controlling the striking exchanges with her precision and power and she is expected be able to do the same should Pena be weary of closing the distance.  Pena’s best route for victory will be to go for takedowns after getting Nunes to plant her feet expecting an exchange.  For Nunes, dictating the fight behind her jab and forcing Pena into reckless attempts will be the smartest strategy.

A Pena victory would set up an immediate rematch without a second thought.  A victory for Nunes would allow her to wait and observe.  She has options: Irene Aldana sits as the de-facto next contender should Nunes see herself staying at 135 pounds.  It would be argued, however, that it is now-or-never if she is to finally face the likes of Shevchenko for the third time.  As for her featherweight title, it is on Nunes to determine whether a contender like Norma Dumont is what she wants at this juncture.

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